RARA-AVIS: Charlie Rich - muso as stumblebum noir hero

From: Rene Ribic ( rribic@optusnet.com.au)
Date: 05 Feb 2002

I thought I'd tell you guys about one of my heros, the most underrated musician in all popular music, a soulful & talented guy who the record co's never learned how to deal with or package and who's career parallels that of a David Goodis hero. At heart a jazz piano player whose boyhood hero was band leader Stan Kenton, from his earliest days at the legendary Sun studios, going from label to label they tried to turn him into a rock'n'roll singer, then a blue-eyed soul singer, then a country singer & finally as Mr Smooth the "countrypolitan" hit machine that churned out hit after hit starting with "Behind Closed Doors" - after taking away his piano (like taking Ray Charles's piano away) & choosing his material for him it was no longer the "Silver Fox " who had recorded such beautiful songs of heartbreak, marital despair, betrayal, prison, too much alcohol & songs about staying together through all of that that littered even his most uneven recordings.It was Mr Showbiz time, Wayne Newton after his voice broke.After many years Charlie had the hits he was chasing, he was MEGA. And he hated it. He was a shy, sensitive man who had battled the bottle his whole life. He hated touring, hated the show biz hype & felt creatively stifled. He wanted to be at home on his Arkansas farm with his beautiful, talented wife Margaret-Ann (who wrote some of his best songs, including the only good one he recorded during his superstar period, "Life's Ups & Downs", recently used here as the soundtrack to a margarine ad [oh, lord]), and his kids. At the height of his fame he was at the Country Music Awards Night in Nashville, Charlie presenting the award for Best Male Country singer, IIRC. He was tanked when he went on. When he opened the envelope, he stared at the slip of paper briefly, then pulled a Zippo out of his pocket, set the paper alight , dropped it & walked off stage without a word. (The winner that year was John Denver. I believe Olivia Newton-John won the Best Female Singer award). That was it for Charlie's career. He returned to his farm & family in Arkansas where he bought a small bar nearby & he would perform on weekends playing jazz with a band made up of his kids. He stayed there till he died, recording one more record before he died, "Pictures & Paintings", an album of gentle & beautiful jazz ballads featuring his wonderful piano & the voice that post-rock Elvis imitated, IMHO. So a man who had it all, supposedly, who pissed it all away. I bet Margaret Ann gave him heaps of stick about it & he no doubt deserved it. Foolish? Self destructive? Immature? CHURLISH, even? All of the above.Somehow, though, I love him all the more. His art, his self-respect, his love of his family all compelled him to walk away. I know taste is taste & just because we don't like someone's music or whatever doesn't allow us, objectively speaking to be rude to others (cf Ellroy/Cave thread I started) but haven't we all wanted to do something like that, just once? Giving the forces of mediocrity the finger, from a position of relative power and then just walking away.
 If anyone is interested in discovering more about the real Charlie Rich I suggest checking a record titled "Midnight Hits & Demo's" featuring hits & unreleased stuff (this being much of the best stuff) from the Sun label period & "Pictures & Paintings" the last recording which came out on an independent label , naturally. Also you could read "Feel Like Going Home" by Peter Guralnick, featuring interviews with Charlie & other great musicians who are the guys who provide a lot of that unheard & unnamed "soundtrack" music in hb/noir fiction particularly from the 1940's to 1960's, when writers such as Chandler or the Gold Medal guys talk about the hillbilly or negro caterwaulling coming from juke joints, roadhouses & honkytonks ( and check out other Guralnick books "Lost Highway" & "Sweet Soul Music''). Next instalments are Jerry Lee Lewis as Jim Thompson hero & Little Walter as a Walter Mosley character.Just kidding. I'll stop talking about music now, I promise.We now return you to you regular service. Rene.

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