Charlie Rich - Part one: The Early Years

First published in Country Music People, April 1980

Although he was having hits right at the start with Sun Records, it took Charlie Rich three decades and a succession of record labels until he finally broke through into the big time. Alan Cackett, in the first of a two-part feature, examines the career of this rockabilly cult figure.
Charlie Rich, a true stylist and individualist in country music, is not really a country artist at all. A polished stylist in both his singing and piano playing, he is one of those people that cannot be confined to one category. He has a lot of jazz and blues going on in his music, yet over the years he has shown that he is at home with country style songs like I Take It On Home, Behind Closed Doors and Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs.

This year Charlie makes his debut at the annual Wembley Festival and it will be interesting to see how the traditional, ‘behind-the-times’ British country fans take to the wide spectrum of music that Charlie is sure to lay on them.

Last December Charlie, along with his wife Margaret Ann and son Allan, spent a week in London waiting for the opportunity to record a TV special for the BBC. The striking television engineers ensured that the show was not made, but gave Charlie and his family the opportunity to get out and do a bit of sightseeing.

A large-built man, Charlie sat nervously in the comfortable chair with his full crop of silver hair dangling forward. He was sporting a neatly trimmed moustache, which gave him a more refined look. Chain smoking, he found it hard to relax and was constantly wandering around the luxuriously furnished hotel suite. With the help of Margaret Ann he traced his life. A life, which, for the most part, has been quite a contrast to the unreal, rich trappings of The Savoy.

He was looking forward to returning to Britain for the Wembley Festival, and seemed oblivious to the die-hard British country fan. “I’m very thankful to the British fans,” he explained. “They seem to accept my music just as it is, without tying labels and saying that I’m country, I feel that I can play all my music for the fans over here without having to contain myself to just the country things.”

Born in a tiny village called Colt, Arkansas, he was later raised and spent most of his younger days in nearby Forest City. It was the same region where Johnny Cash, Presley and Carl Perkins lived. And he followed almost the same course of destiny. The trail that led to a little back-street sound studio where owner Sam Phillips discovered and recorded the first several million selling records made by Cash, Presley and a Louisiana bayou wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis.

Charlie was a product of two contrasting types of music as a child: firstly country gospel from his strict, religious parents who sang with a Baptist Church quartet, second the bluesy sounds he learned from field hands and sharecroppers on the plantation where he picked cotton with his dad, He began piano lessons in the third grade and much to his folks’ disappointment took an avid interest in jazz. In his teens he formed a combo with classmates and played local dances. “I was an embarrassment to my mom and dad,” he said “I has been brought up to believe that dancing, r&b music and drinking were sinful. They had high hopes for me and were not happy with the direction I was taking.”

Charlie first met Margaret Ann in the seventh grade and they were going together from that point on. “I don’t think there was ever anybody else for either of us,” said Charlie, “and we just talked about the day when we’d get married.”

After high school Charlie studied music for one semester at the University of Arkansas and then quit when the the Korean War broke out to join the Air Force. During his basic training he and Margaret Ann were married. While in the service he put together a group called The Velvetones, whose music was basically rhythm and blues, which was at that time the dominating sound, and the group was good enough to get their own TV show.

“When I came out of the service in 1955 my uncle set me up farming in Arkansas again,” recalled Charlie, “I had done some writing but has not been happy with it. Margaret Ann liked music and she and I would try writing together. We didn’t have much money, but we were happy sharing our music. I used to sing in clubs, playing piano and singing jazz and blues songs. Before the children came along Margaret Ann also used to sing.”

“ I always felt he could do better,” Margaret Ann said, “So I pushed him along to Sun Records in Memphis, where he started as a songwriter and session musician.”
“I did pretty well on the farm,” Charlie explained. “But the next year things weren’t quite as good and the third year all it did was rain and that ruined us. My uncle and I decided there wasn’t a future for me in farming and I got the family together and we headed for Memphis where I was able to get jobs playing clubs.
“I played some sleazy places, but music was everything to me and I had to find out if I could make it,” Charlie explained. “Margaret Ann took some songs we wrote and a tape of me singing to Bill Justis at Sun. She really believed in me and wanted to see me make it. But Bill was not impressed—‘That type of stuff (jazz and blues) is too good,’” he said. “’It’ll never sell,’ He played her a Jerry Lee Lewis record and said, ‘When he learns to play that hard, I’ll set up an audition’.”

Maragret Ann, a pretty, dark-haired lady, smiled as the memories came flooding back. “Charlie had no idea what rock‘n’roll was. He was very much a jazz singer,” she recalled, “but he thought he could conform a little to what Bill Justis wanted, so we sat down and wrote some things and Charlie became a session pianist and songwriter for Sun Records.”

Charlie did not realise he had changed his style, but things were going right. He was a session pianist at Sun and under contract as a writer. Johnny Cash record his The Ways Of  A Woman In Love, and it became a number one country hit. Then Cash cut Thanks A Lot and I Just Thought You’d Like To Know, both of which did well. Jerry Lee Lewis, also recorded some of his songs including Break Up, which looked like shaping up into a big rock‘n’roll hit.

 “When Jerry Lee decided to release Break Up as a single, we thought this is it,” recalls Charlie. “He had just had a million-seller and we knew the follow-up would go places. But he married his 13-year-old cousin and that hit us like a ton of bricks. It killed the record, which was heading for number one in country and going to town on the pop charts. It hurt Jerry’s career for several years and didn’t exactly help me.”

Of all his discoveries, Sam Phillips of Sun Records is said to have stated that Charlie Rich alone had the potential to rival Presley. And yet, whether it was because he lacked drive or due to the very eclectic nature of his music, or perhaps simply because he has always attached a greater value to family and friends than to the more fleeting attractions of the record industry, his climb to commercial acceptance has been long and suffered several setbacks.

Charlie is a fine songwriter with a dramatic touch that has helped him to compose songs like Lonely Weekends, which he wrote in 1959 for Jerry Lee, who had become a close friend, but Bill Justis and the people at Sun decided that Charlie should record it himself.

“I wasn't too keen on the idea,” said Charlie. “I was satisfied with what I was doing and I had plenty of time for the family. But I did it. I guess it was something I had to try. The song way a hit and it started me travelling quite a bit.”

“I played one-night stands with pop stars at the time, but this only allowed me to sing Lonely Weekends and maybe two other songs,” he recalled ruefully. “I certainly wasn't progressing anywhere, so in the end I went back to playing clubs and bar-rooms.”

“I can remember when we travelled up to New York with Ray Scott to do a Dick Clark Show,” his face brightens up now, warming to the memory. “We walked into this little jazz club, it was somewhere around the Village Vanguard, and there was Mabel Mercer. I can’t really describe it, just her and a piano player, it was just fantastic. We stayed in that place until late, I don’t know, it must have been four in the morning.”

He then turns to his wife: “You remember, honey. I even got a record afterwards I wanted Margaret Ann to hear what it had been like, but it just wasn’t the same thing. I guess it was the atmosphere of that little club, whatever; I wonder if the place is still there, probably not...” Then he drifts off into the sweet memory.

The small clubs and bars were the ideal setting for Charlie Rich and his music. But they almost became responsible for his downfall. He enjoys playing for an audience that can appreciate his own brooding, jazz-tinged compositions. The intimate, close relationship between performer and artist.

“I found the road rough to take. That's where my trouble with the bottle started,” he explained. “The environment of the places I played was rough and I soon meshed with it. I discovered you can sing the blues a heck of a lot better with the right amount of gin in you than you can if you’re sober.”

Problems of not being able to follow up the success of Lonely Weekends and coming to terms with commercial trappings certainly didn’t help. The drinking carried over to home, causing havoc to his family life, until in 1960 Margaret Ann packed her things and the children’s and left home. His career had sunk to the bottom and this made him find more consolation in drinking.

When Margaret Ann left, Charlie was in for a rude awakening. His wife has always stood by him during the good and bad times. He was a lost soul without her, a man without an aim in life and nobody to guide him along the right track. “I was reduced to staying at a YMCA place,” he recalled. “It was one hell of a mess. I finally convinced Margaret Ann that the drinking was over and lucky for me, she has stood by me ever since, helping me to get this far in my career.”

When his contract with Sun ran out, Leonard Chess tried to sign him to Chess Records, the label that had r&b artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters under contract. There was even talk of him signing with Atlantic, at the time a leading ‘Black’ label, but Charlie had slipped, and he signed with the smaller Groove Records, which was distributed by RCA.

His standing in music began to rise again. His life was now straightening out and he was recording in Nashville, where he cut Sittin’ And Thinkin’, a strictly country hit. The session was a turning point in his career, as he’s never recorded anywhere but in Nashville since then. A sad, personal statement, disguised as a bar-room ballad, Sittin’ And Thinkin’ pointed the direction that Charlie was eventually to take with his major hits of the 1970s.

At the time, though, he was still hedging his bets, hanging on to his blues roots, flirting with his love of jazz and adding a country feel to keep his new-found fans satisfied. It was not an altogether successful compromise, yet he came up with some great recordings that were sadly ignored by the record-buying public.

In 1963 Groove was absorbed into RCA and Charlie came under the direction of Chet Atkins. This should have been a most successful association, but throughout the next three years that major hit eluded them. Judging by the success of some of these RCA recordings some eight or nine years later, it could be argued that Charlie was little ahead of his time.

“I really enjoyed working with Chet in the studio,” recalled Charlie. “I never understood why none of the records happened. Maybe we tried too hard. I feel that we came up with some good things, but they just never took off.”

It was at this time that Charlie was writing some really great songs. He was obviously striving for success and songs like The Grass Is Always Greener, I Need A Thing Called Love and There Won’t Be Anymore are classy, mature ballads that deserved more recognition at the time. She Loved Everybody But Me and The Ways Of A Woman In Love both feature Rich’s best Presley-esque vocals and a stomping rockabilly piano coupled with the Jordanaires back-up chorus. Tomorrow Night, a beautifully mellow song with Anita Kerr’s delicate arrangement allowing Rich’s vocal and piano freedom to blossom is also a track to listen out for.

Most of these RCA recordings come across vibrantly fresh and personal, tinged with a jazzy enthusiasm that belies his country roots. Alongside his own songs, he recorded many standard pop songs like I’ve Got You Under My Skin, The Twelfth Of Never and Ol’ Man River, plus a few more ‘country-oriented’ tunes, including She Called Me Baby, Freddie Hart’s Too Many Teardrops and Gentleman Jim, a sensitive tribute to Jim Reeves.

A lack of success meant yet another label change, this time to Smash, a subsidiary of Mercury, with producer Jerry Kennedy and a return to rock’n’roll.
A substantial hit came Charlie's way with Dallas Frazier’s Mohair Sam, and for a couple of years he recorded some strong material, mostly in the hard rock vein and years ahead of its time.

“Jerry Kennedy came up with the goods,” Charlie said, “but again it was only a solitary hit, and it’s a struggle when you’re working on the basis of one song.
“I did a version of Joe Babcock’s I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water that I was very proud of, but it was put on the flip side of Mohair Sam and got lost,” continued Charlie. “A couple of years later Johnny Rivers came out with that song, a copy of my arrangement, and sold over a million copies.”

Whilst with Smash, Charlie released two albums, THE MANY NEW SIDES OF CHARLIE RICH in 1965 and THE BEST YEARS, the following year. Once again his talent as a songwriter is displayed in abundance with songs like Everything I Do Is Wrong, Just A Little Bit Of Time and No Home, the latter featuring a superb arrangement by Ray Stevens. But it was the songs of Margaret Ann that really stand out, A beautiful early version of A Field Of Yellow Daisies, a reflective The Best Years and the sensitive Something Just Came Over Me.

Unable to capitalise in a big way on the success of Mohair Sam, once again Charlie found himself without a record deal, so he again returned to the clubs of Memphis. He signed with the Hi label in Memphis and released the album CHARLIE RICH SINGS COUNTRY AND WESTERN. It was a record more in the Ray Charles’ blues style with big band arrangements and the occasional opportunity for Charlie’s distinctive piano styling coming to the fore.

The songs were either written by Hank Williams or made famous by him. It was a disaster sales-wise and Charlie’s career had hit yet another slump. “I just didn't know what to do next,” Charlie said. “It looked like I was destined to work the bars for the rest of my life. Though it gave me the freedom to sing and play what I most enjoyed, it hardly gave me a good living and there certainly wasn’t any security.”

Continued in May issue.