Charlie Rich: Our Special Tribute To the Silver Fox (1995)
His romantic ballads defined country in the 1970s.
Originally published in the Aug. 22, 1995 issue of Country Weekly featuring Billy Ray Cyrus on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
The colorful life of “Behind Closed Doors” singer Charlie Rich, whose pop-tinged romantic ballads helped define country music in the 1970s, ended quietly in a Louisiana motel room. The 62-year-old Silver Fox, who scratched and clawed for 20 years before attaining superstardom as the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1974, is remembered as a shy, quiet and private family man who put his distinctive imprint on every song he sang.
“Charlie Rich was a friend of mine,” Johnny Cash told Country Weekly. “He and I worked together in the early years at Sun Records . . . [He was] a great talent and a great man. His music will live forever.”
That music includes such other No. 1 hits as “The Most Beautiful Girl,” “A Very Special Love Song,” “Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High),” “Rollin’ With the Flow” and “On My Knees,” a 1978 duet with Janie Fricke that was his last No. 1 single.
“What’s really strange [is that] two weeks ago it was set up for me to go into the studio to re-record my vocal on that song,” Janie told us the day after Charlie’s death. The session was for a Greatest Hits collection of Rich’s material for the K-tel label; Charlie had already recut his 10 tracks for the project.
“I’m doing the session tomorrow, and it will be sad hearing Charlie’s vocal,” she reflected. Her session was recorded the day Rich was buried in Memphis, Tenn.
Rich’s melding of jazz, blues, Gospel and country, which was labeled “countrypolitan,” meshed well with the pop sensibilities of country music in the mid-’70’s.
“He was really a jazz-pop singer who got into country,” said Chet Atkins of the longtime Memphis resident. “He had a lot to add to country music and he made it palatable to city audiences.” In 1973, Rich won Country Music Association honors for male vocalist, single, and album of the year, the following year he was awarded the Entertainer of the Year Award, the organization’s top honor.
Rich’s most infamous moment came in 1975 when he presented the same award to crossover artist John Denver. The Grand Ole Opry House audience and millions more watching on television were stunned as Charlie set the envelope ablaze in an apparent expression of disdain for Denver.
But friends could only express affection and admiration for Charlie following his death. “Charlie Rich was a dear friend and I will miss him terribly,” said Jerry Lee Lewis, another ex-Sun Records star who spoke with us. “I truly can’t believe he’s gone and my heart goes out to his family and friends.”
Charlie and Margaret Ann, his devoted wife of 43 years, had stopped at the Hammond, La., Holiday Inn July 24 after visiting Natchez, Miss. Their son, Allan, had performed there, playing guitar for singer Freddy Fender. Charlie and Margaret Ann settled into room 109 to rest for the night before heading to Destin, Fla., for a vacation.
When she awoke July 25, Margaret Ann immediately discovered her husband wasn’t breathing. “She was shaken up,” motel staffer Linda Gomez said. It was she who answered Margaret Ann’s frantic call to the switchboard. “We got them [paramedics] out here, but there was not really anything anybody could do.” The local coroner, Dr. Vincent Cefalu, said the death was caused by a blood clot in the lungs.
Police quoted Charlie’s wife as saying he had not felt well the day before and was treated by a physician in St. Francesville, La. The singer’s manager, Al Holcomb, confirmed that the singer had suffered from “upper-respiratory problems.”
It’s also well known that Charlie had fought a lifelong battle with pills and alcohol. Born on a cotton farm in Colt, Ark., his childhood was a tug-of-war between a Bible-brandishing Baptist mother and an alcoholic father. At age 7, Charlie saw his brother killed by a tractor and hid in the woods for three days. Charlie’s rise to stardom took 20 frustrating years of playing piano bars and honky-tonks for as little as $10 a night, and laboring as a staff pianist and songwriter for Sun Records. Former Sun Records head Sam Phillips, who gave Rich’s career an early boost, told us he was “half dazed” by the news that the Silver Fox had passed on.
“Losing Charlie as a person is possibly even more of a loss than losing his genius as a musician,” he stated. “He was a great person inside and out. He was an honest, decent, fair soul. His talent was almost immeasurable.”
But the Silver Fox—so dubbed when his hair turned prematurely gray at the age of 23—would find his biggest success, and become known worldwide, as a country artist.
His country career began in 1968 on Epic Records, but his first Epic tunes failed to crack the Top 20. One of those was “Life’s Little Ups and Downs,” written by Charlie’s wife. Ricky Van Shelton released his own version in 1990.
“This is a sad day for the music world because Charlie Rich had the most unique voice in country music,” Ricky Van told us. “It’s also a sad day for the new generation of listeners because they may never hear one of the best voices country music had to offer.” Charlie’s breakthrough was “I Take It on Home” in 1972, his first Top 10 hit, which was followed by “Behind Closed Doors” in 1973. Charlie’s last trip to the Top 20 came in 1980 with “A Man Just Don’t Know What a Woman Goes Through.” In recent years he was semiretired, but continued to write songs and record.
He was buried in Memphis Memorial Park. He leaves behind four adult children (Allan, Jack, Renee and Lauri), three grandchildren and millions of fans. They have more than a memory to remember.
“Well, you know, he’s got his music, he’s got something that will live on after him,” Margaret Ann Rich once said. “I mean, it’s a kind of immortality. Isn’t that what it’s all about, in a way?”