Charlie Rich Biography

14 December 1932, Colt, Arkansas, USA, d. 25 July 1995, Hammond, Louisiana, USA. One of Rich’s country hits was ‘Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs’, and the ups and downs of his own life were dramatic. Rich’s parents were cotton farmers and he heard the blues from the pickers and gospel music from his parents, as his father sang in a choir and his mother played organ. Rich himself developed a passion for Stan Kenton’s music, so much so that his friends nicknamed him ‘Charlie Kenton’. He played piano and saxophone and studied music at the University of Arkansas. While in the US Air Force, he formed a small group in the vein of the Four Freshmen, the Velvetones, with his wife-to-be, Margaret Ann. After the forces, they bought a farm, but following bad weather, he opted for playing in Memphis clubs for $10 a night. At first, Sam Phillips felt that Rich was too jazz-orientated for his Sun Records label, but arranger Bill Justis gave him some Jerry Lee Lewis records and told him to return ‘when he could get that bad’. Soon Rich was working on sessions at Sun including some for Lewis (‘I’ll Sail My Ship Alone’), Bill Justis and Carl Mann. He wrote ‘The Ways Of A Woman In Love’, ‘Thanks A Lot’ (both recorded by Johnny Cash), ‘Break Up’ (Ray Smith and Lewis), ‘I’m Comin’ Home’ (Mann and then covered by Elvis Presley) and the continuation of ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’, ‘The Ballad Of Billy Joe’ (Lewis and Rich himself). His first single, ‘Whirlwind’, was issued in the USA in August 1958 on the Sun subsidiary Phillips International. His first US hit came in 1960 when ‘Lonely Weekends’, a bright, echoey rock ‘n’ roll song that he had intended for Jerry Lee Lewis, made number 22 in the US charts. Time has shown it to be a fine rock ‘n’ roll standard but Rich’s original recording was marred by heavy-handed chorus work from the Gene Lowery Singers.

Rich recorded 80 songs at Sun although only 10 singles and one album were released at the time. Many of the tracks have been issued since, some even being doctored to include an Elvis soundalike. Rich was not able to consolidate the success of ‘Lonely Weekends’ but some of his songs from that period, ‘Who Will The Next Fool Be?’, an R&B success for Bobby Bland and later Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Sittin’ And Thinkin’’ and ‘Midnight Blues’, have remained in his act. Rich’s heavy drinking prompted his wife to leave with the children, but he convinced her that he would change. In 1962 Rich, like Presley before him, went from Sun to RCA Records, albeit to their subsidiary, Groove. From then on, Rich recorded in Nashville although Groove were grooming him as a performer of jazz-slanted standards (‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Nice ‘N’ Easy’). He had no hits at the time but his reflective ballad ‘There Won’t Be Anymore’ was a US Top 20 hit 10 years later; similarly, ‘I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore’ and ‘Tomorrow Night’ were to become US country number 1s. Many regard Rich’s period with producer Jerry Kennedy at Smash as his most creative, particularly as Margaret Ann was writing such excellent material as ‘A Field Of Yellow Daisies’. He almost made the US Top 20 with Dallas Frazier’s Coasters -styled novelty about a hippie, ‘Mohair Sam’, but he says, ‘One hit like ‘Mohair Sam’ wasn’t much use. What I needed was a string of singles that would sell albums. I was also unlucky in that I put ‘I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water’ on the b-side. Johnny Rivers heard it, copied my arrangement and sold a million records.’

Rich’s next label, Hi, adopted another approach by pairing Rich with familiar country songs, but the album’s sales were poor and he seemed destined to play small bars forever, although salvation was at hand. Billy Sherrill, who had worked as a recording engineer with Rich at Sun, signed him to Epic in 1967. He knew Rich’s versatility but he was determined to make him a successful country singer. Choosing strong ballads, often about working-class marriage among the over-30s, and classy middle-of-the-road arrangements, he built up Rich’s success in the US country charts, although it was a slow process. In 1968 his chart entries were with ‘Set Me Free’ (number 44) and ‘Raggedy Ann’ (number 45) and even Margaret Ann’s cleverly written but thinly veiled comment on their own marriage, ‘Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs’, only reached number 41. His first substantial US country hit was with ‘I Take It On Home’ in 1972. In view of the material, Rich’s lined face and grey hair became assets and he was dubbed ‘The Silver Fox’. Although Rich’s piano was often relegated to a supporting role, it complemented his voice on Kenny O’Dell’s ballad ‘Behind Closed Doors’. The 1973 song gave Rich a number 1 country and Top 20 pop hit and became the Country Song of the Year. Rich’s recording was used to amusing effect to accompany Clyde the orang-utan’s love affair in the Clint Eastwood movie Every Which Way But Loose.

Rich’s follow-up single, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’, partly written by Sherrill, was a US number 1, and the b-side, ‘Feel Like Goin’ Home’, was almost as strong (Rich had chosen the title after being the subject of the opening essay in Peter Guralnick’s study of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Feel Like Going Home). In the UK, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’ made number 2 and was quickly followed by a Top 20 placing for ‘Behind Closed Doors’. Behind Closed Doors, which contained both hits and songs written by himself, his wife and son Allan, was a smash and he topped the US country charts with ‘There Won’t Be Anymore’ (number 18, pop), ‘A Very Special Love Song’ (number 11), ‘I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore’, ‘I Love My Friend’ (number 24) and ‘She Called Me Baby’. ‘Everytime You Touch Me (I Get High)’ also reached number 3 in the country and number 19 in the pop charts. Allan Rich, a member of his father’s road band, recorded his father’s ‘Break Up’, while Rich’s evocative composition ‘Peace On You’ was also the title song of a Roger McGuinn album.

In 1974 Rich was voted the Entertainer Of The Year by the Country Music Association of America. The next year, instead of announcing the winner (John Denver) on a live television show, he burnt the envelope. He says, ‘I was ill and I should never have been there’, but country fans were not so sympathetic and Rich lost much support. His records, too, were starting to sound stale as Sherrill had difficulty in finding good material and began to put too much emphasis on the strings. Nevertheless, there were gems, including ‘Rollin’ With The Flow’, which returned Rich to the top of the US country charts, and a duet with Janie Fricke, ‘On My Knees’, also a country number 1. Rich made a gospel album, Silver Linings, with Billy Sherrill and says, ‘We had a similar background of gospel music. His father was a Baptist preacher and he used to preach on horseback. That’s him in the left-hand corner of the cover. I regard ‘Milky White Way’ as one of my best recordings.’

In 1978, Rich moved to United Artists Records where Larry Butler continued in the same vein. Occasionally the material was right - ‘Puttin’ In Overtime At Home’, ‘I Still Believe In Love’ and the bluesy ‘Nobody But You’ - but, by and large, the records found Rich on automatic pilot. In 1980 he relocated to Elektra Records where he recorded a fine cover version of Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and had a country hit with ‘I’ll Wake You Up When I Get Home’. There followed a long decade or more of silence from Rich, amid rumours that his occasionally self-destructive lifestyle had taken its toll. However, he returned triumphantly in 1992 with Pictures And Paintings, an album overseen by his long-time champion, journalist Peter Guralnick. Mixing jazzy originals with reinterpretations of songs from his past, the album proved to be Rich’s most satisfying work since The Fabulous Charlie Rich. He died in 1995 following a blood clot in his lung.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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