What artists' careers have encompassed the Countrypolitan style, either substantially or "On The Fringe?"
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Photos borrowed from The Official Charlie Rich Website
To say that Charlie Rich was `On The Fringe’ of `countrypolitan’ music may be construed as an insult to the man. More to the point is to state that `countrypolitan’ music was `On The Fringe’ of the magnificent career of Charlie Rich. Charlie Rich was blessed with a multi-faceted talent for music. His genres included Rock ‘n Roll, Country Music, and Gospel as well as his favorites: Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. Charlie’s career spanned all of these genres and, whilst not his favorite style, `countrypolitan’ music was certainly the most popular and lucrative.
Charlie Rich was born on December 14, 1932 in Forrest City, Arkansas. Both of his parents were very fond of gospel music and performed in a gospel quartet at various Baptist churches. Moreover, at an early age, Charlie was also introduced to the blues by piano playing sharecropper, C.J. Allen, who worked on their family farm. Charlie’s talents as a piano player began with instruction from C.J. Allen.
Charlie’s great love, however, was to be jazz. At high school, Charlie played saxophone with the school band and became known as Charlie Kenton because of his love for the music of jazz musician and band leader, Stan Kenton. Charlie’s love for jazz led to a close association with another jazz devotee, Margaret Ann Green. They married in 1952 and remained together until Charlie’s untimely death in 1995. Charlie and Margaret Ann loved jazz just so much that they spent almost their entire honeymoon savings on jazz records.
Charlie received a football scholarship to Arkansas State College, however a football injury put paid to those aspirations and Charlie switched his priorities to a course in music at the University of Arkansas. That didn’t last long though, as within his first year at University Charlie decided to join the Air Force and was posted to Oklahoma. Nevertheless his music continued. Together with wife, Margaret Ann, Charlie formed a jazz and blues group called The Velvetones, playing the jazz music of the time - Dave Brubeck et al. The group even appeared on a local television station.
On leaving the Air Force in 1956, Charlie and Margaret Ann purchased a small farm. However, music was now in Charlie’s blood and he spent every spare moment playing rhythm and blues and jazz in the clubs around Memphis. In due course, Charlie’s act was seen by Bill Justis who asked Charlie to work for him as a writer. Charlie’s wife, Margaret Ann, had initiated the meeting by earlier providing Bill Justis with tapes of Charlie’s work, recorded at the farm.
In turn, Bill’s recording `boss’, Sam Phillips of Sun Records, saw both of them perform and asked Charlie to lay down some demo tracks at his studio. The resultant tracks were not to Phillip’s liking as he believed they were too `jazzy’ and without commercial value. Nevertheless Bill Justis liked what he heard. He gave Charlie recordings by Sun artists to listen to and said `come back when you get that bad’.
Charlie did come back - as a session pianist. He also spent time writing songs for the Sun artists. After initial lack of success, Charlie began to write music that `sold’. Johnny Cash’s `The Ways Of A Woman In Love’ is an example of Charlie Rich’s early songwriting talent.
Charlie had written a number of songs for Jerry Lee Lewis but, after Jerry’s fall from grace, Charlie thought he’d try his luck as a solo artist. He recorded several songs including `Philadelphia Baby’ and `Whirlwind’ but initially did not have a hit. Sam Phillips could not categorize Charlie so he generally just taped his products and hoped that something to his liking would come along. His luck changed in 1960 when Charlie recorded the rhythm and blues rocker `Lonely Weekends’. It made the Top 30.
To follow up the success of `Lonely Weekends’ Charlie started touring but he soon found he did not like that lifestyle. He much preferred just `doin’ his own thing’ in the bars and clubs. It was during this period that Charlie started taking to drink himself. Charlie continued writing but his products such as `Sittin’ and Thinkin’’ and `Who Will The Next Fool Be?’ just didn’t reach the commercial mark. Charlie’s success was short lived and, in 1963, he left Sun Records.
In 1964 Charlie signed with RCA subsidiary, Groove Records. He recorded songs such as `I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore’, `Big Boss Man, and `Tomorrow Night’. Recording two albums `Charlie Rich’ (1964) and `That’s Rich’ (1965) without dramatic success, Charlie’s stint with Chet Atkins just did not achieve the desired commercial objective. Groove Records closed down the very next year.
Charlie moved on to Smash Records. The executives there encouraged Charlie to concentrate on his style of rhythm and blues and country. The result was `Mohair Sam’ which made the Top 30. However, his follow-up recordings for Smash were not a commercial success. Being married with children and prematurely gray, Charlie did not exactly meet the expectations for a teenage idol. Nevertheless, he did record two albums with Smash: `The Many New Sides of Charlie Rich’ in 1965 and `The Best Years’ in 1966.
Forced to move on, Charlie signed with Hi Records. Concentrating on country music, in 1967 he recorded several singles without success as well as an album of predominantly Hank Williams’ favorites entitled `Charlie Rich Sings Country and Western’. Traditional country with a touch of soul - Charlie Rich style.
Meanwhile, countrypolitan producer, Billy Sherrill, had taken note of Charlie’s talent. In 1967, on the recommendation of Sherrill, Charlie switched to Epic Records. Sherrill worked on Charlie to transform his vocal talents to the desired smooth countrypolitan style. The initial Epic recordings, singles `Raggedy Ann’ and `Set Me Free’, both made the charts. Charlie’s first album for Epic, `The Fabulous Charlie Rich’ (1969), was a mixture of country, rhythm and blues, and jazz. It was generally lauded with one critic even claiming that Charlie was a musical genius. Charlie was on his way.
On the strength of this success Sun Records even re-released `Lonely Weekends’ as well as releasing another Charlie Rich song, `A Time For Tears’, in 1971. The same year RCA released Charlie’s track, `I’m Just Me’. Charlie’s multi-talent was at last being recognized. However, Charlie’s big break came in 1973 with Epic’s release of `Behind Closed Doors’. This led to a myriad of Charlie Rich releases; Sun Records released four albums of Charlie’s Tracks: `The Early Years’, `The Memphis Sound of Charlie Rich’, `Golden Treasures’ and `Sun’s Best of Charlie Rich’.
Such had become Charlie’s popularity with his new smooth style. `Behind Closed Doors’, reached No.20 on the pop charts as well as attaining the No.1 position on the country charts. Charlie and `Behind Closed Doors’ won the 1973 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance as well as CMA awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, Single of the Year and Album of the Year. Charlie also received the same awards from the ACM. The album, of course, achieved Gold status.
Furthermore, in 1974, Charlie was awarded Entertainer of the Year by the CMA as well as winning the Album of the Year award for `A Very Special Love Song’. He also won the AMA Favorite Single of the Year award in both 1974 and 1975 as well as Favorite Male Artist for 1975. Several other awards were forthcoming, including:
Despite the huge success Charlie was not completely happy. True, the money kept rolling in but, despite the commercially successful melding of his styles, it was not exactly what Charlie was looking for. Jazz and soul were his preferences. Charlie’s drinking habit began to blossom. Record companies with which he had previously been involved continued to re-issue his work, this time as hits. RCA had hits with `There Won’t Be Anymore’, `She Called Me Baby’, `I Don’t See You in My Eyes Anymore’ and `I Love My Friend’. Mercury released some of Charlie’s tracks recorded at Smash Records including `Something Just Came Over Me’ and `A Field Of Yellow Daisies’.
Whilst these were not released on Epic, they still contributed to the success that led to Charlie receiving the awards already mentioned. Epic, of course, continued to release Charlie’s products and `All Over Me’, `My Elusive Dreams’, `Since I Fell For You’ and `Every Time You Touch Me’ all did extremely well on the charts.
Nonetheless, Charlie’s reaction to his situation was not the best. At the CMA Awards in 1975 he was invited to present the award for Entertainer of the Year. When called to read the winner’s name, Charlie set fire to the paper on which the winner’s name (John Denver) was written. Onlookers were appalled at Charlie’s behavior; some had noted that Charlie’s drinking habit had become a problem by this stage.
From this point Charlie’s star began to fade. Nonetheless, Charlie and Billy Sherrill still managed to churn out a number of hits: `Rollin’ With The Flow’ and `Easy Look’ (1977), `Beautiful Woman’ and `On My Knees’ (1978). `On My Knees’ was a duet with Jeannie Frickie and hit No.1 on the country charts, as did `Rollin’ With The Flow’. Apart from `Rollin’ With The Flow’, Charlie’s most successful venture during this period was `Silver Linings’, an award winning gospel album.
The commercial spark had gone. `On My Knees’ was Charlie’s last No.1 hit. However, in 1979, he did hit the No.3 spot with his version of `I’ll Wake You Up When I Get Home’ from the movie `Every Which Way But Loose’ starring Clint Eastwood. Charlie had two more Top 40 hits. He signed with Electra Records in 1980. The hits were: `A Man Just Don’t Know What A Woman Goes Through’ and `Are We Dreamin’ The Same Dream’.
As an adjunct to his career, Charlie also appeared in the movie, `Take This Job and Shove It’(1981), but, by this stage, Charlie had had enough. Aside from an appearance in the movie `Weeds’ in 1987, he took early retirement. Charlie Rich had been a super star. His family’s future was secure, ensured with earnings from both his music career and his involvement as a major shareholder in the fast-food chain, Wendy’s’.
Retirement, however, was not for Charlie. Music was in his blood. Charlie was now in a position to make the sort of music he really loved. He returned in 1992, this time with Sire Records, to record the album `Pictures and Paintings’. A collection of soulful ballads, and with Charlie now back at his beloved piano, the album was a hit. The album featured soulful jazz that was Charlie’s real love. Music by a number of notable jazz musicians including Ellington, as well as some written by Charlie himself. The album was critically acclaimed. It was recorded in the same style as many years earlier at Sun Studios, where Sam Phillips had just let that tape roll to capture the multi-faceted magic of Charlie’s music.
The last track on `Pictures and Paintings’ was entitled `Feel Like Going Home’. Charlie finally did go home on 25th. July 1995, when the Angels in Heaven opened the Pearly Gates to welcome Charlie and his music. Charlie passed on by medium of a blood clot in his lung while getting ready for a club date. Charlie was supported to the end by his staunch and loving wife, Margaret Ann.
The nineties, however, did provide further acclaim for Charlie’s work. In 1994, Charlie Rich was awarded the University of Memphis Amphion Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music. In 1999, Charlie’s `Behind Closed Doors’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Charlie Rich was a `countrypolitan’ superstar. Arguably the most significant male artist to record the genre. Charlie loved his jazz and soul, but `countrypolitan’ music was his bread and butter. And for that all `countrypolitan’ music fans say: `Thank you for the magic moments, Charlie Rich’.
Written by Michael D'Arcy. June 2002, Countrypolitan.com.
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