Charlie Rich

TrackAlbum / Single
Who Will The Next Fool BePhillips International 3566
Lonely WeekendsLonely Weekends
Sittin' And Thinkin'Phillips International 3582
It's All Over NowThat's Rich
I Can't Go OnThe Many New Sides Of...
Party GirlThe Best Years
Don't Tear Me DownKent Select CITY 004 (UK)
RenéeHi Records unissued (1967)
Life Has Its Little Ups And DownsThe Fabulous Charlie Rich
Feel Like Goin' HomePictures And Paintings

 

Charlie Rich photo 1

 

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Charlie Rich photo 2

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

If I was asked to nominate the best performer of country soul with a white skin I’d probably come up with a short list of four candidates: Elvis, Charlie Rich, Gram Parsons and Lonnie Mack. For reasons I won’t bore you with I’d lop off the last pair leaving Charlie and El slugging it out in those great Sun Studios in the sky. And in the end I’d go for Charlie, mainly, but not only, because he wrote some of those great, great songs as well as performing them.

Let’s cut to the chase, Phillips International 3566, Who Will The Next Fool Be, written and performed by Charlie Rich in 1961 delivered white country soul before anyone had even dreamed up the term ‘soul music’. In my Amazon review of the Charly label collection, That’s Rich, I described this song as “a brooding study of melancholia which is now rightly regarded as a pioneering release in the overlapping genres of country soul and white soul. The quality of the song may only have become apparent to some people after cover versions from Bobby Bland and Jerry Lee Lewis (in a later incarnation well past his Sun days) amongst others. Charlie’s performance matches the quality of the song and he certainly doesn’t get bettered by any of the covers”.

His vocal is relatively subdued – resigned might be an apt adjective – and he doesn’t owe any overt debts to black performers unlike many other artists who we think of as white soul. However, listen hard and you’ll hear melisma creeping in particularly on the title line; definitely a vocal technique that emanated from the black ghettoes (though possibly channelled via Presley). The backing is also subdued, consisting initially of the bluesy Rich piano, a rhythm section and faint (presumably overdubbed) backing singers. A sax joins in from the middle eight and it’s one that could have come straight from the Atlantic studios and one of the more laidback Ruth Brown R&B sessions. The performance is over in little more than two and a quarter minutes – a mini-masterpiece.

The lyrics have a downer quality that’s common to quite a few Rich songs:

And after all is said and done
Girl, you wouldn’t be satisfied with anyone
So after you get rid of me
Who will the next fool be
?

Charlie Rich started at Phillips International, a subsidiary of Sun Records, in 1958 and not all his records were like Who Will The Next Fool Be. Initially, Sam Phillips wanted him to become another of his rockabilly stars, witness early efforts from Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison along the same lines. However one thing the great Sam did do for Charlie was to allow him plenty of studio time which eventually resulted in us now being able to hear many tracks that didn’t see release in those days. To be fair to Sam, some of these tracks including “Fool” did see release during the ’60 to ’63 period at Sun/Phillips.

Charlie did chalk up one minor hit while he was at Sun/Phillips and that was Lonely Weekends, another self-penned number and a rocker, albeit, unusually for the Sun label, not of the rockabilly variety. Instead there are slight hints of swing on a number that initially sounds fairly staid until it hits the middle eight where it goes up a couple of gears and rocks like the clappers. The performance is helped by quite a loud vocal backing which could have been intrusive but manages not to be. At times there are touches of call and response which hadn’t really been heard much in white music at this time (1960).

I got loaded last night on a bottle of gin, and I had a fight with my best girl friend” is the opening line from my third selection from Charlie’s Sun/Phillips output, Sittin’ And Thinkin’. It’s yet another self-penned effort and, boy does it sound as if he’s lived it. One of the best country drinking songs in my book. The punch line aimed directly at that girl friend is to die for:

But, please baby wait for me until they let me out again.

Charlie may have been full of remorse but that line gives you pause for thought.

In addition to releasing his own records, Charlie put in solid work on piano in support of other Sun artists – his tones are recognisable on many of the later Johnny Cash singles. His songs also got recorded by other Sun artists, notably Cash again. This is JC with The Ways Of A Woman In Love.

Personally, I’ve always been an absolute sucker for the pairing of Rich songs recorded by Jerry Lee on Sun 303 in ’58. Reportedly, Charlie was promised that two of his songs would make a Jerry Lee single. But the record was released shortly after Jerry’s ‘Child Bride Scandal’ so hardly surprisingly it sunk without trace (but I still have my 78!). The A-side, Break Up, is a splendid boogie affair given a great intro by Jerry. Although medium to fast it still has the sort of blues time lyrics we’d come to expect from Charlie. The B-side is even better, one of Mr Rich’s very best slabs of miserabilia – “Well it’s true, so true, I didn’t do right by you. Guess I didn’t know the right things to do …” and so on, performed with total empathy by Jerry – this was back in the days when he played it straight down the line and didn’t embellish every other song with a “This is the Killer speaking”.

Charlie Rich moved to Groove, a subsidiary of RCA Victor, in 1963 and got himself a hit with his second release, Big Boss Man, a version of the Jimmy Reed number. A good bouncy effort complete with a totally new descending piano riff, but it doesn’t quite make my Toppermost. Instead I’ve plumped for It’s All Over Now, (not the Valentinos/Stones song) in part because it displays another side of Rich. The song has an unusual but attractive melody line, and the performance is somewhere in that middle area between easy listening and country. You might have thought this was the label encouraging Charlie along these lines but it’s more likely to have been the man himself whose tastes included lounge and even touches of jazz – think Stan Kenton or Dave Brubeck. Sam Phillips had largely kept such traits from Charlie under lock and key but they started to emerge as his career progressed. I say ‘”largely” but there’s an argument that Who Will The Next Fool Be had a debt to lounge, not unlike Ray Charles’ diversions into such music even while he was releasing records that were marinated in gospel.

Charlie moved to Smash in 1965 and immediately hit big with his first single, Mohair Sam. There was some kind of theme developing: he had a hit with his third Sun release but nothing followed, then with his second Groove release but nothing followed, and then with his first Smash release. Predictably no hits followed at Smash (and nothing followed at his next label but that’s jumping ahead). Mohair Sam was released in the Summer of ’65; it may have created a new sub-genre – Novelty plus Funk. However, even if it is in all the best-of compilations, I’m ignoring it and digging deeper into the Smash catalogue for my Toppermost picks. As an aside, I would add that over the years it’s been made easy for fans to pick up Smash material, first via a double LP, Fully Realised, released in ’74, and much more recently, via an even more comprehensive set, It Ain’t Gonna Be That Way: The Complete Smash Sessions (2011)

I Can’t Go On may be Charlie’s ultimate downer lyric. The song is a ballad with a beat – the sort of thing we’d now call a power ballad – with one of those ascending chord sequences that Elvis would have loved. It’s one you could just hear the Pres doing circa ’68 Special time. There are a couple of other great ballads in the Smash album, The Best Years, and A Field Of Yellow Daisies, both written by Charlie’s wife Margaret Ann, and they’re almost as good.

My second Smash pick also comes from the pen of Margaret Ann and it’s a mega-contrast; Party Girl, or to give you the full first line, “(I wish I’d known you were just a) Party Girl”. Two chord stuff, minimal lyrics, stonking rhythm, and Charlie snarling his way through even getting close to rap at times. I don’t know anything else like this in Charlie’s canon. I’m not even aware that many people have heard the song apart from me. I put the only YouTube clip up of this one and it’s had a few views so I guess someone’s listening.

Hi Records followed Smash and this time there was no instant hit, just a few singles, some tracks which have only relatively recently seen the light of day, and an album, Charlie Rich Sings Country And Western. Taking the last one first, this was very largely a tribute to Hank Williams and a good set it was too even if there was nothing so amazing – it’s easy to start getting blasé about the Rich output. For me the singles were more interesting. If you can find it, the best collection of his Hi material is contained on The Complete Charlie Rich On Hi Records which came out in 2000 and contained the previously mentioned album, the issued singles plus unissued tracks. It’s on this album that you’ll find some numbers which have gained favour with the UK’s Northern Soul audience; Don’t Tear Me Down in particular is a splendid example of sophisticated uptown soul and I’m making it my first Hi selection. Charlie didn’t actually do a lot of what I’d term conventional soul but this is one, and it’s excellent.

Also present in this comp is a brilliant reading of the Sam & Dave sloooow ballad, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby. However for a second pick from Hi I’ve gone with Renée, a lounge ballad wherein our man eases himself into Scott Walker territory. Yup it’s that good.

Charlie moved to Epic Records in 1967 and came under the wing of Billy Sherrill, the man who made Tammy Wynette into a household name. The hits didn’t start immediately – there was a slow build-up. The peak in terms of quality plus sales was probably in ’73 with Behind Closed Doors, and The Most Beautiful Girl, both big ballads with more than a soupçon of country. You should know these well – if not, give them a listen. I readily confess to loving both plus a few others from this era like I Take It On Home. From ’74 onwards there was a gradual fall off in quality in part due to poor song selection, though I should add that the hits continued until close to the end of the decade.

One of the Epic singles issued in that build-up period I referred to was Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs written by Margaret Ann Rich. In it, Charlie is sitting, pondering how he’s going to tell her that he didn’t get that raise in pay that they’d been counting on. But he knows she’ll take the news “with a smile and not a frown“. Not a lot more happens but you know our man is damn glad that she wears his gold ring. Margaret sometimes focuses on the little things and occasional positive images like “the daffodils are blooming” appear in her work. Totally unlike hubbie who’s more inclined to melodrama. And if you think Charlie’s songs are unusual melodically, Margaret’s songs are even more so, often going places you just don’t expect. This is one of her very best. Charlie makes every word count and Billy Sherrill produces a beautiful understated backdrop, perhaps not anticipated from a man renowned for Grand Guignol. And it’s one of those songs/performances which refuses to be classified – it’s not blues, country, lounge or soul in any conventional sense but maybe there are elements of some of those genres.

Maybe that would have been a good place to stop but I have one more. Charlie didn’t quite fade away. There was the occasional semi-hit over the years. And in 1992 there was an album released which might just have been the best in his entire career. The album was Pictures And Paintings and it was ostensibly produced by the highly regarded rock writer Peter Guralnick. I say “ostensibly” because the man whose hand was mainly on the tiller was Scott Billington, producer for Rounder Records. One got the impression that on this album, Charlie had been given his head, maybe for the first time ever. What results is more jazz inclined than hitherto and it’s late night smoky stuff with Charlie’s piano strongly to the fore. Touches of country, blues and gospel also appear – Mr Rich’s tastes covered a wide spectrum as we’ve already noted. What is really astonishing is that at the age of 60 and after a life of ‘destructive personal behaviour” (according to Wikipedia) the Rich voice was in quite miraculous nick. We’d never heard him before in what was unarguably Sinatra’s patch but he just owned it!

For my last selection I’ve chosen the last track on what was to turn out to be Charlie’s last album. He was to die less than three years later of a blood clot in his lung. The track is Feel Like Goin’ Home and it’s gospel in flavour rather than swing. I’m borrowing the words used by Thom Jurek to describe this track in his review in AllMusic:

“Rich begins with a simple country gospel motif, which he builds upon with each passing verse as the band enters, first into the background and then into the body of the tune, with a Hammond B3 floating above it all. By the time the choir enters, the effect is devastating and the listener feels the crack in Rich’s voice and spirit, but the choir buoys him and adds the hope that makes grace possible. It goes out soaring with promise and possibility, summing up an astonishing and extremely complex journey through American music so thorough, so masterfully executed, it could have only been navigated by someone of Rich’s unparalleled abilities.”

That’s a good quote. Here are a few more:

“In 1973 there was no bigger country crossover star than Arkansas-born Charlie Rich whose hits included The Most Beautiful Girl, A Very Special Love Song and the Grammy Award winning Behind Closed Doors.” Rolling Stone (in a feature on “10 Country Artists You Won’t Believe Aren’t In The Hall Of Fame”)

“Bob Dylan has said more than once that Charlie Rich is one of his favorite musicians – as a songwriter and as a singer. Nik Cohn, in “Rock From the Beginning”, names Rich as one of the handful of men in the history of rock who’ve had real talent, along with Phil Spector, John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Eddie Cochran, and a few others. Perhaps you’d remember Mohair Sam from the sixties; perhaps not. His albums, those that are still in print, are not carried by “hip” record stores; ask for them and you’ll find yourself handed a stack of big band LPs by Buddy Rich.” Greil Marcus (from his Rolling Stone review of the single, Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs in 1969)

“The radio’s spitting out Charlie Rich … he sure can sing, that son of a bitch” Tom Waits

“Ultimately there was Charlie Rich. Rich was a Georgia cotton farmer and he was into his thirties, he had grey hair and a paunch. Still he wrote songs, played piano and sang, and he was the most beautiful and mellow sound in the world” Bill Millar (Record Mirror, August 1972)

“Charlie Rich, who died in Memphis on July 25, was the ultimate square peg in a round hole: a jazz pianist promoted as a rock ‘n’ roll singer, and then nightclub balladeer who topped the pop and country charts as a country singer. In between, and always, he was a drinker.” Charlie Gillett (Charlie Rich obituary, MOJO, September 1995)

 

Further Listening

Charlie’s oeuvre is so large and yet so relatively little known outside of the “countrypolitan” hits, that I felt that further recommendations were in order. En route to picking my Toppermost I’ve mentioned several extra tracks worthy of your attention. I’m listing those below plus a few more.

SUN
Stay – splendid early gospel informed ballad
It’s Too Late – the Rich version of the Chuck Willis/Buddy Holly soul ballad
Need Your Love
Don’t Put No Headstone On Your Grave
Break-up – just Charlie at piano, probably the demo

RCA
There Won’t Be Anymore – yet another marvellous Rich-penned soul ballad
Big Boss Man – Charlie’s rockers were often pretty good

SMASH
Mohair Sam – ignore my bias against novelty numbers, it’s great stuff
I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water – maybe his best bluesy rocker, really tough
Tears A Go-Go – title sounds about as trite as it could get, but it works
The Best Years – another great ballad, they keep coming
A Field Of Yellow Daisies – another Margaret Ann goodie

HI
Cold Cold Heart – I had to have one of the Hank covers
When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – almost as good as Sam & Dave

EPIC
Behind Closed Doorsand
The Most Beautiful Girl – they are masterfully done
The Proudest, Loneliest Fool – from Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy (film soundtrack), this is all about voice

ELEKTRA
Are We Dreamin’ The Same Dream – a Gary Stewart song, country pop but appealing

SIRE
Pictures And Paintings – a Dr John/Doc Pomus song with jazzy makeover
Go Ahead And Cry – Margaret Ann song and the latin backing is straight from the Atlantic label circa ’62 (and didn’t I use some phrase like that earlier?)
Mood Indigo – splendid reinvention of the Duke Ellington number

Let’s not mince words here, every track from Pictures And Paintings demands your attention. A fitting epitaph.

 

Charlie Rich (1932–1995)

 

The official Charlie Rich website

Charlie Rich discography

Charlie Rich on Sun Records

Charlie Rich, Jr’s website

Charlie Rich biography (iTunes)

The first three tracks on this toppermost can be found on the Charlie Rich: Complete Sun Masters 3CD set from Charly Records (2009).

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #535

10 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jul 12, 2016

    Dave, thanks for this superb list on a much underrated artist. Not only did he have one of the greatest voices ever (almost up there with Elvis in my opinion) but he was also amazingly versatile as an artist. He could do rock ‘n’ roll, country, country-soul, jazz – anything you can mention really. No matter what gentre he did, his work was almost always flawless. Thanks again…

    • Dave Stephens
      Jul 12, 2016

      Many thanks for your comments Andrew. I totally agree with the word “underrated” to describe Charlie and suspect that many people fail to appreciate him because of those oh-so-smooth countrypolitan hits. They know not what they’re missing.

  2. Glenn Smith
    Jul 12, 2016

    Great list and career overview, I first heard Lonely Weekends on a Sun compilation, a great track from that period. I might have slipped in A Woman Left Lonely which is one of his finest vocal performances, and my personal favourite from “Behind” the superb We Love Each Other. A vastly underrated talent, your list does him justice, great stuff.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jul 12, 2016

      Many thanks Glenn. Good to know there are a few who appreciate Charlie. There were loads more that could have made the list.

  3. James Fine
    Oct 11, 2016

    Got to meet him in 1991 backstage in Austin, Tx. I’ve been listening to him since I was eleven yrs old. And every time i play his cds I still hear things that I haven’t heard before. Memphis International is putting out a tribute album this month! Get a lump in my throat everytime I listen to ‘Feel like going home’. Great tribute you wrote.

    • Dave Stephens
      Oct 11, 2016

      Thank you James. I’m pleased I didn’t disappoint. The main purpose of the post was to open up the world of Charlie Rich to those who’d written him off as no more than a Nashville smoothie but at the same time I didn’t want the real fans to lose out.

  4. John Denton
    Dec 30, 2016

    Nice list, Dave. The one adjustment I may have made would be to flip Lonely Weekends in favour of the B-side Everything I do is Wrong. Both tracks are great but Weekends may have been better without those backing vocals. The single was a favourite in my collection but I always found myself playing Everything I do is Wrong which had a good arrangement, a nice feel and an excellent lyric… it isn’t hard to relate to the misfortunes he sings about.

    • Dave Stephens
      Dec 31, 2016

      I wouldn’t drop “Weekends” though agree that there might be a touch of overproduction present. Charlie evidently liked the flip himself because it cropped up again during the Smash era. Typical Rich lyrics but coupled with an almost jaunty sound.

  5. Nancy Sutherland
    Jun 26, 2018

    Just wanted to add a small detail to your beautifully written site here. The song Renee is written for/about his daughter Renee. I believe she was his first-born, and the words are so meaningful about her reaching adulthood and leaving home. It has the samba beat, I believe written for him by his wife Margaret Rich, and he sings it to Renee from his heart.

  6. Dave Stephens
    Jun 27, 2018

    Thank you for those very kind words, Nancy, and thank you even more for your words on the source of the song, Renée. Have just listened to it again and am kicking myself for not having paid proper attention to the lyrics. Margaret Rich was among the great writers of songs with a real personal touch and Charlie was the ultimate interpreter of such material.

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