The Charlie Rich I Never Knew
“I don’t think I ever recorded anyone who was better as a singer, writer and player than Charlie Rich. It is all so effortless, the way he moves from rock to country to blues to jazz.” – Sun Records founder Sam Phillips
“I feel like it makes me stale if I stay in one particular category.” – Charlie Rich, to Terry Gross in a 1992 Fresh Air interview
Levon Helm explained it well in The Last Waltz – paraphrasing him, he observed that there’s a part of the country – the low middle – where the myriad indigenous musical influences, if they converge, result in a sublime gumbo of rhythms and musical styles that defies categorization.
So true this is that the website run by Charlie Rich’s business interests intriguingly presents five alternate versions of his biography. Clicking through, you learn how he developed into an artist who wrote and performed in each of the following genres: country, rhythm & blues, gospel, jazz and rockabilly. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – it’s very well done and written.
But due to this seemingly innate ability to write, sing and play piano in any genre, Rich had a difficult career at best. He worked his whole life but enjoyed success only in brief spurts. I knew him because of the two songs, Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl, that crossed over onto the pop charts in the ’70s and got radio airplay, lots of it. On the strength of those songs I wasn’t moved to investigate further. Like a lot of people of my generation, I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening on purpose to country music (or what I thought of as country music), and that’s what I labeled Rich’s stuff.
If I had investigated, though, I might have discovered many beautiful tunes, including the breathtaking song I spotlight today, I Feel Like Going Home, which actually was the B-side of The Most Beautiful Girl single (it has since appeared in various forms on other recordings). I only know about it now because my friend Wade sent me a link to it last year out of the blue. It stopped me in my tracks. Who was the Silver Fox, really?
Well, he didn’t start out as a country singer. Charlie Rich, born and raised in the Arkansas delta 30 miles from Memphis, became the gifted and versatile musician he was out of influences as diverse as his God-fearing, piano-playing mother and CJ Allen, a sharecropper who worked the Rich family’s 500-acre plantation by day and played honky-tonk blues piano by night, often with Rich’s dad, who played guitar. He especially loved big band music, played sax in the high school band, and was drenched in gospel at church.
As an enlisted member of the Air Force stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, in the early ’50s, Rich started his own group, the Velvetones, which built upon his jazz and blues origins. Upon completion of his service, he began performing in Memphis clubs and writing his own songs. This exposure got him a job as a session piano player for Judd Records, which was owned by Judd Phillips, the brother of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, the man who launched the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
Unbeknownst to Rich, his wife snuck a tape of his to Sam Phillips, who found the material to have no commercial value whatsoever. He handed her some Jerry Lee Lewis records and suggested Rich put in an appearance when he could “play that bad.” Nonetheless, Rich was hired at Sun, playing piano and writing, his first exposure to country music as it was thought of then. Eventually he was given the opportunity to record his own songs, and on the third try, Lonely Weekends ended up with a decent chart position.
Years passed with lots of recording, trying to fit his square peg into a round hole, but with little traction. He moved from one situation to another until the producer Billy Sherrill found a formula that “worked.” But although those years in the ’70s where Rich was everywhere would be considered success in most people’s book, I get the feeling from what I’ve read that Rich found it unbearably limiting. He eventually went into seclusion, coming out one more time before he died with a jazz-influenced album, Pictures and Paintings, on which he played whatever the hell he pleased.
In the Terry Gross interview, Rich acknowledged that it’s difficult to be successful when people have pegged you as one thing or another, but you don’t want to be pegged. As my appreciation of music has broadened immeasurably from what it was when I was younger, I wonder why this phenomenon even exists. Whether it’s books, film, music … why do people have to know what to expect before they experience it? Sameness in art and performance is a crashing bore. Here he is as bluesman, with Why Oh Why. Great, great stuff.