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

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…

 

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