Archive for April 2016

Charlie Rich – The Stunning Versatility of An Underrated Sun Studios Legend

April 24, 2016

By Bill Oakey – April 24, 2016

What style would you use to describe the 1950’s – 1970’s singer, Charlie Rich? Well, with any number of potential lists, the correct answer would be “all of the above.” Take your choice between rock, rhythm and blues, jazz, pop and country. It’s been over 40 years since the “Silver Fox” achieved huge national acclaim for his 1973 number one hits, “Behind Closed Doors,” and “The Most Beautiful Girl.” But a sampling of the album containing those songs does not begin to tell the story of Charlie Rich’s legacy. For that we would need to pay a visit to Sam Phillips’ Sun Recording Company at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis in 1958.

Sun Record Company

We all remember the “Million Dollar Quartet,” comprised of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. But the Sun Studios gave birth to other famous artists, such as Roy Orbison, Bill Justis and Charlie Rich. In the case of Charlie Rich, all of his issued vocal sides were released on Sam Phillips’ “Phillips” record label. His one big hit from this period was “Lonely Weekends,” which made the top 30 pop charts in 1960. This song has achieved “oldies radio” status and can still be heard on the air today.

Lonely weekends

What you’re about to discover is the remarkable talents of a lyricist and pianist, as well as a singer. Inspired by jazz orchestra leader, Stan Kenton, Charlie started out playing jazz and blues in an early 50’s group called the Velvetones, backing his then-fiancée, Margaret Ann on lead vocals. Once he set foot in a recording studio, unlimited possibilities opened up. It’s fun to explore the various roots and branches of Rich’s musical archives and sample the incredible breadth of styles. Let’s start with his unissued rendition of “Break-Up,” which reminds us of Jerry Lee Lewis. Yes, Lewis is the one who charted with the song. But it was Charlie Rich who wrote it and he too who hammered out the infectious rock and roll piano on his own version. I actually like it better than the Lewis rendition. Another early Rich foray into rockabilly is “Donna Lee.”

1960 picture

Charlie Rich in 1960

For a journey over to the rhythm and blues side of Charlie Rich, there is no better example than the self-penned killer ballad, “Who Will the Next Fool Be,” from 1961. If you are not familiar with the tune, check it and out and see if it doesn’t grab you and then grow with each new listening. Then savor the horn arrangement in Bobby Bland’s version. Just one short year later, in 1962, Charlie wrote and recorded, “Sittin’ and Thinkin,'” a fine country love song, dressed up in a pop arrangement. In my opinion, he “owns” the best vocal version, despite the later releases by Bobby Bare and Ray Price.

Before we get too far afield on Rich’s evolving variety of genres, it’s important to note that he was a jazz pianist at heart. In fact, Sam Phillips originally turned down his application for work at Sun, branding his demos as “too jazzy” and “too elegant.” Only one of Rich’s jazz piano instrumental singles slipped through and got released, that being “Sad News” backed with “Red Man” issued on Sun in 1960 under the alias, Bobby Sheridan. Things didn’t click into place until Sun musical director, Bill Justis, who had discovered Rich at the Sharecropper Club in Memphis, offered him a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records to learn from.

CharlieRich_Studio

Charlie Rich In the Recording Studio

It’s worth taking a brief time out to mention the significant influence of Bill Justis, not only on Charlie rich, but on the music field in general. Justis reached number one and two on the Billboard R&B and Pop charts in 1957 with the instrumental, “Raunchy.” It was the note-perfect performance of “Raunchy” by 14-year-old George Harrison in 1958 that prompted John Lennon to invite him to join himself and Paul McCartney in their band called the Quarrymen. Bill Justis also co-wrote “Cattywampus,” which became a wonderful 1962 instrumental hit, retitled “Tuff,” for Ace Cannon. If not overtly, then certainly the underpinnings of jazz can be felt on all of these records.

Raunchy

Now it’s time for a casual and entertaining romp through the years with some Charlie Rich numbers that you might not have heard before, along with several of his hits. You can decide which genre they belong to if you wish. But I prefer to just call it good, fun music. I recommend reading through the list before playing the songs. You might find some surprises.

  1. “Midnite Blues” – Phillips Records, 1962
  2. “Big Boss Man” – Groove Records (RCA subsidiary), 1963. Cover of Jimmy Reed’s 1960 R&B hit. Also recorded by Elvis Presley in 1967
  3. “There’s Another Place I Can’t Go” – Phillips Records, 1963
  4. “Mohair Sam” – Smash Records, 1965, Dallas Frazier composition, peaked at #21 on Billboard Hot 100. Also, a favorite played by Elvis Presley and the Beatles at their only meeting in August 1965
  5. “Man About Town” – Smash Records, originally unissued sequel to “Mohair Sam”
  6. “Only Me” – Hi Records, 1967
  7. “Down and Out” – Smash Records, 1965
  8. “I Almost Lost My Mind” – Epic Records, 1969. #1 R&B hit written and recorded by Ivory Joe Hunter, 1950. Also a #1 pop hit for Pat Boone in 1956, and a beautiful album cut for Barbara Mandrell in 1971
  9. “A Woman Left Lonely” – Epic Records, 1971. A Dan Penn composition first recorded by Janis Joplin for the “Pearl” album, 1971. Also recorded by Irma Thomas, 1979
  10. “On My Knees” – Phillips Records, 1960. Re-recorded as a duet with Janie Fricke, #1 country song, 1978. Plus a mysterious duet with familiar-sounding voice not credited
  11. “Pictures and Paintings” – Sire Records (Warner Brothers), 1992. Title song from his last album, a critically acclaimed set, taking him back to his roots in jazz and blues

The style that Charlie Rich is most remembered for is the “Nashville sound” or “Countrypolitan,” a soft brand of country pioneered by producers Chet Atkins and Billy Sherrill. This 1970’s period stands out because it brought Charlie multiple Grammy awards and his biggest commercial success. But we could argue that it does not represent his most interesting or most innovative work. Upon Rich’s death in 1995, L.A. Times music critic, Robert Hilburn, observed that he was “shy and insecure” and that he “never felt comfortable in the spotlight.” We can all be thankful that he unleashed his inner thoughts and feelings through his songwriting and in the studio. Charlie’s magical treasure trove of versatile recordings is a hallmark of what many call the “golden age of popular music.” And until one of our future generations pulls off a successful revival, a Charlie Rich title from December 1973 says it best…“There Won’t Be Anymore.”

Further Reading and References

  1. Extensive Sun / Phillips International discography – Contains many unissued titles
  2. Charlie Rich LP discography
  3. Bear Family Records Listing
  4. Oldies.com CD page with album track listings
  5. Official Charlie Rich Website
  6. WCNS Radio, Latrobe, PA – Fabulous Charlie Rich biography
  7. BlackCat Rockabilly Page
  8. “Charlie Rich (1932-1995): The Smash Hits That Never Were” – Online article from “Elsewhere,” (New Zealand) Jan.09, 2012
  9. Biography on AllMusic.com
  10. L.A. Times article on the death of Charlie Rich – July 26, 1995
  11. News article on Charlie’s wife, songwriter Margaret Ann Rich – Thecliffedge.com, July 23, 2010

For Collectors Only

If you could manage to get your hands on a copy of the 1973 album, “Behind Closed Doors” in the U.S. quadraphonic version, you would have something valuable on your hands. It was issued by Epic Records in March 1974 as Catalog # EQ-32247. I have not even been able to find a picture of the cover online. It is often confused with the European edition, shown here.  Good luck…

 

Personal Memories Of Merle Haggard – “Silver Wings” And Other Things

April 7, 2016

By Bill Oakey – April 7, 2016

After growing up as a rock and roll “child of the 60’s,” I suddenly found myself at a crossroads in 1969. The guitar sound in popular songs had morphed into a screeching, wailing siren. Whole sides of albums were devoted to single, stretched-out jam sessions of head-banging noise that I simply couldn’t relate to. Then I walked into my college dorm room on the first day of the school year. “Who is this roommate that they stick me with?” I wondered. “And what is that cowboy hat doing on the shelf?”

By the time I went home that Christmas to visit my family, they must have thought I had gone crazy. Merle Haggard had become one of my favorite singers. It may have started with the novelty of “Okie From Muskogee.” Even the few long-haired “hippie” students on our conservative campus loved it because they thought it was hilariously funny. Later I learned that Capitol Records tried to pigeonhole him as a strident “anti-hippie” conservative evangelist. Fortunately, he backed away after two more similar-themed singles, even publicly denouncing cultural divisiveness. His next direction sealed his legacy as one of the greatest voices in country music. If somebody had told me back then that I would later wind up on his bus chatting with him, I’m not sure I would have believed it.

It was in the dance halls of Central Texas that I got hooked on the mixture of cold beer and good country music. The Bob Wills style of Texas swing was all over the place, but the next best thing on the jukebox or the bandstand was anything by Merle Haggard. In those early days of the late 60’s and early 70’s, two slow numbers by Haggard absolutely had to be played – “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings.” There were plenty of toe-tappers too, like “Mama Tried” and “Swinging Doors.” A few of my best honky-tonk buddies got used to the idea that any conversation we had was subject to periodic interruptions. If a Merle Haggard song came on the jukebox, I would pull back my chair and stand up briefly to acknowledge him.

His music catalog reaches across decades of country music history, as he released fabulous tribute albums to the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. And his song covers of classics by Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb and the pen of Bill Anderson will stand forever. Then of course, his own body of original music ranks at the top of the list for any serious traditional country music fan. Over the span of his career, Haggard racked up 38 number one country singles. Ensuring the endurance of his musical stature and influence is the wide-ranging spectrum of styles in his repertoire, including western swing, country, folk, gospel, blues, jazz, and even hints of rock.

His first album, released in 1965. The title song, "Strangers," written by Bill Anderson, inspired the name of Haggard's band.

His first album, “Strangers,” released in 1965. The title song, written by Bill Anderson, inspired the name of Haggard’s band.

Heck, even many of the album cuts he did that never became famous will easily pull you in. Check out “Montego Bay.” Or, how about this whale of a version of a lesser-known Bob Wills song, “Stingeree.” (misspelled on the record). When the horns start swinging in the knockout arrangements of a Merle Haggard tune, it’s just not easy to sit still. And by golly, who says that you have to? But if you find yourself without a dance partner and want to pretend you’re sitting in a famous New Orleans Bourbon Street nightclub, just take a trip there with Haggard’s live album, “I Love Dixie Blues.”

So, how was it that I wound up chatting with Merle on his tour bus? Well, to make a long story short, I went from being a subscriber to several country music magazines in the mid 1970’s to becoming a feature writer and record reviewer. Like any other pursuit, I had to get my feet wet first. Eventually, my interview request for Merle Haggard was granted. I met him backstage in Houston around 1980 and made it through without any major stumbles.

Once back home in Austin, I had just about finished the article. But before I mailed it in to the magazine, I went to the Austin City Limits studios on 26th Street (now Dean Keaton) to see a live Merle Haggard taping. After showing my guest pass, I walked over to the elevator and got a huge surprise. When the doors opened, the only person standing there was Merle Haggard. He greeted me by asking, “Did you get all of your questions answered in Houston, or would you like to talk some more later tonight?”

I didn’t try to write down any ideas while the show was going on. Instead I decided to just make it a conversation between two music collectors, discussing their favorite passion. He started off by telling me what it was like to be in the studio for Bob Wills’ last recording session before he died. That’s when I found out how a big star describes being a fan of another big star who came before him. Then he brought up the song called “Leonard” from his then-current album. Leonard Sipes recorded under the name Tommy Collins, and Merle’s song was a tribute to him, as the pioneer of the “Bakersfield sound.” That style took off big time in the mid 60’s, first with Buck Owens and later by Merle Haggard. In the heartfelt tribute song, Merle describes how Leonard “taught me how to write a country song” and “he even brought around a bag of groceries, back before Muskogee came along.”

To wrap up the interview, I had just one final question and I wasn’t quite sure how he might react. I asked him if he had a “wish list” of hard-to-find favorite old records. And could we perhaps swap a few of those record titles and scoop them up to send to each other if we found them? He rattled off his short list without hesitation. Those titles as well as mine have escaped my memory. And neither of us found those rare, elusive gems. But it’s still fun to thank about that long ago conversation between two music collectors.

RIP

Further Reading and References

  1. “My House of Memories” – His second autobiography, from 1999, following his earlier and now out-of-print “Sing Me Back Home” (1981)
  2. Official Merle Haggard Website
  3. CMT – Includes links to music videos, interviews, news items, etc.
  4. Album Discography (not including box sets) with full track listings
  5. AllMusic.com– Includes bio and extensive song listing with composer credits
  6. Billboard – Chronological list of 38 number one country hits
  7. iTunes
  8. Amazon.com
  9. Wikipedia