My mum liked what I think of as “grown-up” songs, ones where the subject matter was adults doing, um, adult things instead of the usual wide-eyed, adolescent innocence of most pop songs — records like “Me and Mrs. Jones”, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”, and “Harper Valley PTA” which weren’t about holding hands at the bus stop but dealt with infidelity, sex, and being a single parent. Another big favourite of hers was “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich from 1973 which, you know, wasn’t about two people going home to play table tennis. Besides the sublime melody and production a big part of its appeal was Rich himself: the big, burly “Silver Fox” with the soulful voice who sounded like he’d been around the block a few times and taken a few punches along the way, but his woman letting her hair down made him glad to be a man. What woman could resist that kind of bruised poet?
Download: Behind Closed Doors – Charlie Rich (mp3)
But there was a lot more to Charlie Rich than smooth MoR ballads loved by mums which I found out for myself back in the 1980s when, loving his voice and wanting to hear more, I started following the dusty, overgrown trail that led from “Behind Closed Doors” back to his brilliant earlier recordings. At the time Rich was semi-retired and mostly forgotten so I thought I’d found the best-kept secret in popular music because it was literally like discovering another Elvis – one who had the voice and looks (plus genuine musical and songwriting chops) but hadn’t blown his talent on shitty records and movies and cheeseburgers.
If Rich sounded like he’d been around the block a few times it was because he had, having spent years making records that no one bought and jumping from label to label. He started his career back in the 1950s at Sun Records but, with only a couple of minor hits to his name, had to wait until the 1970s before his big breakthrough singing string-laden “Countrypolitan” love songs which must have been a bittersweet pill to swallow as he preferred Jazz and Soul to Country — so even when he finally became famous it wasn’t for what he preferred doing, no wonder he started drinking heavily.
Those years of struggle and not-making-it probably inspired his wife Margaret to write the beautiful, heartbreaking “Life’s Little Ups And Downs” which should bring a lump to your throat, a tear to your eye, and a shiver to your spine. If it doesn’t then there’s a black chasm where your heart should be. This is the track that really turned me on to his greatness.
Download: Life’s Little Ups And Downs – Charlie Rich (mp3)
His apparent “problem” making it big early on was that he didn’t fit into any one box and wasn’t just a little bit Country and a little bit Rock n’ Roll, but also (more than) a little bit Jazz, and a little bit R&B, Gospel, and Blues too — sometimes all in the same song. His 60s recordings are particularly eclectic, ranging from hip-shaking groovers like “Party Girl” (my personal favourite) and “That’s My Way” to Jazz-Gospel-Blues ballads like “River, Stay ‘Way From My Door” — the common denominator being Rich’s soulful voice and rolling, jazzy piano-playing.
Having spent most of his life as the poster boy for unappreciated genius Rich finally got the recognition he deserved before he died in 1995 — better late than never I guess — and now he’s not such a big secret. A friend of mine called him “the introvert’s Elvis”, the King of that alternate pop universe we music geeks wished was real, the one where all the “right” people are famous.
Buy: “Behind Closed Doors” (album)
Buy: “Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich” (album)
Buy: “It Ain’t Gonna Be That Way: The Complete Smash Sessions” (album)