The Silver Fox
Sam Phillips called him the most talented artist that ever graced the legendary Sun Studio. Bob Dylan said Charlie Rich was his favorite singer. Elton John idolized him, Mark Knopfler did his songs, Elvis Costello too. Charlie Rich was without a doubt one of the most gifted singers of all time. He had a God-given talent that no one could deny. As a pianist he was second to none. Those who came to know him only by his pop/country hits never got a chance to fully realize what he had to offer. From the blue-eyed soul of his years in Memphis at Sun Studio to the various other hops he made along the way with other studios every thing he did had one thing in common. Soul.
Rich was a multi-talented artist, bridging Jazz, Blues, and Rock, more versatile than many other Sun artists. "I didn't dig country" Rich would say. As he struggled to find his musical niche, the blusey "Don't Put No Headstone On My Grave" brought Rich underground fame, and he moved on to RCA in March 1963. "I really don't like happy music. I don't think it says anything." - Charlie Rich " I don't think I ever recorded anyone who was a better singer, song writer, and player than Charlie Rich." Phillips exclaimed. Born in Forrest City on December 14, 1934, to a poor Arkansas family, Rich learned piano and blues from C.J. Allen, a black tenant farmer. Rich dropped out of college, joined the Air Force, and married his sweetheart Margaret Ann Greene, honeymooning in Memphis. Rich began spending weekends at Sun where Bill Justis gave Rich records to listen to.
In 1958 Justis convinced Phillips to bring Rich on staff, drawing his salary against future earnings, but Rich's hopes were dashed when his first two cuts appeared on the flip side of scandal rocked Jerry Lee Lewis singles. Who knows what made him tick? Charlie Rich must constitute every A&R man's nightmare. For every pigeonhole they ever tried to stick him in, he never would quite fit. "I don't think I ever recorded anyone who was better as a singer, writer, and player than Charlie Rich," said Sam Phillips, "it's all so effortless, the way he moves from rock to country to blues to jazz." Rich was likely to jump from pure teenybop bubblegum to a low-down dirty blues/gospel number like "Don't Put No Headstone On My Grave" (his most celebrated recording). The thing about Rich was, he was no musical dilettante. To move from the supper club to the juke joint was perfectly natural for him. He grew up in rural Arkansas, a product of better-than-middle-class roots. A sharecropper named C.J. Allen taught him to play the piano and introduced him to the blues; his parents taught him a little about composition. In high school, he fell in love with jazz (he so idolized Stan Kenton that he was nicknamed "Charlie Kenton."). It was during that time that he met, and later married, Margaret-Ann Greene; they were together to the end. Charlie was devoted to music: They spent their honeymoon money on records. According to Margaret-Ann, their first piece of furniture was a tape recorder. Charlie attended the University of Arkansas, but later bailed out and joined the Air Force. Meanwhile, he and Margaret-Ann worked together in a vocal group called The Velvetones, modeled after Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. After Charlie returned to civilian life, his uncle helped him buy a five-acre farm. They had one good year out of it. Meanwhile, Charlie was still spending his weekends in Memphis playing music. Hanging around Memphis, he inevitably ended up working at Sun, lured in by Bill Justis to be a staff songwriter. Justis thought Charlie was a major talent, but eclectic and uncommercial. He lent him a stack of rockabilly records and said "come back when you get that bad."
He wrote songs for Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee, and played piano on sessions. He thought he had it made when two of his songs were chosen as the A and B of Jerry Lee's latest single ("Break Up," "I'll Make It All Up To You"), but Lewis took the fall in England soon after. Charlie, who preferred writing songs and playing sessions, decided he'd have to do it himself. His first record, "Philadelphia Baby," did well enough to make Sam Phillips take him seriously as a recording artist. Phillips never quite knew what to do with him, but as always, he had some interesting ideas. His idea was to let the tape roll, letting Charlie do as he pleased, hoping to find something releasable. With Charlie's looks and voice, Sam hoped he'd found another Elvis. That really didn't come off. Charlie was too intellectual, too vulnerable, to be Elvis. As a sexual predator, he was never especially convincing. He made his real mark playing the wounded lover. He cut a host of sides for Sun. "Lonely Weekends," a stomping r&b number, was his biggest hit, and it was a hot one. Others ranged from brilliant ("Midnight Blue," possibly his best song) to embarrassing ("School Days").
Charlie started hitting the touring circuit. He was handsome and charismatic, not to mention talented, but also painfully shy. Charlie hated it. He preferred the bars and ballrooms, where he could stretch out, as opposed to running on to do "Lonely Weekends" and maybe a couple more in his package tour sets. Margaret-Ann left him briefly in this period. She later found him holed up in the YMCA with a collection of empty bottles. Charlie couldn't manage a second hit, either. As great as "Sittin' and Thinkin'," a serious drinking song, was, it wasn't aimed at teenage ears. And Charlie himself was no teenage idol --- handsome, but big and beefy; prematurely gray; married, with three kids. Not exactly Elvis. You can see how uncomfortable he looks in some of the more posed publicity shots. His time at Sun really introduced a new element into Charlie's already eclectic stew of jazz, gospel and blues: country music.
"At first I didn't dig country," he said in 1975, "we put it down because we wanted to be jazz pickers. I had to make a drastic change at Sun records and I didn't really appreciate it until I went there." Margaret-Ann put it another way: "Don't you dare call him "country." Charlie would go on to neatly sum up his approach: "Now I like to mix them up -- put some jazz licks in country and some country licks into a heavy-driving jazz piece." Anyway, the Sun years ended in the early 60's and Charlie was left to wander. New manager Sy Rosenberg landed him at RCA. A 1964 album for RCA/Groove laid the groundwork for the white soul-man ideas of the Smash albums, and gave him a chance to stretch into the jazz he loved. It also got him another small hit ("Big Boss Man"). He drifted some more and ended up on Smash, where he promptly recorded two back-to-back masterworks: The Many New Sides of Charlie Rich and The Best Years. He scored another hit ("Mohair Sam") that didn't take him far. He would later regard these albums as his most satisfying. And he drifted around some more. An album of Hank Williams songs for Hi showed what you could do by mating stone country with r&b and soul. He still wasn't famous.
The Fabulous Charlie Rich, c. 1969, showed him still mixing up country, jazz, r&b and even a little Vegas. It won him a lot of critical converts. Nik Cohn (at least I think it was Cohn) ranked his as one of the five great musical geniuses of rock (the others were John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Phil Spector and P.J. Proby). Bob Dylan proclaimed Charlie his favorite singer (interestingly, it was Rich, not Dylan, that Sam Peckinpah had wanted for "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." One hopes Charlie would have done a better acting job). Record execs still didn't know what to do with him. But Epic was getting some ideas.
Still more stuff...
- Being taken seriously.
- How my father became a star.
- So, you wanna' be a country star?
- Who do you like better, Garth or Gershwin?
- You'll eat what you're served...
- The Media: Out with the old, in with the new.
- It's great exposure.
Thoughts on some of the people I've played with or known.
- Charlie Rich
- Freddy Fender
- Smokey Robinson
- Jo-El Sonnier
- Randy Meisner
- Billy Swan
- Flaco Jimenez
- Augie Meyers
- Doug Sahm
- Jerry Lee Lewis
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