Monday, February 4, 2013

When Singers Are Best Known for the Wrong Songs, Pt. 1: Charlie Rich

Even if you're a lifelong country and pop music fan of a certain age (40ish and thereabouts and above), who's never heard his name, chances are you've heard at least two of his songs: "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl."

I'm told that in 1973 you couldn't really escape them. When the latter became his second No. 1 country single of that year and topped Billboard's Hot 100 as well ("Behind Closed Doors," the title cut of his quadruple-platinum 1973 album, was Grammy-winning a No. 15 pop hit), Rich found himself in the enviable and rare position of not only scoring two Top 20 crossover hits in one year but scoring two signature songs in the process.

"Behind Closed Doors"

"The Most Beautiful Girl"

Although he had two massive chart-toppers and other major hits (five of his 1974 singles were country No. 1s, and three of them, "There Won't Be Anymore," "A Very Special Love Song" and "I Love My Friend," crossed over into the pop Top 25), Rich, who died in 1995 at age 62, was sorely underrated in his heyday, and he's even more so today. His voice was one of the dominant ones of my youth ("Rolling with the Flow," which topped the country chart in 1977, was in heavy rotation in the Helligar household for most of that year), and it's hard to imagine '70s country music without him, but on most official lists of all-time country greats, the kind put together by Country Music Television "experts," Rich would probably rank near the bottom, if at all.

Live 1975 Medley of 1974 No. 1s

"Rolling with the Flow"

Too bad. If Rich were reconsidered and re-evaluated, not only based on the strength of his two best-known hits (middle-of-the-road countrypolitan classics that, though great, are hardly representative of his interpretative gifts) but on his entire discography -- which includes songs that beautifully merged country, pop, R&B and blues -- he might become the legend that he never was in his time. Always one of the male country singers of the era (the '70s, and along with Charley Pride and Conway Twitty) more sensitive to the dreams of the everyday housewife (to quote the title of a 1968 hit by his country-crossover peer Glen Campbell), Rich expressed his deepest sympathy for her on his three greatest non-smash hits, all odes to desperate housewives.

At least two of them didn't go unsung... by other people. Cat Power covered "A Woman Left Lonely" (No. 72 country for Rich in 1971) on her 2008 album Jukebox, and Ricky Van Shelton had a No. 4 country hit with his 1990 remake of "Life's Little Ups and Down" (No. 49 for Rich in 1969). Meanwhile, "A Man Just Don't Know What a Woman Goes Through" was Rich's final Top 20 country hit (No. 12) in 1980. Who, aside from Ricky Van Shelton, possibly Cat Power (who very well might have covered the song, written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, based more on the greatness of their songwriting legends than on Rich's version), and me, even thinks about these songs today, much less plays them full blast on iTunes?

This might be too little too late to turn around Rich's legacy, but the next time you hear "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl," remember there was so much more to "The Silver Fox."

The Best of Charlie Rich

"Life's Little Ups and Downs" Charley Pride once said that '80s country star Razzy Bailey sounded blacker than he did (Pride is black, Bailey is white), and how right he was. So did Rich on this 1969 single, which crept halfway up the country chart the same year Pride scored his first No. 1 country hit with the far more traditionally country "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)," also covered by Ricky Van Shelton, in 2000.

"A Woman Left Lonely" The way Rich stops singing and the piano plays a brief interlude before the guitar kicks in around 2:07 gets me every single time. Cat Power's 2008 rendition, wonderful as it was, plays the lamentation too straight to ascend to the haunted and haunting heights of Rich's urgent moody blues.

"A Man Just Don't Know What a Woman Goes Through" I remember hearing this on the radio when I was 10 years old while riding shotgun with my dad in his truck and wondering if what Rich was singing was getting through.

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