(from Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 Great Singers)
The Scene: I was in the basement of Amherst Books chatting on the phone with a friend about a book I was about to purchase—Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway. I told my friend I was attracted to the book for several reasons. Most notably because it featured a chapter on Charlie Rich (1932-95) that was a sequel to Guralnick’s previous chapter in Down Home Blues, and he seemed to be the only writer who had successfully written about the complex musicianship of Rich.
I explained that I had been working on fragments of chapters on Rich for a two year period off-and-on and was excited by Guralnick’s chapters and of course a little jealous. My dilemma with Rich is that he is so well known for the countrypolitan material he recorded from the 1970s onward that it’s easy to overlook the rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and jazz material from earlier phases of his career. Rich’s musical career is both impressively eclectic and strangely incoherent. Whereas it’s fairly easy to divide Maria Muldaur or Aaron Neville’s wide ranging careers into phases or digestible chunks his career is too unsettled for this kind of tidiness. The burden here is on more on me than him, but it partially explains why he will always be underrated. No matter how hard one tries his career can never be condensed into a tight narrative.
If you begin with his Sun Records phase he can be understood as an excellent, almost prototypical rock ‘n’ roller. He did not affect the world like Elvis, but he was as talented, if not more so. Who knows what he could have achieved with a Sam Philips at his side? His late ‘50s-mid ‘60s work also features a strong R&B streak. Rich, more than Presley, Buddy Holly or other white rockers, was the most convincing and natural sounding synthesizer of black musical traditions in his singing. He manages to evoke aspects of African-American singing without ever sounding phony or imitative. This emotionally unguarded approach is the epitome of soul. A white singer singing R&B was not exactly a strong commercial prospect during a time of such commercial and cultural segregation. Rich is as good an R&B singer as anyone of his generation, but he was never going to crossover to a black record buying public without a miracle. In the mid -1960s he recorded for Smash Records and bounced between labels for years.
He stumbled onto a commercially savvy formula in the ‘70s working with Nashville producer Billy Sherrill. Hits like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” solidified him as part of the country vanguard of the ‘70s. As happy as it may have been for him commercially it seems almost like a cruel joke for someone who had been exploring American music for so long and so fiercely to become famous for one thing. As Guralnick noted in Lost Highway, “With success he was finally typed, as a country crooner, a kind of latter-day Jim Reeves, with access to the countrypolitan, easy-listening, and soft-rock audiences, and despite the subsequent sales of re-packagings of some of his earlier, and more idiosyncratic, offerings from RCA and Sun Records, countrypolitan was the label that stuck” (158).
The one exception to this countrypolitan phase is his superb 1976 gospel set Silver Lining. Gospel music forms the foundation of the blues and R&B, and serves as the root of what secular pop aspires to be tonally and emotionally. A singer who excels in this idiom usually has the tools to tackle most popular song forms. It’s no coincidence that great singers like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Patti Labelle and Whitney Houston have gospel roots. Rich’s natural ease with the classic spirituals signifies a deep connectedness to black culture, Southern music, and American Protestantism. Cultural eclecticism is in his roots; its unsurprising that he played and performed in a jazz band before he became a recording artist.
After his ‘70s commercial peak at Epic Rich recorded for RCA and Elektra. After a 12 year recording gap he recording his most notable album 1992’s Pictures and Paintings, featuring some of his most iconic songs and several soulful new compositions. After a career filled with brilliant songs and singles he finally recorded an album that fully showcased his impeccable command of America song idioms. Sadly it was his last recording; Rich passed in 1995.
Since his death a series of compilations have sought to tell his story and convey the fullness of Rich’s formidable legacy. What follows is a listener’s guide to appreciating Rich. As much as I want to avoid a consumerist approach to discussing the artists in Learning to Listen his career is so wide-ranging that a playlist is the best way to access and appreciate the multitude of Rich variations. My discussion is written mostly as informal notes on what I hear rather than in narrative form.
The Very Best of Charlie Rich—Lonely Weekends (Collectables Records, 1999)
This 23-song collection captures Rich at his earliest commercial phase. The cliché that rock ‘n’ roll is essentially a mash-up of styles plays out throughout this compilation. Through his choices in composition and arrangement Rich’s passion for gospel music, its offspring R&B, and the flavor of Southern music shines through. There is an immense diversity of material even if most of it is recorded in the compact format typical of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll.
“Lonely Weekends”—This rollicking tune, a hit for Rich and frequently covered by other artists, kicks things off. Its buoyant rhythm, his soulful wail, and the fervent backgrounds define his rock ‘n’ roll style, as does the melancholic theme.
“Easy Money”—A honking sax frames the catchy rhythm on this sing-along tune. The song has a catchy hook with an anticipatory melody, an impassioned vocal and background vocals. The theme is easy latch onto; the arrangement sticks out.
“If You Knew”-A very simple country flavored love song with a loping rhythm and Rich’s earnest, sincere croon. There’s a nice 33 second piano solo showcasing Rich’s prowess.
“Caught in the Middle”—The tune initially sounds like ‘50s pop with echo-ey choral vocals, cutesy energy and skipping rhythm. The vocal betrays this somewhat given the subject matter—a man confused and devastated by a cheating lover. He concludes that his”… fate is to be just a lonely, lonely man.”
“Donna Lee”-Straight up rock ‘n’ roll with piano triplets, a galloping rhythmic attack and a snarling vocal. You can easily imagine Elvis covering this tune.
“Gonna Be Walkin’”-A shuffling rhythm similar to “Lonely Weekends” down to the background choir. Very similar chord progression; a retread of “Lonely.” The only main difference is a tasty electric guitar solo from 1:00-1:22 in a 2:26 minute song.
“Everything I Do is Wrong”-Shuffle rhythm, an echo laden vocal with a piano riff that builds up to the hook. The lyric is a tragicomic lament of a perpetual crew-up. A sax solo, with guitar accents comes in the middle before the song’s resolve.
“Philadelphia Baby”-A travel song that kicks off with double harmony vocals and echo. The protagonist travels by train to meet up with his girlfriend. The song is organized around the rush of anticipation.
“Blue Suede Shoes”-A warm, soulful version of the song. Driven by a pounding salon piano, including a brief solo.
“Goodbye Maryann”-A peppy rock n’ roll tune about love gone wrong.
“My Baby Done Left Me”-Pops open with an echo laden, declarative vocal—very reminiscent of Bill Haley with an R&B shuffle underneath, and dramatic stop rhythm to anchor the story’s heartache lyric.
“Rebound”-Charging, hip-shaking tale of romantic angst laced with the wish of revenge for the departing lover.
“Whirlwind”-Echo vocals with stop rhythm, quickly followed by fervent rock beat and bed of stark piano harmony. A rollicking piano solo punctuates the song’s rhythmic approach, joined by double handclaps. The song swells gradually echoing the intense lyric theme.
“Finally Found Out”-After a wicked laugh kicks things off Rich sings huskily about the comeuppance a former lover over a shuffling rhythm with a background choir. He reprises the laugh near the break, and ends with a laugh.
“I Need Your Love”-The rare song of yearning during this phase. He sings over what sounds like a mildly out-of-tune piano, over a slow shuffle. His singing has a nearly Italianate crooning sound with extended vowels and near-belting.
“It’s Too Late”-A lament of a departed lover with a sympathetic choir and a lazy rhythm. There’s a string interlude with choral backing.
“Sittin and Thinkin’”-Rich reveals he’s gotten loaded and had a fight with a best friend. He admits his drinking usually gets him in trouble. The key is the lyric, “When I’m drinkin/I’m nobody’s friend.”
“There Won’t be Anymore”—Opens with blue piano chords, a ticking rhythm with itchy percussion, and a bluesy, boozy, lamentative vocal.
“Big Man”-A gospel flavored tune that begins slowly with gospel piano and increases tempo into a hand clapping rhythm and a devotional vocal. Ironically though it’s a gospel song its one of the few songs in the collection without a choir.
“Who Will the Next Fool Be”—A blues piano, shuffling rhythm, and cooing background vocals set this song up as a blue tune. His soulful inflection, with slight echo, hooks you instantly. This is one of the more mature and enduring songs in Rich’s canon; Bobby “Blue” Bland and Diane Schuur are among those who have interpreted the song…
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