Ted Grimsrud—February 20, 2019
As I sit here trying to think about what to write about today, I happen to be listening to Charlie Rich’s 16 Greatest Hits. Since I am not sure how well known Rich is today, I thought maybe I could write a brief tribute.
Obscure but talented
I’m pretty sure the first awareness I had of the singer who I now consider to be in the upper echelon not only of country singers but of all popular music singers was in the mid-1960s when I noticed his song “Mohair Sam” on the radio. It wasn’t a big hit (I have learned that it only made it to #21 on the Billboard pop charts), but it was catchy enough that I remembered it as an 11-year-old. But I didn’t remember that Charlie Rich was the singer; I only learned that a few years ago.
It turns out that Rich was fairly obscure for much of his career. He began recording with Sun Records shortly after the peak years for that label when they featured incredible talents such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. I think Rich actually was in the same league, talent-wise, but for many years none of the several labels he recorded for could figure out how to get him the attention he deserved.
His first song to make the Billboard charts was “Lonely Weekends” in 1960.
His wife Margaret was also a music person, and she wrote some excellent songs for him, including “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs.”
Making it big (briefly)
Finally, in the early 1970s, for a brief time, Rich realized his dreams (though, it appears that he also learned that getting what one wants is not always a guarantee of happiness and contentment). His two biggest hits came back to back in 1973, “Behind Closed Doors” (country #1 and pop #15) and “The Most Beautiful Girl” (#1 on both the country and pop charts).
Rich continued to be popular throughout the rest of the 1970s. His last number one country song came in 1978 (“On My Knees”). But by 1981, the hits had dried up and he took a long break. Finally, in 1992 he came out with a new album, “Pictures and Paintings.” It got great reviews but did not sell very well. Then, in 1995, at the age of 62, Charlie Rich died of a blood clot in his lungs.
Since that time, Rich has been recognized as a great singer who produced high quality music of varying styles for over 30 years. But I have the impression that he is not thought of that often. He definitely is not considered in the same league as contemporaries of his such as George Jones, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard. Party this is because his music was never the hard country of those other artists. Rich sang rock and roll, blues, jazz, gospel, and mellow (as opposed to hard) country.
Going out with a bang
I started paying attention to Rich after noticing lyrics praising his singing ability in songs by Tom Waits (in the song “Putnam Country,” Tom states, “The radio spits out Charlie Rich,… that sonofabitch can sure sing”), and Eric Taylor. Then I read the review of his final record in All-Music Guide. The reviewer concludes: The final song, “Feel Like Going Home,” … “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. To record an album of diverse and difficult material is one achievement, to make that material accessible to a wide range of listeners is yet another.Rich succeeded on both counts, and given that his life ended after this session, that final track is all the more powerful, eerie, and profound. On Pictures and Paintings, Charlie Richsaved the very best, his magnum opus, for last, and we are all the richer for it. For fans, this is essential; for the beginner, this is as fine an introduction as there is.”
After reading this review, I tracked down the record, listened closely, and became a Charlie Rich fan. Over the years since then, I have procured most of the rest of Rich’s recordings and have found them allto be excellent. The big hits of the 1970s certainly remain a highlight, but the earlier recordings in all their diversity and complexity are all worthy of close attention. After the hits ran out in the late 1970s, Rich continued recording a few more years. These several records are very difficult to find—and probably not worth the effort.
Then, that final record, Pictures and Paintings. It’s certainly not a country record. It doesn’t fit in any particular genre. He sings big band jazz (“Mood Indigo”), gospel (“Feel Like Going Home”), a couple of older county songs sung very uncountry-like (“You Don’t Know Me” and “Every Time You Touch Me [I Get High]”), a classic blues song (“Am I Blue”), and others of equal quality and distinctiveness. This music is timeless—it’s still fresh and unique 25 years later.
[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]