Charles (Charlie) Rich
(December 14, 1932 – July 25, 1995) was an American country music singer and musician. His eclectic style of music was often hard to classify in a single genre, encompassing the rockabilly, jazz, blues, country, and gospel genres.In the latter part of his life, Rich acquired the nickname The Silver Fox
. He is perhaps best remembered for a pair of 1973 hits, "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl". "The Most Beautiful Girl" topped the U.S. country singles charts, as well as the pop singles charts and earned him two Grammy Awards.
Though he resided in Benton, Arkansas, from around 1960 to 1981, Rich was born in Colt, Arkansas, to rural cotton farmers. He graduated from Consolidated High School in Forrest City, where he played saxophone in the band. Charlie was strongly influenced by his parents, faithful members of the Missionary Baptist Church, as his mother played piano and his father sang in Gospel quartets. A black sharecropper on the family farm by the name of C. J. Allen taught Charlie blues piano. He enrolled at Arkansas State College on a football scholarship and then transferred to the University of Arkansas as a music major after a football injury. He left after one semester to join the United States Air Force in 1953. While stationed in Enid, Oklahoma he formed "The Velvetones", playing jazz and blues and featuring his wife, Margaret Ann, on vocals. He and Margaret Ann Greene had married in 1952. Upon leaving the military in 1956, The Riches returned to the West Memphis area to farm 500 acres. He also began performing in clubs around the Memphis area, playing both jazz and R&B. It was during these hard times that he began writing his own material.
After recording some demos for Sam Phillips at Sun Records that Phillips didn't find commercial enough, and too jazzy, legend has it that he was given a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records and told: "come back when you get that bad." A September 6, 2010 NPR airing of 1992 interview with Fresh Air
host Terry Gross Charlie Rich tells the story himself of Bill Justis telling Rich's wife those exact words. In 1958, Rich became a regular session musician for Sun Records playing on records by Lewis, Johnny Cash, Bill Justis, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, Carl Mann, and Ray Smith. He also wrote songs for Lewis, Cash, and others.His third single for the Sun subsidiary, Phillips International Records, was the 1960 Top 30 hit, "Lonely Weekends," noted for its Presley-like vocals. None of his seven follow-up singles was a success, though several of the songs became staples in his live set, including "Who Will the Next Fool Be," "Sittin' and Thinkin'," and "No Headstone on My Grave." These songs were often recorded by others to varying degrees of success, such as the Bobby Bland version of "Who Will the Next Fool Be."Rich's career stalled, and he left the struggling Sun label in 1963, signing with a subsidiary of RCA Records, Groove. His first single for Groove, "Big Boss Man," was a minor hit, but again his Chet Atkins-produced follow-ups all stiffed. Rich moved to Smash Records early in 1965. Rich's new producer, Jerry Kennedy, encouraged the pianist to emphasize his country and rock & roll leanings, although Rich considered himself a jazz pianist and had not paid much attention to country music since his childhood. The first single for Smash was "Mohair Sam," an R&B-inflected novelty-rock number, and it became a Top 30 pop hit. Unfortunately again for Rich, none of his follow-up singles were successful. Rich was forced to change labels, moving over to Hi Records, where he recorded blue-eyed soul music and straight country, but none of his singles made a dent on the country or pop charts. One Hi Records track Love Is After Me
from 1966 belatedly became a white soul favourite in the early 1970s.
Career peak in the 1970s
Despite his lack of consistent commercial success, Epic Records signed Rich in 1967, mainly on the recommendation of producer Billy Sherrill. Sherrill helped Rich refashion himself as a Nashville Sound balladeer during an era when old rock n' rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty were finding a new musical home in the country and western format. This new "Countrypolitan" Rich sound paid off in the summer of 1972, when "I Take It on Home" went to number six in the country charts. The title track from his 1973 album, Behind Closed Doors
, became a number one hit early in that year, crossing over into the Top 20 on the pop charts. This time his follow-up did not disappoint, as "The Most Beautiful Girl" spent three weeks at the top of the country charts and two weeks at the top of the pop charts. Now that he was established as a country music star, Behind Closed Doors
won three awards from the Country Music Association that year: Best Male Vocalist, Album of the Year, and Single of the Year. The album was also certified gold. Rich won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, and he took home four ACM awards. One of RCA's several resident songwriters, Marvin Walters, co-wrote for three years with Charlie producing four recordings including a very popular "Set Me Free".After "The Most Beautiful Girl", number one hits came quickly, as five songs topped the country charts in 1974 and crossed over to the pop charts. The songs were "There Won't Be Anymore" (Pop No. 18), "A Very Special Love Song" (Pop No. 11), "I Don't See Me In Your Eyes Anymore" (Pop No. 47), "I Love My Friend" (Pop No. 24), and "She Called Me Baby" (Pop No. 47). Both RCA and Mercury (Smash was a subsidiary of Mercury which was absorbed into the main company in 1970) re-released his previously recorded material from the mid-1960s, as well. All of this success led the CMA to name him Entertainer of the Year in 1974. In the same year he performed the Academy Award nominated theme song I feel love (Benji's Theme)
from the film Benji. Rich had three more top five hits in 1975, but even though he was at the peak of his popularity, Rich began to drink heavily, causing considerable problems off-stage.Rich's destructive personal behavior famously culminated at the CMA awards ceremony for 1975, when he presented the award for Entertainer of the Year, while visibly intoxicated. Instead of reading the name of the winner, who happened to be John Denver, he set fire to the envelope with a cigarette lighter, before announcing the award had gone to "My friend Mr. John Denver." Some considered it an act of rebellion against the Music Row-controlled Nashville Sound. But many speculated that Rich's behavior was a protest against the award going to Denver, whose music Rich had considered too "pop," and not enough "country." Others, including industry insiders, were outraged, and Rich had trouble having hits throughout 1976, and only had one top ten with "Since I Fell For You."The slump in his career was exacerbated by the fact that his records began to sound increasingly similar: pop-inflected country ballads with overdubbed strings and little of the jazz or blues Rich had performed his entire life. He did not have a top ten hit again until "Rollin' With the Flow" in 1977 went to number one. Early in 1978, he signed with United Artists Records, and throughout that year, he had hits on both Epic and UA. His hits in 1978 included the top ten hits "Beautiful Woman," "Puttin' In Overtime At Home," and his last number one with "On My Knees," a duet with Janie Fricke.
Decline in activity and semi-retirement
Rich struggled throughout 1979 having hits with United Artists and Epic. His singles were moderate hits that year, the biggest of them on either UA or Epic was a version of "Spanish Eyes," which became a top 20 country hit. Rich appeared as himself in the 1978 Clint Eastwood movie, Every Which Way but Loose
, in which he performed the song "I'll Wake You Up When I Get Home." This song hit number three on the charts in 1979 and was his last top ten single. In 1980, he switched labels again to Elektra Records, and released a number twelve single, "A Man Just Don't Know What a Woman Goes Through" in the fall of that year. One more Top 40 hit followed, the Gary Stewart song "Are We Dreamin' the Same Dream" early in 1981, but Rich decided to remove himself from the spotlight. For over a decade, Rich was silent, living off his investments in semi-retirement and only playing occasional concerts. Also played a bit part in the 1981 movie Take This Job and Shove It
.In 1992, Rich released Pictures and Paintings
, a jazzy record that was produced by journalist Peter Guralnick. It was released on Sire Records. Pictures and Paintings
received positive critical reviews and restored Rich's reputation as a musician, but it would be his last record. One of his opening acts in these years was Tom Waits, who mentioned him in the song "Putnam County" from his album Nighthawks at the Diner
with the lyric: "The radio's spitting out Charlie Rich... He sure can sing, that son of a bitch."
Charlie Rich was traveling to Florida with his wife from Natchez, Mississippi, where he watched his son perform with Freddy Fender at a local casino, when he experienced a bout of severe coughing. After visiting a doctor in St. Francisville, Louisiana and receiving antibiotics, he continued traveling until he stopped to rest for the night. He died in his sleep on July 25, 1995, in a Hammond, Louisiana motel. He was 62 years old. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism. He was buried in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee.At the time, Charlie Rich was survived by his wife of 43 years, Margaret; two sons, Allan and Jack; two daughters, Renee and Laurie; and grandchildren Maggie Carber Yelverton, Wesley Carber, and Christian Cole Lee. Margaret Rich passed away in Germantown, Tennessee on September 22, 2010 and was buried next to her husband.