Charlie Rich

An FB friend posted a Charlie Rich lyric.. It took me back a few years. I was a bit late in learning to appreciate Charlie. I was at a beach joint (Folly Beach, SC), where Jerry Lee Lewis was playing to a crowd that objected to Jerry Lee going all country. After mean-mugging the audience and kicking the piano stool at the drummer's head several times, he launched into a little speech in praise of Charlie Rich and proceeded to sing "Lonely Weekend." I was impressed. I am guessing that was 1965. My girlfriend at the time had a best friend who had a date with Jerry Lee after the show, and we were supposed to go along on a double date with the Killer, but a very angry Mrs. Lewis showed up, and that was the end of my big night.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

15 Responses

  1. Josh Doggrell says:

    The Silver Fox had a great voice and could really tickle the ivories. What did you think of him setting the notification on fire when he had to read that John Denver won Entertainer of the Year?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It’s the kind of gesture Jerry Lee would have admired. I had a friend who was a banjo player/singer with a briefly successful folk act. He told me that Joh Denver was one of the few decent people he had met in the business–the opposite of the Mr. Zimmerman who had robbed him, literally. Frankly, I can’t stand either of them,. and even hearing the name John Denver raises my blood sugar to diabetic levels. Rich was perhaps best as a songwriter. Kids today who like traditional country don’t like Charlie–too smooth and urban–but they simply don’t know that he was the real thing, and palled around with his Sun records colleagues.

  3. James D. says:

    Much of Rich’s output suffers from the same “countrypolitan” polish as Glen Campbell, Lynn Anderson and many other artists of the era. Overproduction, strings, horns, mellotrons, and ridiculously high female backing vocals ruined a lot of what might have otherwise been decent music. I respect him as a guitar player, but Chet Atkins was the primary architect of this disaster. Asked what “countrypolitan” sounded like, Atkins reached into his pocket, shook some change and said “its the sound of money.” Larry Jon Wilson was a Georgia farm boy and songwriter who went to Nashville in the early 1970’s. He wrote some great songs and released a couple of albums. He should have been a star, but today he is mostly unknown because his songs were butchered by Nashville overproduction and are mostly unlistenable.

    I have heard similar things about John Denver. I had an English teacher in grade school who lived a very interesting life. She had been in a convent in her late teens and then left to live as a Bohemian on the West Coast. At some point she was discussing her poetry with a guy who turned out to be John Denver. She stayed in contact with him for a while and told me that he was a very kind, decent person.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Nashville is to music what Hollywood is to film and New York to publishing. It took a lot of grit not be be ground down by the machine. Chet Atkins could play very well, but his influence–and that of his co-conspirators like Eddy Arnold–was terrible. People celebrate Willy Nelson as an outlaw, but he spent a lot of years working for the machine. Not everything they touched was trashed–partly because there was still some integrity in the musicians and the audience. Ray Price could be included as a countrypolitan, but he put out some fine songs that only in old age have I learned to appreciate.

  5. Raymond Olson says:

    I suppose Charlie Rich made better records, but I’ll remember him always for the sempiternal chorus,

    “Who is the coolest guy that is what am?
    Fast-talkin’ – slow walkin’ – good-lookin’ Mohair Sam.
    Fast-talkin’ – slow walkin’ – good-lookin’ Mohair Sam.”

    Bill C. Malone showed me how good Ray Price is. He also showed how good another countrypolitan star, Jim Reeves, was capable of being. Heck, he even played some very fine Slim Whitman records.

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    The Silver Fox was one of my father’s favorites. He was one of the greats of his time. I still like his music. What was that song with the line, “please wait on me till they let me out”? Or something like that.

  7. Carl Mixon says:

    I love it when Tom talks of his younger days in Charleston. I wonder if the beach joint at Folly was the Pier. It was a big dance hall built out into the sea off a long pier and it was one of the places to go in Charleston. I spent my last 2 years in Charleston finishing my college education at a small Baptist school in North Charleston 74-76. I will never forget (maybe to my regret) a concert at Folly at the Pier featuring The Tams, a black group who sang beach music. Great show with a girl I probably should not have been with and leaving the show, Nancy or whatever her name was, was holding me up (too many budweisers) and there was Jo-Jo Christie. A boy I grew up with in Barnwell, SC and he was as drunk as I was with a girl holding him up. All we could do was smile at each other. Bless me Father for I have sinned.

  8. Joshua Teske says:

    I’ve been listening to a bit of Johnny Lee lately. His words (or whomever penned those he sang) seem appropriate here. I really only listen to country music because (at least lyrically, which is what I primarily understand) it conveys and to a certain extend defends normal, properly ordered human sentiment…drunkenness, infidelity, etc. notwithstanding.

    “Now the Indians are dressing up like cowboys
    And the cowboys are putting leather and turquoise on
    And the music is sold by lawyers
    And the fools who fiddled in the middle of the station have gone”

  9. Arthur Livingston says:

    Charlie Rich was the last major singer between 1954-59 to make his reputation working for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, all of whom were largely shaped by that fusion of country music with rhythm and blues that was at the time called rockabilly. All six had oddly different career trajectories. Elvis Presley, whose real distinction is that he was the first in the field, became a Las Vegas lounge act. Carl Perkins was the second to asppear and he was the only one whose style and performance remained unchanged through his life. Johnny Cash, of course, became increasingly traditional, but never relinquished a somewhat commercial feel. Jerry Lee Lewis, after the scandal of his first marriage, remade himself as a straight country singer, and it is in the 60s that he probably did his best work. I would have loved to see Lewis work an audience who complained about that. One chorus of “What made Milwaukee Famous” should shut up anybody who would want to attend in the first place. The fifth, if one didn’t know it might surprise–Roy Orbison, who had the best God-given voice of the bunch and became a unique entertainer-singer-composer. Most listeners either love or hate his music. Charlie Rich was the last of the major Sun singers. He is unique to my knowledge among anyone else in this crowd, or any other subdivision of country music. He was a jazz piano-vocalist in a local Memphis club. Phillips spotted him and convinced him to sing the kind of fare offered at Sun, and he complied. Rich’s late, admittedly over-produced, records nevertheless preserve much of the balladeering he originally wished to record, although had he been in complete control most likely he would also have performed songs from the standards of the American popular song. I would not have been surprised had he become a jazz-tinged performer like Nat Cole. That probably would have been the case, or something close to it, had Rich taken his act to the mainstream early.

  10. James D. says:

    Mr. Livingston,

    You are correct about Rich’s blend of jazz and country being unique. The only other major acts I am aware of who blended these elements were The Marshall Tucker band, and to a lesser extent, Barefoot Jerry. Marshall Tucker probably did it best. This ‘Ol Cowboy is a great example. There are other bands like Asleep at the Wheel and The Hot Club of Cowtown who occasionally cover some jazz territory, but it is not their primary sound.

    Interestingly, Jerry Lee, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, of all people, are first cousins.

  11. Dot says:

    I liked John Denver. Must have been a North/South divide in music too.

  12. Arthur Livingston says:

    James D.

    With Asleep at the Wheel et. al., we are in the land of Western Swing, which was a phenomenon of what were called Territory Bands, early big band wing as it reached Oklahoma and Texas and combined with traditional Celtic string band music into a special stew that remains beloved in many circles. What makes Rich unique, I think, is that he came directly from playing straight-ahead jazz to recording and writing songs in a style that was for him something not in his daily experience until Phillips convinced him to do so.

  13. James D. says:

    Mr. Livingston,

    You’re absolutely correct about Asleep at the Wheel. They primarily have a Western Swing sound, but have also delved into straight country, rock and a little jazz. Hot Club of Cowtown is a lesser-known band who has similar roots to Asleep at the Wheel. Here is their version of Stay a Little Longer.

    If you enjoy that Western Swing sound with Hank Williams influence, I would recommend Wayne Hancock. His albums, A-Town Blues, Tulsa, and Wild Free and Reckless are pretty good. A couple years ago, Mike and the Moonpies, a good Texas country band, made an album which hearkened back to the countrypolitan sound. They went to London and recorded it at Abbey Road with the London Symphony Orchestra. Its called Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold. I would highly recommend getting the vinyl, turning the lights down and enjoying it with a tall glass of bourbon and a good cigar. Its a great example of how strings can be incorporated into country without totally destroying the sound.

  14. Ken Rosenberger says:

    I was going to high school in a Baltimore suburb the year “Country Road” was a big hit. We all joked that John Denver said West Virginia was “Almost heaven,” because it borders on Maryland. Ha!

    Seriously though, I came to see Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. as a typical example of 1970s packaged, manufactured, saucered & blown musical product. Most of the people who liked him back then were weepy environmentalist lefties, the kind of people who thought Mo Udall was a scintillating politician. Not that I was a consistent Doonesbury fan, but I followed it with interest when Denver moved into the cabin next door to Uncle Duke, in Woody Creek. At one point, Duke rudely asks his neighbor, “Why don’t you change your last name to Akron, & move to Ohio?” Funny stuff.

    I don’t recall him being very popular with the guys at Georgia Tech, who liked country music. Their taste ran more to Waylon & Willie or Jerry Jeff (we had a lot of Texans), Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, and the angelic Emmylou Harris, especially in her post-Gram Parsons phase.

  15. Jacob Johnson says:

    I wonder how many volumes a comprehensive list of Jerry lee Lewis’s eccentricities could fill. A musician who lived in Nashville in the 80’s told me hist wife used to sell her prescription appetite suppressant pills to her sister who would sell them to The Killer who in turn would shoot them up. I read another story a producer told in which he scolded Lewis’s young son for running up to the mixing board and playing with the faders which incited father and son to chase him into a closet , the door of which both of them tried to beat down for a half hour as he cowered in terror.

    On the subject of the transition from western swing to rock and roll, Link Wray said in an interview that he considered The Light Crust Doughboys to be the first rock group. Pretty rockin’ for the 1940’s, or any time really I think.