Rich, Charlie (1932-1995)

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Rich, Charlie (1932-1995)

A versatile artist whose recording career spanned five decades and seven labels, Charlie Rich is primarily remembered for his 1970s country crossover megahits "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl." Produced by Billy Sherrill, the architect of the crossover country sound, these two songs propelled a reluctant Rich into country music stardom. Despite his identification with country, Rich's music incorporated jazz, pop, rock, gospel, R & B, and soul, making him one eclectic country musician.

Born in Arkansas in 1932, Rich began his musical career as an enlisted man in the early 1950s, playing piano with a jazzy outfit called the Velvetones at the U.S. Air Force base in Oklahoma where he was stationed. After leaving the service in the mid-1950s, Rich farmed by day and worked as a supper-club pianist in Memphis by night. Margaret Ann Rich, Charlie's wife, biggest fan, and sometime collaborator, took his tapes to Sun Records, Sam Phillips's legendary recording label, and the early musical home of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Phillips associate Bill Justis liked the tapes, and Rich was signed to Sun, first as a session man and arranger, and eventually as a recording artist. In 1960, he had his first Top 30 hit with "Lonely Weekends." Unable to score with any of his follow-up singles, Rich's career stalled.

In 1964, Rich left Sun and signed with Groove, an RCA subsidiary, where he recorded several albums that were not commercial successes until they were reissued in the wake of his big 1970s hits. After Groove's demise in 1965, Rich signed with Smash/Mercury, where he had another Top 30 novelty hit with "Mohair Sam." Once again unable to follow up his hit, Rich switched labels again, signing with Hi Records in 1966, where he was unable to make any impression on the charts.

In 1967, Rich signed with Epic, and with Billy Sherrill he recorded the body of work with which he would become most closely identified. Sherrill's production style, which favored lush string arrangements and vocal choruses over the steel guitar and fiddle found in much recorded country music, was a great fit with Rich's soulful, sultry voice and supple phrasing. In his first five years at Epic, Rich had no commercial successes, but remarkably the label stuck with him. Sherrill had some clout, having scored major hits for Epic with Tammy Wynette and David Houston, and Epic was probably sticking with Rich at Sherrill's insistence. This persistence paid off in 1972 when "I Take It on Home" was a hit on the country charts. In 1973, "Behind Closed Doors" spent twelve weeks on the Top 40 chart, peaking at number fifteen, and "The Most Beautiful Girl" spent seventeen weeks on the same chart, peaking at number one. For those breakthroughs, Rich was named the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year for 1973, and he won the Grammy for best male country vocal performance. In the wake of these successes, Rich's earlier labels began to re-release the previously unsuccessful material in their vaults, and Rich continued to chart. In 1974, he was the CMA's Entertainer of the Year. After 1974, though the hits kept coming to a degree, Rich never again reached the commercial success of the early 1970s.

While Sun's Phillips called Rich the most talented musician he had ever worked with and the only one who had the potential to rival Elvis Presley, Rich seemed uncomfortable with his status as international sensation. His well-documented drinking problem and occasional erratic behavior (in 1975, while on national television presenting the CMA award to his successor for male vocalist of the year, Rich set fire to the piece of paper that revealed John Denver to be the winner) may be part of what kept him from becoming a superstar. In addition, Rich was always reluctant to do the kind of touring and personal appearances a performer is urged to do to maximize record sales, opting instead to spend time at home with Margaret Ann and their children. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that commercial tastes dictated that he should temper his tendency for artistic experimentation in blending genres.

Rich left Epic for United Artists in 1978 and had a few country hits there. In 1980, he moved to Elektra and had some successes there through 1981, when he went into semi-retirement for a decade. In 1992, he reemerged to make what would be his final album, a lovely, heart-wrenching, jazzy record called Pictures and Paintings. In the liner notes to Epic's Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich, Margaret Ann talks about Pictures and Paintings: "That last album that he did I think was more representative of what he really was all about, because it was all different kinds of music—it was the music he loved, and he was really pleased about that. But I don't think he had any idea of the lives he touched. I'm sure he didn't. Because it was just always about the music. It wasn't about being famous. He never really cared a flip for that. In fact, he kind of ran from it. He just wanted to play music; that's all." Charlie Rich died from a blood clot in 1995 while traveling through Louisiana with Margaret Ann.

—Joyce Linehan

Further Reading:

Guralnick, Peter. The Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians. New York, Harper Perennial, 1979.