Obituary: Charlie Rich

Click to follow
The Independent Online
After Elvis Presley moved from the Memphis Sun label to RCA, the legendary producer Sam Phillips, who had also been the first to record Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, said that Charlie Rich was going to be his new Elvis. But it never happened, even though his songs have been covered by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Van Morrison.

Though at the height of his career Rich had strong "cross-over" appeal, he was always something of an oddball in the very conservative country scene, and it was not surprising that he was never able to become a mainstream artist like so many other Sam Phillips discoveries.

Actually, it was Phillips's musical arranger, Bill Justis, who listened to the jazzy demo tapes of songs like "River Stay Way From My Door", which Rich's wife, Margaret Ann, was hawking round, and took the young man on as a session musician and arranger. When Jerry Lee Lewis could not handle the E-flat piano part on Rich's "I'll Make It All Up to You", Rich himself sat down at the keyboard and showed him how, and it is him at the piano you hear on the song, not the "Killer".

Rich's first instrument was actually tenor saxophone, and his first musical favourites were the big-band progressive jazz of Stan Kenton and the pianistics of Oscar Peterson, unusual influences for a country musician. It was jazz he played in the US Army Air Force while stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, in the mid-Fifties, and he always said that he learnt more about music there than anywhere else before or since, because he played with so many excellent musicians. By then his hair had already turned white - he was still in his early twenties - which gave him a memorable persona in the image-conscious world of country, where he was known for a time as "Silver Fox".

Rich was born into a Missionary Baptist family of amateur musicians in 1932 in the tiny village (population 312) of Colt, Arkansas, and picked cotton for a living before he started gigging. He had picked up sax in a high school band. After he came out of the USAAF, he picked cotton for a while again, before moving to Memphis to play at the local Sharecropper Club and getting the job with Sun.

His first individual pop success was "Lonely Weekends" for Phillips in 1960, but the follow-up, "You're Gonna Be Waitin' " flopped, and it was five years before he had his biggest-ever hit, "Mohair Sam", written by Dallas Frazier and issued by Mercury's Smash label.

Soon afterwards Rich fell into the hands of Billy Sherrill, who tried grooming him for the non-existent "countrypolitan" middle-of-the-road easy-listening country market, but nothing came of that until his "Behind Closed Doors" became his first country chart No 1, which also got to No 15 in the pop charts. In 1973 "The Most Beautiful Girl" topped both US charts and reached the UK top 10, bringing Grammy and Country Music Association awards to Rich, the latter for best male vocalist, best single, and best album. The following year the CMA named him Country Music Entertainer of the Year.

A year later he blotted his copybook by turning up drunk to present the CMA awards show, though he managed to have a string of minor hits in the following years, notably his duet with the country rocker Jane Fricke in "On My Knees", which was a No 1 in 1978.

Nothing he did thereafter equalled the bluesy promise of his earliest work for Sun and RCA, where he had a sympathetic producer in Chet Atkins, and his individualism stood out in a field where everyone talks about the rights of the individual, but conformism is the real name of the game. He is represented by a huge number of compilations from his various labels, the best of which is a two-album set of his Sun recordings on the UK Charly label.

Karl Dallas

Charlie Rich, musician, singer: born Colt, Arkansas 14 December 1932; died Hammond, Louisiana 25 July 1995.