My Mother’s Records

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.

Download: Party Girl – Charlie Rich (mp3)
Download: That’s My Way – Charlie Rich (mp3)
Download: River, Stay ‘Way From My Door – Charlie Rich (mp3)

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)

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  1. davyh says:

    What a superb post. I know nothing beyond ‘Closed Doors’ but I’m really looking forward to listening.

  2. robert says:

    Nice post, thoughtful and true. Read Peter Guralnick’s “Feel Like Going Home” for a fine and sensitive piece on Rich.

  3. londonlee says:

    There’s a good bit on Rich in Greil Marcus’ ‘Mystery Train’ too which is what first got me interested in him.

  4. Big Stupid says:

    Great post and tribute, thanks! “Behind Closed Doors” was the first song I ever listened to where I finally got the “adult” message– what a fond memory. Which means I must have been a pretty dense kid…

    I don’t think it quite fair to say Elvis “blew his talent” on movies, when he left behind two superb ones: King Creole and Viva Las Vegas (OK, the second one is a pretty lame musical but Ann-Margret never looked better).

  5. Ian Turton says:

    Charlie Rich. Sheffield swimming baths. A six year old me. The primary reasons I believe that my go-to music is country music. The Behind Closed Doors album you link to above (and my own sunflower yellow 7 inch of the album’s title track) has my favourite CR song – Sunday Kind of Woman. Archetypal country – pithy epithet, stoic John Doe. And Charlie Rich singing. Listen here

    Oh, and a minor curio, cos it ain’t particularly good…. Here’s Mark Lanegan (and the Walkabouts) having a bash at IFLGH – A minor curio,

  6. Chris Gibbon says:

    Great post. Two memories of Charlie Rich.
    The country music festival at Wembley. A very drunk Charlie Rich absolutely rocking the joint. In the performers bar, Emmylou Harris, most of the Hot Band, the odd Everly brother dancing and having a great time. The paying audience sitting in stony silence- they wanted Beautiful Girl and Closed Doors and they got Washed My Hands in Muddy Water, Don’t Put No Headstone on My Grave etc. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
    Charlie Rich booked into the Bottom Line. Small club, NYC, sold out. Charlie had such bad stage fright he cancelled. Sooooo disappointing. Still have the ticket. I believe he died within the next year.

  7. Andrew says:

    I Feel Like Going Home is a fantastic song

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The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com





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