Charlie Rich was a gospel, blues, and country singer and songwriter, and was probably the most musically gifted of the first generation of rockabilly stars.
Charlie Rich was born on December 14, 1932, in Colt (St. Francis County), the only son (he had two sisters) of devout Missionary Baptist parents who sang in a church quartet; his mother also played piano. He grew up immersed in the whole range of southern music—along with the church music, there was the country music on the radio and the blues he learned from a sharecropper named C. J., who taught him piano.
Rich played in his high school band in Forrest City (St. Francis County), where he was already known as Charlie Kenton for his love of jazz (especially the music of Stan Kenton, George Gershwin, and Oscar Peterson). He met his future wife, Margaret Ann, in high school—they married in 1952 and raised two sons and two daughters. After a single year at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he was a member of the marching band, Rich spent four years (1953–1956) in the air force, based in Enid, Oklahoma, where he played with a blues and jazz group called the Velvetones. Margaret Ann was their vocalist.
In 1956, he moved to the West Memphis (Crittenden County) area, where he farmed (with little success), played local bars, and co-wrote songs with his wife. In 1957, he signed with Sun Records, initially as a songwriter and studio musician; by 1958, he was on records himself, starting with the 1960 “Lonely Weekends” hitting No. 22 on the pop charts. In 1965, he scored again with “Mohair Sam,” which made it to No. 3 on the pop charts, but sustained success eluded him until 1973, when two blockbuster hits, “Behind Closed Doors” (No. 1 on the country charts) and “The Most Beautiful Girl” (No. 1 on both pop and country charts), earned him a Grammy and the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year award.
Rich’s attitude toward this material was often ambivalent at best, but it brought him money and fame; he was the “Silver Fox,” a huge star of the lush “countrypolitan” sound that took country to Las Vegas and other big-city outlets. He often handled this fame and fortune poorly, drinking heavily and misbehaving in high-visibility settings. When announcing the Entertainer of the Year at the 1975 Country Music Association awards show, he startled a national television audience and outraged industry moguls by opening the envelope and, seeing John Denver’s name, whipping out his lighter and setting the offending card ablaze.
Rich lived much of his later years in Benton (Saline County). In the early 1980s, he took time out to get off alcohol, reappearing in 1992 with the jazz- and blues-laced Pictures and Paintings, his first new album in a decade. Sales were modest, but reviewers loved it, calling it the album he had waited his whole life to make.
Rich died on July 25, 1995. His music still sells, but even after his death, the broad scope of his talent has been an obstacle to his recognition. Country music had few if any bigger stars in the mid-1970s, but Rich has not yet been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
Guralnick, Peter. Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock and Roll. New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971.
———. Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians. Boston: David Godine, 1979.
Mougeot, Larry. “Charlie Rich Remembers Hard Times and Honky-Tonks That Made the Silver Fox.” Arkansas Times (February 1975): 18–22. Online at http://posting.arktimes.com/media/pdf/charlierich.pdf (accessed September 5, 2014).
Robert B. Cochran
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville