Sunday morning coming down

Writing about Hillary Clinton “behind closed doors” yesterday reminded me, of course, of the fabulous Charlie Rich (as one of his albums called him). It seems like an opportune moment to recall him and acquaint you with a few of his songs with which you might not be familiar.

As a presenter at the Country Music Association awards in 1975, at the height of his career, Charlie Rich committed a drunken act of music criticism. When he opened the envelope to announce the winner of the Entertainer of the Year award — the award he himself had won the previous year — he found the name of Johh Denver. After announcing the winner (“my good friend John Denver”), Rich set the certificate naming him on fire. In terms of commercial appeal, Rich’s career never quite regained its footing. (Last year Andrew Kirell presented a differing interpretation of this incident.)

Rich’s career extended back to Sam Phillips’s Sun Records, where he was signed in 1958 as a session musician. Phillips is the legendary Memphis studio owner and producer who signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. I can’t think of anyone who has had a better ear for great American pop music than Phillips. His assessment should count for something in this context: “I don’t think I ever recorded anyone who was better as a singer, writer, and player than Charlie Rich.”

Rich was born in 1932 in eastern Arkansas near Memphis. He grew up on a farm there in a musical family and learned to play blues piano from a black sharecropper named C.J. Allen. In Arkansas he fell in love with Margaret Ann Greene, an attractive neighbor who shared his passion for music in general and jazz in particular. Rich tried college briefly, enlisted in the Air Force, and was married to Margaret Ann while serving in Oklahoma. There they began performing professionally together in a group called the Velvetones. After his Air Force service Rich returned to Arkansas and tried farming while his wife helped him pursue his musical interests. By 1958 he was working for Sun and recording with Sun artists including Lewis and Cash.

In 1960 he had his first hit, an Elvis rockabilly knock-off called “Lonely Weekends.” His follow-up recordings with Sun failed to generate any interest. His own “Who Will the Next Fool Be” (below) comes from the Sun years; country wasn’t ready for him yet but you can hear what it was missing.

In 1964 he left Sun and recorded with sporadic success on a succession of labels until he was signed by Epic Records on the recommendation of producer Billy Sherrill, who knew Rich from working with him at Sun. All of Rich’s recordings evidence his love for country, blues, gospel, jazz, and soul music. Like Elvis and Ray Charles, he loved great songs of all kinds, whatever the source. In Rich’s case, however, the genre-bending had hindered his career. Sherrill more narrowly fashioned Rich as a smooth country ballad singer, surrounded him with Sherrill’s gooey “countrypolitan” sound, and launched Rich to the heights of his career with the 1973 worldwide number one crossover hit “Behind Closed Doors.”

Ray Charles happened to be the presenter when Rich won the Favorite Country Artist award at the 1975 American Music Awards. In his brief remarks accepting the award, Rich acknowledged his debt to Charles: “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know exactly what to say. This man changed country music to where I could sing it. Thank God he presented me with this award.”

If you know Rich only from his smash hits of these years, you don’t really know him. Margaret Ann wrote one of his best non-smash songs of this period — the starkly autobiographical “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” (below). Throughout his career he brought his incredibly expressive voice to great songs such as “Set Me Free,” “Don’t Put No Headstone on My Grave,” “Feel Like Going Home,” “Sittin’ and Thinkin’,” and “Peace on You.” Let’s take a listen to “Life’s Little Ups and Downs,” written, as I say, for him by his wife. The production dates it, but I think it’s fair to say that this song stands the test of time.

Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick is the essential chronicler of Rich’s career. With Rich’s cooperation Guralnick wrote painfully honest profiles of Rich in each of his first two collections of music profiles, Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway.

Guralnick must have had a special bond with Rich; in 1992 Guralnick enticed him out of semi-retirement to record Pictures & Paintings, his last album and a beautiful recap of his career. (The place to begin is the lovingly compiled 1997 two-disc retrospective Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich.)

The demo of his own “Feel Like Going Home” (below) comes from Guralnick’s compilation. As Rich accompanies himself alone on the piano, you can really hear the depth of his artistry.