Rich, Charles Allan (“Charlie”)

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Rich, Charles Allan (“Charlie”)

(b. 14 December 1932 in Colt, Arkansas; d. 25 July 1995 in Hammond, Louisiana), country crooner nicknamed the “Silver Fox” who is best remembered for his 1973 number one hit, “Behind Closed Doors.”

Rich was born to a family of cotton farmers. Both his father, Wallace Neville Rich, and mother, Helen Margaret West, were musical; his father sang in the church choir and his mother played organ. Rich was exposed to blues music by black sharecroppers as a youth. During his high school years he began playing saxophone in emulation of his then-idol, jazz musician Stan Kenton. After graduating from high school in Forrest City, Arkansas, where he met his future wife, Margaret Ann Greene, Rich attended the University of Arkansas for one year. He then enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Enid, Oklahoma. He wed Greene in 1952.

On his discharge Rich and his wife settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where Rich worked at local piano bars. He also formed a vocal group along with his wife called the Velvetones, which had a few local bookings. Margaret was a talented songwriter and later contributed some of Rich’s best-loved songs to his repertoire, including 1969’s “Life’s Little Ups and Downs,” which many critics have commented might have been a theme song for Rich’s rocky career. Margaret also was the most important force behind his early career. Sometime around late 1957 or early 1958 she brought tapes of Rich’s playing to Bill Justis, a producer and musician then working for Sam Phillips’s Sun Records (original label of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash).

At first Phillips felt Rich’s sound was too jazz-flavored to appeal to his country audience; however, by 1958 Rich was working regularly for Phillips as a session musician and songwriter. While appearing on records by Jerry Lee Lewis (”I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” 1959) and supplying songs to Johnny Cash (”The Ways of A Woman in Love,” 1959; “Thanks A Lot,” 1960), Rich finally recorded his first record for Sun on his own in 1958. In 1960 he had his sole hit with the label, the rockabilly classic “Lonely Weekends,” which reached the top twenty-five on the pop charts. However, alcoholism (which would plague him throughout his career) and a lack of a follow-up hit led him to leave the label by 1962. His wife briefly left him and Rich appeared to be at a career dead-end.

Rich spent most of the 1960s looking for a marketable sound. He first recorded for RCA in a jazz balladeer style, but failed to score any hits. In the middle of the decade he had a moderate novelty hit with the song “Mohair Sam” (commenting on the mop-topped Beatles’ look of the 1960s) for the Smash label. Some critics feel he made his best country-styled recordings at this time, working with Smash producer Jerry Kennedy, although none were hits at the time. Finally in 1967 the producer Billy Sherrill—who knew Rich from his days as a Sun studio engineer—signed Rich to Epic and began promoting him as a country songster. Rich scored some moderate hits during the late 1960s and early 1970s, finally reaching the top of the country charts in 1973 with the ballad “Behind Closed Doors,” followed by the sugary “The Most Beautiful Girl.” Thanks to his prematurely gray mane of hair, he gained his nickname the “Silver Fox” at about this time. Five more number one country hits followed in 1974, when he was voted “Entertainer of the Year” by the Country Music Association of America (CMA).

Rich’s struggle with alcoholism again began to affect his career. In 1975 while appearing on the CMA’s award program to announce the winner of that year’s “Entertainer of the Year” award, he became angered when he read the slip of paper announcing that John Denver (a pop-oriented singer) had won the award. He dramatically set the envelope on fire, creating a furor in the country music community. Later he commented that he was “ill” at the time and should not have appeared on the program. Ironically, one of his earlier recordings made in the mid-1960s, “It’s All Over Now,” was re-released and was a minor country hit that hit that year.

Rich’s career continued to decline through the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1976 in a shameless effort to appeal to the conservative country audience, he issued a string-drenched version of “America the Beautiful.” He did nevertheless score a few hits. In 1977 he had the solo number one country hit “Rollin’ with the Flow” followed by “On My Knees,” a duet with Janie Fricke that also reached the top of the country charts a year later. His last work with Sherrill as the producer was a gospel album, recalling the songs of his youth. He recorded for United Artists in 1978 and 1979 and then for Electra in 1980. His last country chart song, “Are We Dreamin’ the Same Dream?” in 1981, just missed reaching the top twenty-five. He did not record again until 1992. At that time, pop critic Peter Guralnick—a long-time fan of the singer who lamented his often poor recordings—produced what many critics feel was Rich’s best album, and swan song, Pictures and Paintings. For the first time, his piano playing was highlighted and the accompaniment and song selection was good. Nonetheless, the album failed to produce any hits and Rich again lapsed into inactivity.

Rich’s only son, Allan, was also a singer and songwriter. After attending a concert that Allan gave in Natchez, Mississippi, in July 1995, Rich and his wife checked into a motel in nearby Hammond, Louisiana, for the night on their way home to Memphis. That evening Rich suffered a blood clot on the lung that brought on a fatal heart attack. He is buried in Memphis.

Although Rich only enjoyed a short period of success, many felt he had the talent to be a true pop giant. His piano playing was soulful, combining elements of jazz, blues, and country, and his singing was heartfelt and warm (when it was not drowned in vocal choruses and strings). A shy, retiring man, he fumbled badly in managing his career, often being too willing to follow the commercial instincts of his producers. He nevertheless helped broaden the sound of country music, introducing elements of jazz and blues singing that are still heard today.

Judy Eron’s thirty-one-page biography aimed at young readers, Charlie Rich, appeared in 1975, at the height of his country fame. Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home (1971) and Lost Highway (1989) each feature a chapter-long portrait of Rich that are among the most sympathetic and revealing articles written about him. Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins’s Good Rock in’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll (1992) also includes material on Rich. Obituaries are in the New York Times (26 July 1995) and Billboard (5 Aug. 1995).

Richard Carlin