In mid-2003 I tried to make the case for the greatness of Charlie Rich’s career in response to Rocket Man’s derogatory remarks about Rich. Rocket Man’s remarks had been prompted by the inclusion of “Behind Closed Doors” in the CMT list of the top 100 country songs of all time. To review Rocket Man’s comments on the CMT top 100 list, click here. While we’re still recovering from the festivities in Washington over the weekend I thought it might be a good time to revisit the fabulous Mr. Rich.
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 that John Denver was the winner. After announcing the winner (“my good friend John Denver”), Rich set the certificate naming the winner on fire. In terms of commercial appeal, Rich’s career never quite regained its footing.
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. Few have had a better ear for great American pop music than Phillips and 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 1956 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. In 1964 he left Sun and recorded with a succession of labels and sporadic success 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 of “Behind Closed Doors.”
If you know Rich only from his smash hits of this period, you don’t know him at all. Margaret Ann wrote one of his best non-smash songs of this period — the starkly autobiographical “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” — that deserves a tribute of its own. Throughout his career he brought a uniquely expressive, moving 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.”
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. He must have had a special bond with Rich; in 1992 Guralnick enticed him out of his semi-retirement to record “Pictures & Paintings,” his last album and a stunning recap of his career. (The place to begin is the lovingly compiled 1997 two-disk retrospective “Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich.”)
Rich died of a lung embolism in 1995, his wife at his side. He is survived by Margaret Ann, three children, and a catalogue of incredible songs that rate with the best of the past 50 years.
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