Remembered as one of their own by the country music fraternity, Charlie Rich had his roots in both jazz and rock ‘n’ roll but failed to make a consistent commercial breakthrough with either genre. Charlie died today in 1995.
Charlie Rich passed away suddenly at the age of 62, found dead by his wife in a Louisiana motel where the pair were staying en route to see their son perform in Florida. A coroner’s report later confirmed he had suffered a blood clot in his lung.
Growing up in rural Arkansas as part of a musical family, Charlie’s first instrument was the tenor sax and he graduated towards playing jazz during his time in the US Air Force. Prematurely grey-haired by his early 20s gave Rich a nickname of “The Silver Fox” and a job as a session musican with Judd Records in Memphis, after his wife encouraged him to record a demo and hawked it round for him.
Judd Records was owned by Judd Phillips and his brother Sam would later utilise Rich as both a session musician and songwriter for artists on his roster including Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
Signing Rich to his Phillips International label (although he did release one single on the Sun label – an instrumental under the pseudonym of Bobby Sheridan), “Lonely Weekends” cracked the top 30 in 1960, but attempts at a follow-up hit failed miserably and he split from Phillips after disagreements over his musical direction.
Moving on to RCA’s R’n’B imprint Groove, a more varied output came with producer Chet Atkins at the controls and a minor hit with “Big Boss Man”. Fleeting success then came with Smash Records and a chart entry for “Mohair Sam” but album sales failed to materialise and another label shift brought him to Epic Records.
Producer Billy Sherrill encouraged him towards a more sedate country/pop crossover style (christened ‘Countrypolitan’ in some quarters) and that shift belatedly bore fruit with “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” becoming massive hits in the early 1970s and bringing both mainstream acceptance and Grammy recognition.
Rich however would suffered something of a “Ratners” moment in 1975, when an ill-judged public comment brought him into conflict with industry figures. Winning the Entertainer of the Year Award at the 1974 Country Music Association shindig, Charlie was invited back to announce his successor but upon opening the envelope and announcing John Denver, he promptly set fire to it with his lighter.
The circumstances of the incident and Charlie’s thinking were never satisfactorily explained, although he was by his own admission somewhat tired and emotional. Blackballed by the CMA though, his record sales weren’t affected in the long-term and he would register country singles chart toppers in both 1977 and 1978.