[10 May 2007]
Charlie Rich was a complex man who made the process of writing and playing music look simple. He learned piano from C.J. Allen, a black tenant farmer, and was entranced by both the aching songs he heard from the workers in the fields and also the black gospel music that shook the nearby churches. Those seeds remained at the creative core of his career, found in his jazz- tinged piano playing and soulful singing, and Rich always displayed an elegance and residue of spirituality in his rock n’ roll, his country, and his blues.
Despite countless hits and a career spanning several decades, it has been said that personal demons afflicted Charlie Rich and that his self-medication was an obstacle to success. From what I’ve read of the music industry in Nashville at that time, more likely most executives didn’t have a clue how best to market the sophisticated work of this shy, handsome man, who had more than a hint of Elvis about him, but who was also prematurely grey and had a wife and children. Given that this collection is apparently not available through any of the big online sellers, and not even mentioned on the Legacy website, maybe nothing much has changed.
Disc 1 kicks off with a batch of songs recorded at Sun Studios, a physically humble location from which emerged a truly sumptuous sound under the rocking auspices of Sam Phillips. The track “There’s Another Place That I Can’t Go” in particular shows how to use economy to brilliant effect. Various Rich songs were covered by other artists, not least Bobby “Blue” Bland. After that we are off to Nashville and the Chet Atkins’ produced “Let Me Go My Merry Way”, which in a blindfolded listening test might easily be the great Charles Brown.
There have been hordes of pale imitators who have diluted music for popular consumption. It would, though, be foolish to suggest that Dusty Springfield or Eric Burdon couldn’t sing soul, or that the Mussel Shoals rhythm section didn’t feel the beat down to their bones. Overlooking the puzzling songwriting credit of “The Milky White Way” to C. Rich/B. Sherrill, as a practitioner of music that he genuinely loved, Charlie Rich deserves similar esteem, whatever the color of his skin. He is best known as a sophisticated country star, but his sophistication is a million miles from the unpalatably bland, over-produced, pop-jerky that we are expected to believe is country music today. Instead, it lies in his ability to remain convincing across several musical styles.
Like many artists whose careers were already in motion, the 1960s wasn’t particularly kind to Rich. ”Mohair Sam” from 1965 just feels uncomfortable, and “A Field of Yellow Daisies”, written by wife Margaret Ann that same year, sure is flowery. Included here are several late-‘60s songs with a vaguely Western feel; as in relaxed cowboys, though not as relaxed or deranged as in the very amusing cartoons of Glen Baxter. Sometime around 1972, a heightened realization that Rich’s voice was perhaps becoming best suited to ballads emerges and the hits returned. One of my favorites songs from that period is “Peace on You”, an oddity that starts out as a song of revenge in which a woman is banished for eternity without hope of even forgiveness by God, then seems to morph into a sing-along wish for peace for all. Except that when Rich sings “Peace in the valley / Peace in the sea / Peace to all the little children and me / And Peace on you”, the sly humor is there for those who want to hear it. Silver Fox, indeed. Roger McGuinn liked the song enough to make it the title track of his 1974 album. Other winners are “You Never Really Wanted Me”, surviving the inclusion of strings thanks to the apparent sincerity in Rich’s voice, and Penn & Oldham’s cautionary tale “A Woman Left Lonely”.
What follows is the masterpiece, “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, quite possibly the best song Charlie Rich ever recorded. This song ranks with Ewan MacColl’s ode to Peggy Seeger, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, as one of the most affectingly simple tributes ever to pass between two people in public. This is an autobiographical depiction of a period of Rich’s stalled career, written by his wife. Margaret Ann literally puts words in his mouth; his frustration and sadness (at not being able to provide dresses and other nice things for her); her steadfast love for him and his pride in her ability to stay positive, understanding, loving, and happy. “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” pays witness to the plain truth that there is nothing more romantic than sticking together through dirty laundry, struggle, and the doing without. “Behind Closed Doors” adds a hint of spice to the same theme of personal appreciation.
Charlie Rich sounds like he was a nice guy, but he obviously knew bullshit when it came strumming and grinning. One incident is illustrated in one of several cartoons of Harvey Pekar’s fine writing about music legends. In 1975, Rich was asked to deliver the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award. When the time came to read the winner’s name, one John Denver, Rich just smiled and used his cigarette lighter to set fire to the envelope. Even that simple act confused people, with the Nashville hierarchy feeling disrespected, and others believing Rich was passing editorial comment on Denver’s contribution to country music. Hey, if the shoe fits…
Coming almost full circle in terms of recording, Memphis was his last port of call, and two songs from his final album Pictures and Paintings, are included here, with jazz and blues influences to the fore. After succumbing to a blood clot in Hammond, Louisiana, on July 25, 1995, Charlie Rich was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis. No matter which style he played, as Tom Waits once sang, “The radio’s spitting out Charlie Rich…He sure can sing, that son of a bitch”.