Charlie Rich – Part Two: Behind Closed Doors Opened Up Fame

In the second of a two-part feature on the career of CHARLIE RICH, CMP feature writer ALAN CACKETT examines the hit-making association with producer Billy Sherrill—and brings the story up to date with Rich’s UA recordings.
The art of the popular singer has been much demeaned in this country where image has been paramount, and succinct original interpretation of lyric and melody kept to a minimum, usually through lack of ability. Music fans in Britain have been anaesthetised to the popular singer by an excess of Englebert, Ken Dodd, Des O’Connor and the like, plus that wasteland of vacuous Radio 2 talent.

In America the popular song and the popular singer still thrives. Though broadly remaining the preserve of Middle America, the popular singer reaches a wider audience because of his reliance on a good interpretative voice working on a substantial lyric and decent melody.

The last twelve years have seen Charlie Rich change from a blues-based rock’n’roller into a popular singer. Many of his long-time fans might be displeased with the transition, but Charlie is well-pleased with the way things have developed, and grateful to Billy Sherrill, his producer for ten years, for enabling it to happen.
“I owe a lot to Billy,” he admits. “He picked me up when it seemed my career was all washed up and put me on the right road. It didn’t happen over-night, and at times we thought it wouldn’t happen at all, but we sure got there in the end.”

Billy Sherrill signed Charlie to Epic Records at the end of 1967, a somewhat disastrous year for Charlie. He had been dropped by Mercury and recorded a dismal album for the Memphis-based Hi Records.

Set Me Free, his first single for the new label, set things in motion, reaching the lower rungs of the country charts. A bluesy country song given a fine reading by Charlie, this featured a full, yet sympathetic production by Sherrill. He had worked with Charlie back in the 1950s on the Sun label. Then he had been an engineer on recordings by Rich, Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash, learning all about the techniques of record production. He went on to become, most probably, the best-known and most successful producer in country music.

He fully understood Charlie’s musical abilities, and backing them up with the right techniques was able to mould and develop him into one of best more successful country-styled vocalists of the 1970s. The grooming of the singer was a slow building process with country chart successes being hard won. Utilising some fine songs, good arrangements and the best white soul voice in the music business, Billy Sherrill proved that his faith in Charlie’s potential was well-founded.

“I never considered myself to sing country songs, but the public did,” explains Charlie. “My stuff has always been basically rhythm and blues, which for some reason comes out with a country style. I find I can associate with a country song because most of the time it is all about ordinary people.”

Charlie is in every sense the first country music reticent genius. He is the wrong colour to be singing the blues, and no one is playing jazz on the radio any more. But there is still a deep-rooted commitment to the material he records, the same remarkable expressiveness and ability to stamp a song indelibly as his own.

Singles releases like July 12, 1939, I Do My Swingin’ At Home, A Part Of Your Life, A Women Left Lonely and Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs, laid the important groundwork for Charlie to become an established country star.

It might even be true to say that some of the records Charlie put out between 1968 and 1972 were the best of his long career. Margaret Ann wrote Life’s Little Ups And Downs, a brilliant vignette of working-class family life, Kenny O’Dell came up with I Take It On Home, a classy country tune that set the formula for Behind Closed Doors, and then there was the definitive A Women Left Lonely, a superb soul song that Charlie gave everything to.

Charlie is very modest about his success and heaps praise on those around him like Bill Justis, a man who has worked in the studio alongside the broad, beefy-faced singer since those early days in the Sun Studios.

“Bill Justis is one of the people who has always believed in me,” declares Charlie. “We worked together in Memphis when I was with Sun and good old Bill is around, doing string arrangements and offering advice from his years of studio experience.”

1973 was the year when it all happened for Charlie. Behind Closed Doors soared to the top of the country charts, scored on the pop charts and went on to become the country song of the year and led to Charlie being named Entertainer Of The Year. This solid jolt of success blew the bars of the cell which had kept Charlie restrained and unappreciated for so long.

“The Success of Behind Closed Doors certainly changed things for me,” says Rich “It took me out of the bar-rooms to the larger supper clubs and concert halls and gave me a belief in my music that I sometimes had lacked.”

For the first time in his career Charlie succeeded in following up a big hit single with another, then another and so on. The Most Beautiful Girl was the next record that went to the top of the charts and also established him on this side of the Atlantic. His old labels wasted no time, with RCA raiding their vaults, and after gaining a chart placing for Tomorrow Night they boosted There Won’t Be Anymore, a track Charlie recorded in 1964, to the number one position on the country charts in January 1974.
There’s little doubt that between 1973 and 1975 Charlie Rich was the most popular artist in country music. He topped the country charts another four times in 1974 with A Very Special Love Song, I Love My Friend, I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore and She Called Me Baby. The latter two were put out by RCA and were recorded in 1964. Mercury were not to be out-done, and they successfully placed A Field Of Yellow Daisies and Something Just Came Over Me on the charts.

“Some of those recordings I did RCA and Mercury were really good,” explains Charlie. “Eventually they made the charts, which proved that they were good. Maybe back then I was ahead of the time. I just don't know, but I am happy that the people finally discovered them. Yes, I’m pleased with the way some of that stuff turned out.”

The BEHIND CLOSED DOORS album turned out to be a classic. Featured was a smooth blend of countrypolitan flavoured ballads, as well as You Never Really Wanted Me, written by his son Allan, and Margaret Ann’s Nothing In The World (To Do With Me). A stand-out on the set was Charlie’s self penned Peace On You, striking, gospel-based composition with a beautiful chorus and beat that gets you hooked after just a couple of plays.

Sherrill and Rich had stumbled across a wining formula and for the next five years they ploughed the same field over and over again, until eventually the crops just failed to flower. The general tenor of Charlie’s albums was under-statement and subtlety. The raw power of the early Rich and his driving piano was subdued, tamed and the rough edges smoothed out with elaborate string arrangements.

Slowly the standard pop-country songs took over and Sherrill began to dominate each album more completely, over powering Rich’s voice—no easy matter—ith strings, choruses and a flaccid beat. Charlie began to sound completely debilitated, and the arrangements were reminiscent of supermarket Muzak.

Songs like All Over Me, Rendezvous, Spanish Eyes, and Where Do We Go From Here, though pleasant enough, hardly drew the best response from Charlie's vocal ability. When he did come across a song that offered a challenge he was in a league by himself. Since I Fell For You, a ballad admirably suited to his talents, is a good example. With the arrangement in check—the chorus and strings serve only to focus attention on his voice and stylised piano—he sings with the grace and caution the lyrics demand.

Troy Seals’ reflective Pieces Of My Life also turned out to be a tailor made song for Charlie, though the strings almost drowned his voice into a sea of velvet, but the highlight of his recordings with Sherill came with last Epic album, ROLLIN’ WITH THE FLOW. The title song, a mid-tempo tune with a touch of drama that enhances lyrics that could almost have been autobiographical, took Charlie back to the top of the country charts following a barren eighteen-month period.

The rest of the album was also of quite a high standard with Charlie turning out a fine bluesy version of Tony Joe White’s That’s The Way A Cowboy Rocks And Rolls, a jazzy feel to Night Talk and that dramatic feel of Charlie’'s coming through on Somewhere In My Lifetime and Love Survived.

Through toward the end of their relationship in the studios there had been problems. Charlie was reluctant to criticise Billy Sherrill. “I think you can say that we had gone as far as we could. Billy worked hard on my recordings, but we were not progressing anywhere, It was a good thing when it started, but I guess working together for ten years, it just got stale.”

In 1978 Charlie signed with United Artists and came under the direction of Larry Butler, a protege of Sherrill, and a man who had worked previously with Charlie, both as a musician and engineer. “I felt that Larry understood what kind of music I was into,” Charlie said of his new producer, “and so far it has worked really well. Bill Justis is back doing the string arrangements and I feel relaxed in the studio. And that is very important. Unless you feel relaxed, it doesn’t matter how strong the song is, it just doesn’t come out right.”

His first single for UA, Puttin’ In Overtime At Home, a Roger Bowling ballad, made the top ten, but his initial records for the new label were hampered by Epic continuing to release old recordings. On My Knees, a duet with Janie Fricke, made the number one spot on the country charts two years after it was recorded, and even Spanish Eyes, another Epic single, made the charts.

I Still Believe In Love, the superb title tune from his first Larry Butler produced album, failed to make the impression that it should have when released as a single. The album had some nice touches, it was a good, smooth, easy-to-listen to record in the Rich tradition with strong country influences and easy vocals. Material from the likes of Ben Peters, Tony Joe White and Roger Bowling with the production allowing Rich to stretch out vocally.

With the recent evolution of his sound, Charlie has transcended musical categories such as country and pop. He was enthusiastic about his current single Life Goes On, a song written by Margaret Ann, but disappointed because it had been virtually ignored by the country djs in America.

“I'm really happy with Life Goes On ,” he enthused. “It took us a long time to persuade UA to release it as a single, and I feel it is one the best things I’ve done. It’s not country, whatever that may be, but a good record, and for me a little different.”

Too often, musical straight jackets, once fitted are difficult to shake off. Charlie Rich has never believed himself to be a country artist, but critics, publicity men, djs, even fans, love to tie labels on artists, and Charlie is one of those special talents who doesn’t take to labels. You just cannot categorise what he is doing. He is just one of the finest contemporary ballad singers of our time, able to slot comfortable into a country music setting, a big Las Vegas production job, or a sleazy, back-street jazz or blues environment.

“It is my desire to record a laid-back jazz album,” he explained. “Just to show people what I can really do, but it would be selfish to go ahead with such a project. I would probably be the only person really happy about it, but I sure would like to have a go. Maybe someday I will.”

At the moment Charlie is happy to go along with what the fans want. A lot has changed in the last 20 years since he first hit the charts with Lonely Weekends. Charlie really hasn’t changed too much since then. A little heavier around the middle, maybe, but there’s no dramatic alteration in his appearance. He sports a distinguished moustache, but still has the look of a man who is perpetually caught in bar-room brawls.

The years of struggling have paid off. With Margaret Ann by his side, he has come to terms with success, and now that he has attained that elusive position of superstar he is reluctant to it slip.

“I just want to carry on doing what I have been doing… only to get better at it. A lot of doors have opened for me and I want to take advantage of the opportunities. I’ve got people to handle the business end of things and that leaves me to concentrate on my music, on exploring the whole spectrum. Growth is important. I’ve had dry spells, I don’t want any more.”
“I enjoy all kinds of music—jazz, rock and blues—but it’s been country music that has pointed my career in the right direction. I can never forget the loyalty of the country fans. About the only way I can put it is to say that they been good to me—damn good!”
The Original Charlie Rich – Charly CR 30112
Fully Realised – Phillips 6641 199
Sings The Songs Of Hank Williams & Others – London ZGU 136
She Called Me Baby – RCA LSA 3203
There Won’t Be Anymore – RCA APL1 0433
Tomorrow Night – RCA APL1 0258
I Do My Swinging At Home – Harmony KH32166 (U.S release)
Behind Closed Doors – Epic EPC 65616
The Silver Fox – Epic EPC 80532
Silver Linings – Epic EPC 69206
Rolling With The Flow – Epic EPC 82229
Very Special Love Songs – Epic EPC 80031
Greatest Hits – Epic 81478
I Still Believe In Love – United Artists UAS 30172
The Fool Strikes Again – United Artists UAS 30219
Nobody But You – United Artists UAG 30284
All the above albums are British released, except where indicated.