Meet Charlie Rich -- one of the most soulful performers of countrypolitan yesteryear, and one of the most overlooked old-timers in the country canon. Working his way up as a second-stringer in the roster of Sam Phillips' Sun label, Rich developed an incredible blend of jazzy whiteboy pop and hauntingly bluesy soul. He's sort of a weird morph of Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis, but with more genuine emotional impact than either of his piano-plunkin' brethren. At the peak of his fame, Rich was known as "the Silver Fox" and won the Performer of the Year award in 1974, riding high on a series of lavish countrypolitan hits that helped define the genre. No small irony, though, that the next year he refused to announce the winner's name (John Denver), because he was horrified at country music's decline into mere defanged, de-twanged pop... a situation he did as much to bring about as anyone else. Still, Charlie Rich is about as cool as they come... if you haven't checked him out yet, here are a few suggested albums to get you started.
Charlie Rich "Lonely Weekends - The Best Of The Sun Years" (AVI, 1996)
For an overview of Rich's earliest stuff, this is hard to beat. This is back when he was a house musician at Sun (and its successor, the Phillips label...) and features Rich's unique, bluesy take on the Elvis teenybopper-billy style. It includes all the material from Rich's sole Phillips album from 1960, as well as a slew of singles and oddball tracks that have only seen the light of day in random bits and pieces over the years. A few tracks were indifferently produced, but most of these performances are great. Recommended! (NOTE: AVI is out of business, but their records are still fairly easy to find... so what are you waiting for??)
Charlie Rich "The Complete Sun Singles Plus" (Varese Sarabande, 2003)
A perfect compliment to the Lonely Weekends album listed above. This collection overlaps with that set, but has a few surprises... If you want to check out Rich's vintage R&B years, this is a mighty fine introduction, 25 songs recorded between 1958-63... All fine, surprisingly soulful stuff!
Charlie Rich "Charlie Rich Sings The Songs Of Hank Williams - Plus The R&B Sessions" (Diabolo, 1994)
This CD combines all the material from Rich's ill-fated Sings Country & Western Hits LP (see below), along with several more swinging tunes recorded around the same time for the Hi Records label.
Charlie Rich "Groove Recordings" (BMG-UK, 1999)
A nice 26-track collection of some of Rich's best mid-'60s recordings for Groove/RCA. Includes some of his signatures tunes ("Big Boss Man") and a swath of original tunes by Rich and his relatives. Also included are some kooky, swinging versions of standards such as "River Stay Away From My Door" and "Old Man River," taken at a carefree clip that rivals anything that Ray Charles or Nat King Cole ever did in a similar vein. At first blush, some of these recordings may seem a bit awkward or slapdash, but once you get in on his, well... groove, these recordings totally rule. Worth tracking down.
Charlie Rich "Big Boss Man: The Groove Sessions" (Koch, 1998)
This American collection mirrors the UK Groove set pretty closely, although at 17 songs, it leaves some sweet stuff out. Still, Rich rocks, and this is probably a lot easier to find Stateside, so it's probably the one to shoot for.
Charlie Rich "The Complete Smash Sessions" (Mercury, 1994)
An eminently welcomed repackaging of the Fully Realized double LP listed below. These mid-'60s pop tracks, with more than a trace of Mod, go-go booted teenpop to them, are some of Rich's most delicious work. If you see this, snap it up.
Charlie Rich "Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich" (Sony Legacy, 1997)
A killer 2-CD set... This collection is -- I think -- the first retrospective to span everything from his later work with Sam Phillips, to his singles on the Smash, RCA, and Epic labels. There's a lot of missing material that I wish they'd included here, but the goodies that are packed in are pretty swell... Along with early hits such as "Lonely Weekends" and "Mohair Sam", we also get his goofy versions of "Big Boss Man" and "Washed My Hands", and track Rich on through his gloriously cheesy countrypolitan years. Hard to imagine a better collection -- this is heaven sent, and highly recommended.
Charlie Rich "Behind Closed Doors" (Sony Legacy, 2001)
A plush reissue of Rich's masterpiece album, which cannily balanced Nashville cosmopolitanism with Beale Street blues and gospel sensuousness. The softcore machismo that country crooners such as Jim Reeves and Don Gibson strove for decades to project found its most virile and convincing practitioner in Charlie Rich, whose multi-octave range gave him the ability to pull off any number of emotional and stylistic shifts. The two monster hit singles, "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World", deservedly stand as Rich's best known work, but this album also includes lesser known gems such as the fidelity anthem, "I Take It On Home" and the emotionally haunting "You Never Really Wanted Me". This CD edition also includes several bonus tracks taken from singles and studio sessions that add to Rich's mystique. All in all, a pretty fab disc -- as good as countrypolitan ever got -- and definitely worth checking out.
Charlie Rich "The Ultimate Collection" (Universal/Hip-O, 2000)
This CD is also pretty nice... it covers the same basic turf as the Feel Like Going Home collection, although dwelling a little longer on his early stuff. Again, there's tons of great material that could have been included, but for a single CD overview, this is pretty spiffy... I'd give highest priority to finding the 2-CD set, but if this pops up first, it's still mighty nice.
Charlie Rich "The Essential Charlie Rich" (Sony Legacy, 2007)
This is a straight, track-for-track reissue of the 1997 collection, Feel Like Going Home; indeed, they even put the same sticker on the plastic case and kept the same catalog number on the side. So, nothing new here, but considering that this was one of the best country reissues of the 1990s, that's pretty good news. In other words, this is a killer 2-CD set from one of the most soulful country singers ever, a 36-song set that is nothing short of pure gold... This collection was -- I think -- the first retrospective to span everything from his later work with Sam Phillips, to his singles on the Smash, RCA, and Epic labels. There's a lot of missing material that I wish they'd included here, but the goodies that are packed in are pretty swell... Along with early hits such as "Lonely Weekends" and "Mohair Sam", we also get his goofy versions of "Big Boss Man" and "Washed My Hands", and track Rich on through his gloriously cheesy countrypolitan years, with collosal singalong smashes such as "The Most Beautiful Girl" and "Behind Closed Doors." Hard to imagine a better collection -- this is heaven sent, and highly recommended. (Also check out my Charlie Rich discography for more info...)
Charlie Rich "Lonely Weekends" (Sun, 1960)
Charlie Rich "Charlie Rich" (RCA-Groove, 1964)
Charlie Rich "That's Rich" (RCA, 1965)
Charlie Rich "Big Boss Man" (RCA, 1965)
Charlie Rich "The Many New Sides Of Charlie Rich" (Smash, 1965) (LP)
Charlie Rich "The Best Years" (Smash, 1966) (LP)
Charlie Rich "Fully Realized" (Mercury/Smash, 1974) (LP)
This two-LP set is a perfect overview of Rich's awesome pop-tinged mid-'60s work on the Smash label, when he was still a voice in the wilderness... Includes classics like "Mohair Sam" and "Lonely Weekends", but also plenty of lesser known goodies such as "Party Girl" and "Everything I Do Is Wrong" and "Tears A-Go-Go" that show Rich's deft touch with rock-pop material. Mercury may have thrown this set together just to cash in on Rich's early '70s superstardom, but in doing so they created the perfect testament to just why he deserved to become so famous in the first place. Also, there are still a lot of copies floating around at bargain prices, so if you see this collection, go for it.
Charlie Rich "Charlie Rich Sings Country & Western" (Hi Records) (LP)
Mostly Hank Williams cover tunes, and frequently repackaged on CD and LP.
Charlie Rich "Set Me Free" (Epic, 1968)
(Produced by Billy Sherrill)
Rich's first album made with producer Billy Sherrill, countrypolitan's great svengali, capitalizes on his diverse strengths in a way that earlier efforts did not. Sherrill, another former R&B fan who found refuge in the Sun studios during the early '60s, had an affinity for Rich's style, and an intuitive sense that here he'd found an artist with enough versatility to carry over the grandiose orchestral-pop crossovers he'd envisioned for the Nashville Sound. And of course, he was right. Here, early on, the arrangements aren't all that lavish, but it's clear that these two have a pretty good working empathy. Sherrill only drowns Rich out on a couple of tracks -- like the sluggish "That's The Day" -- but for the most part this sticks to the sleek, bluesy crooning that Rich did so well. The title track is a nice divorce ballad, and his cover of "Try A Little Tenderness" carries the kind of mournful conviction that only Rich and Conway Twitty could pull off. One goofy poppish novelty, "H20," recalls Rich's days at the Smash label. Nice record. Reissued on CD in 1994.
Charlie Rich "The Fabulous Charlie Rich" (Epic, 1969)
Charlie Rich "Boss Man" (Epic, 1970)
Charlie Rich "Behind Closed Doors" (Epic, 1973)
Rich's super-duper countrypolitan tour-de-force... the CD re-release is reviewed above.
Charlie Rich "She Loved Everyone But Me" (RCA-Camden, 1974) (LP)
Charlie Rich "A Very Special Love Songs" (Epic, 1974)
Geriatric eroticism never had a greater champion than Charlie Rich, who is able to toss off one song after another about the benefits of afternoon delights and domestic bliss. His tremulous but rumbly reading of the cheatin' classic "Almost Persuaded" fits right in, while "Field Of Yellow Daisies" is probably the most evocative tune on the album. A little slushy, and vaguely sleazy overall, but still pretty good.
Charlie Rich "She Called Me Baby" (RCA, 1974) (LP)
Naturally, when "The Silver Fox" was riding high on top of the world, it was in RCA's best interest to dig up as much of his old stuff as possible and get it on the market as fast as they could. This album, as well as There Won't Be Anymore and Tomorrow Night, is a curious mix of material from the mid-'60s Groove albums, as well as unreleased stuff from the vaults. Rich is occasionally miscast, for example as a Ben E. King-style soft-pop crooner, but his blues side keeps rising to the fore, and even when he's in a rut, there's still something compelling about whatever he does while he's stuck there. Interesting, although mishmosh-y, material dating from 1963-66.
Charlie Rich "The Silver Fox" (Epic, 1975)
The centerpiece of this album is a wry discourse on the path of Rich's career, which takes up all of Side One -- with his slick no-nonsense band in step right behind him, he tells the story of his progress from a would-be blues singer into a house bandleader at Sun, and then, gloriously, into a pop-country icon. It's a funny and oddly compelling collage -- quite an indulgence for any artist to make, but still may keep your interest. Side Two has a fine, understated set of tunes very much in keeping with his work of the times. Worth checking out!
Charlie Rich "Every Time You Touch Me" (Epic, 1975)
After winning the country music Entertainer Of The Year award and all, I think Rich pretty much had a blank check... and he makes the most of it on this album. Sure, there's a little goofy drek (such as the super-bland "You And I" and Billy Sherrill's goopy "Mellow Melody"... yeesh!!), but mostly this is great countrypolitan record. Highlights include the bluesy "Pass On By" and the deliciously raunchy, post-coital "All Over Me." It's completely over the top, but that's what makes it so good.
Charlie Rich "Silver Linings" (Epic, 1976)
(Produced by Billy Sherrill)
A Grammy-winning country gospel album... The white soul roots of Charlie Rich seems like a natural match for gospel material, and indeed, these are some pretty swinging versions of old gospel classics such as "Old Time Religion" and "Down By The Riverside," as well as newer, less bedrock tunes, including Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me" (which, arguably, could be seen as a somewhat subversive selection for a project like this...) This is a fun album, although some gospel fans may find Rich's boisterous, slam-bam performances to be a little on the flip side... I don't think he had the same kind of earnest devotion to the church that, say, Elvis did, but he still puts a lot of feeling into the music.
Charlie Rich "Rolling With The Flow" (Epic, 1977) (LP)
Charlie Rich "Take Me" (Epic, 1977) (LP)
Honestly, Charlie is kind of pushing it on this one... it's pretty over-the-top schmaltzy. Although there are vestiges of the old Charlie Rich charm, this disc isn't really that compelling or memorable.
Charlie Rich "I Still Believe In Love" (United Artists, 1978) (LP)
(Produced by Billy Sherrill)
With a new switch of labels, Rich finds himself still paired up with Billy Sherrill, but backed up with a bunch of Nashville studio cats such as Hargus Robbins, Pete Wade and Tommy Allsup... The album's opening tracks briefly cast Rich as a novelty-oriented country-popster, nicking riffs that were a little more early-'70s sounding; the rest of the album reverts to goopy romanticism. It's the bouncy pop stuff that's actually most fun -- "Puttin' In Overtime At Home" and "Wishful Thinking" are pretty fun... the rest of the album's kind of a snooze.
Charlie Rich "The Fool Strikes Again" (United Artists, 1979) (LP)
(Produced by Larry Butler)
Ye-e-e-e-esh! Densely pcked with glitzy, cluttered late-'70s AOR production, this one is really just a bit much. He'd really lost his bearings by this point, if you ask me. Too sappy and drippy, and musically too clever to be much fun. Billy Sherrill fans might get a kick out of it, though: Sherrill is listed as the album's engineer, and doubtless had a lot to do with the arrangements as well.
Charlie Rich "Nobody But You" (United Artists, 1979) (LP)
Charlie Rich "Once A Drifter" (Elektra, 1980)
(Produced by Jim Ed Norman)
What's weird about this record isn't the iffy, drippy pop production... that's kind of to be expected at this point... but how depleted Rich's voice sounds. He seems to have lost the entire lower end of his voice; his rich, wonderful baritone is completely absent, while a thin, strained, airy whine predominates. That, plus the goopy music make this a pretty difficult album to get into. You can skip it.
Charlie Rich "I Do My Swingin' At Home" (Epic, 1983) (LP)
Charlie Rich "Pictures And Paintings" (Sire, 1992)
Rich's last album was billed as "the jazz album he always wanted to make", and indeed, includes several well-chosen (and oddly rendered) standards, such as "Am I Blue?" and "Mood Indigo", as well as remakes of several Rich classics, like "Feel Like Going Home". His voice isn't as instantly recognizable as it usually is, and the delivery isn't as powerful or as bluesy as before, but there is a solidity and clarity of vision that's striking for a man who hadn't recorded in nearly a decade. There's also an ethereal feel to the album that's slightly eerie -- sure, maybe I'm just reading something into it because this was his last album, but why don't you check it out for yourself. This isn't an album that immediately shares its secrets with you, but has subtle sides that can reveal themselves after repeated listenings.
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