How my father became a star.
Rags to riches, well, almost.
We grew up poor. My family doesn't really like for me to say that, but it's true. My father was a struggling musician most of his life. It wasn't until he was about forty-six years old that things started to finally go right for him. Oh, he had a few hits along the way, but nothing sustainable. In 1960 he was with SUN Studio. He actually recorded on the Phillips International label, which was an offshoot of SUN. They recorded a rockabilly thing called "Lonely Weekends" that did quite well. It made it to the Top 40 of the Billboard Pop charts. Things looked bright. Sam Phillips got Dad to sing sort of like Elvis, since Elvis was the hottest thing going then. My dad pulled it off pretty well, even though rock and roll was not his biggest musical influence. Keep in mind, back then, rock and roll was just defining itself. The roots for it came primarily from the blues, with just a hint of hillbilly thrown in for good measure. In fact, a lot of the older black musicians from Memphis still call rock and roll, hillbilly music. After the success of "Lonely Weekends", they released a couple of other singles that flopped.
Hard times will make you sing the blues.
THE BEATLES! When The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show back in 1964, everything changed for my Dad. We didn't quite know it at the time, but we all eventually figured it out. Rock and Roll was old hat. Now it was just called rock or pop music. Charlie, Jerry Lee, Elvis, and a host of other rock and rollers were pretty much sent out to pasture. My father, who had a family to feed, headed in the direction of blues and jazz. He was getting a little older, and the music was more in line with his musical tastes anyway. The problem is, nobody was going to get rich while singing the blues. In fact, the singing the blues will give you the blues, financially speaking. He drifted from label to label around the Memphis, Tennessee area. He recorded some records with Groove, Hi, and Smash (a subsidiary of Mercury). He did have one smash hit on Smash. It was a soulful little rockin' number called "Mohair Sam". Again, he thought he had finally made it. "Mohair Sam" reached the Top 10. After having a big hit, they released another song called "Hog Jaw", which flopped, then they tried a song called "Elvira". It flopped too, but would later be made into a big country hit by the Statler Brothers. Nothing seemed to go right after that. Dad continued to play beer joints and honky tonks throughout the south. He developed quite a cult following, but that didn't translate into money or record sales.
Nothing's worked, let's try country
I remember vividly when my father decided to go country in a big way. He had dabbled in it with an album on Hi where he sang the songs of Hank Williams. My mother was dead set against it. She thought to go from jazz, which my father was now doing, to country was just too big a stretch. Plus, she wasn't a big fan of country music at that time. She liked a few people, but to her it just wasn't sophisticated enough for a classically trained musician like my father. Dad, however, stood firm. He went to Nashville and hooked up with Billy Sherrill. Billy had worked at SUN Studio years earlier in the nondescript role of technician. Times had been good to Billy. He had managed to garner several hits as a writer and as a producer in Nashville. He was producing Tammy Wynette and George Jones. He knew of Charlie's talent, and was by gosh going to make him a star.
If at first you don't succeed...
Well they recorded a few albums on my father. There was a lot of critical acclaim, but once again, no record sales. By this time, I was nineteen years old, and had managed to get a recording deal myself. On what was to be my father's last attempt at making a hit album for Epic Records, I often accompanied him, as I was recording my debut album. It was great because it allowed me to spend more time with my father. After years of his being on the road, this was a great opportunity to finally spend time with my Dad. One day Dad and I went to Billy Sherrill's office to try and find some songs for Dad's next album. We listened to a lot of tapes. I don't think they found anything from that particular pile. Then Billy had a couple of songwriters come through and play Dad some stuff to listen to. Keep in mind, this was on the same day as they were recording. It's sure not done like that anymore. Anyway, this one fellow played a few songs, but Billy and Dad didn't hear anything that knocked them out. As the fellow was leaving and closing the office door, Billy said, "Hey, what's that song you've got about a door or something." Well, to make a long story short, the songwriter fellow was Kenny O'Dell, and the song was "Behind Closed Doors".
They proceeded to spend a few minutes working on the arrangement, changing a few lines, that sort of thing. They then marched right down stairs, taught the song to the band, and recorded it. It's funny how nonchalant it all seemed, but then NOBODY had any idea that it was going to be THE SONG that would launch my father's career. It would eventually win him a Grammy, and in the process, make him a bonafide country music superstar.
Three important people.
Lest ye' think that it was as simple as that, it was a lot harder than just cutting a good song. There are three people that I feel were "most" responsible for my father's success. First, I would say BILLY SHERRILL. He had the foresight to cloak my father in a sophisticated image of what country could be. He found a formula that worked. Now they call it countrypolitan. It appealed to city folk, as well as country folk. Second, I would say BILL WILLIAMS. No one deserves more credit for my father's success than a man named Bill. Bill was head of promotion for Epic, and he really believed in Dad. He was a fan, and wouldn't take no for an answer. He's the greatest "record man" I've personally ever known. I wish there were more like him. He single-handedly pushed the record to anyone and everyone he could. He also set up a tour for Dad where he would play for all of the record distributors and program directors all over the United States. It was a master stroke of genius. Sell the seller's, and they'll sell you, that was the philosophy. It worked. Last, but not least, I would say my mother, MARGARET ANN RICH. Although she must have had mixed emotions about the whole "country" thing, she was with my father throughout. She always believed in my father, but she did something else that I think made a very real difference.
Know one knows what goes on "Behind Closed Doors"
In 1972 my mother and father went to a CBS party. CBS was the parent company of Epic. At that party, which was in New York City, my mother met a fellow that she thought was a promotion man, or possibly and A&R person. She and the fellow started talking. My mother, unlike my father, was always a good talker. She's charming and very articulate. Well, she was talking to this fellow about how my father just couldn't seem to get a break. Remember, at this time, my father hadn't had a hit in seven years, and that was in the pop market, not country. Well, the fellow tells her that he has some pull at the company, and he'll put in a good word for Charlie. Even though the fellow was from New York, he had heard Charlie's music, and agreed that he was something very special. Well, the guy my mother was speaking to was Clive Davis, the president of CBS at that time. My mother had no idea. After they had talked for quite a while, she asked him his name, and was floored when he said Clive Davis. Everyone who was anyone knew that Clive Davis was THE most powerful person in the music business at that time. He's still pretty darned important today. I suppose if I had to add a fourth person that was largely responsible for Dad's success, it would have to be Clive Davis.
The Silver Fox
About a year earlier, I was in Alaska with my father on a tour. I was the opening act, and my Dad was the headliner. It was great. One night, we were all sitting around having drinks. The band was on a break. A lady walked by the table we were sitting at, and said, "Hey, you old SILVER FOX". It was sort of funny, and the band started joking around calling Dad, "The Silver Fox". It stuck. Eventually Bill Williams got hip to the joke/nickname, and thought it was a great brand to go with. So, they released an album called, "The Silver Fox". Well, the rest as they say, is history. After having a string of number one hits, and a truckload of awards, it seemed to many that it was an overnight success. Yeah, after thirty years of struggling. That was one long night.
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 Jiminez
- Augie Meyers
- Doug Sahm
- Jerry Lee Lewis