Arkansas native Charlie Rich was one of the most popular and unforgettable performers of the mid-1970s. Legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips said of Rich, “It is all so effortless, the way he moves from rock to country to blues to jazz.” His romantic sounds endeared him to millions of listeners.
He was born in December 1932 in Colt, then a small community of less than 300 in St. Francis County. His parents were cotton farmers and devout churchgoers who sang in a church quartet. His love of music filled his whole life.
Rich enjoyed jazz and blues as a youth. He played saxophone in his high school marching band, where he met his future wife, Margaret Ann Greene, whom he married in 1952 and ultimately had four children together. Rich enrolled at the University of Arkansas and played in the university marching band. In 1953, after one year of college, he quit and joined the air force. He was stationed in Oklahoma, and his wife joined him, and the two sang in clubs in the area.
After Rich’s discharge in 1956, he returned to Arkansas and took up farming near West Memphis, not far from his boyhood home. Rich struggled as a farmer while his real passion stayed with music. He began performing in clubs in and around Memphis, even after long, hard days working on the farm. As his wife commented years later, “As a farmer, Charlie was a pretty good piano player.”
It would be his wife that set him on the road to fame. Recognizing the success that Elvis Presley had at Sun Records in Memphis inspired her to take one of her husband’s tapes to Memphis herself, unbeknownst at the time to Rich. Sun producer Bill Justis and founder Sam Phillips were impressed with the recordings but recommended that Rich move into songwriting instead. Initially, country music was not a direction that he wanted to take with his career. Circumstances, however, made him change his mind. As Rich once said in an interview, “At first, I didn’t dig country. We put it down because we wanted to be jazz pickers. I had to make a drastic change at Sun Records, and I didn’t really appreciate country music until I went there.”
By 1958, Sun offered Rich a contract, and he began work as a songwriter and staff musician, working with the legendary acts that Sun produced. He wrote “I’ll Make It All Up to You” for Jerry Lee Lewis and “Ways of a Woman in Love” for fellow Arkansas native Johnny Cash. Rich began releasing his own music as well. “Lonely Weekends” was his first hit single, hitting number 22 on the pop charts in 1959.
He released eight albums in the 1960s, with a handful of singles reaching some modest success. By the early 1970s, Rich hit the peak of his fame, releasing albums that sealed his reputation among fans. In 1973, he released his most popular album, Behind Closed Doors, remembered for the title single “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl.” It won Album of the Year from the Country Music Association as well as a Grammy. Songs from the album have since appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. He followed up in 1974 with the chart-topping album A Very Special Love Song, which also won the CMA Album of the Year. Though in his early 40s, his mane of white hair earned him the nickname “the Silver Fox,” which became the title of a popular 1975 album. Rich had eleven top-ten singles between 1972 and 1978, including six that hit number-one on the country music charts.
By the mid-1970s, however, alcohol was starting to cause problems in his life. In one notorious incident at the 1975 CMA Awards, a visibly intoxicated Rich came on stage to present an award, read the name of the award winner to himself, and then set the envelope on fire before finally calling out the name.
Rich released a dozen more albums between 1976 and 1980. He made brief appearances in two movies, Every Which Way But Loose with Clint Eastwood in 1978 and Take This Job and Shove It in 1981.
In the 1980s, he largely retreated from new music. He stopped drinking and concentrated on time with his family. His last album, Pictures and Paintings, was released in 1992. In the meantime, his two sons went into music themselves. In July 1995, Rich and his wife were driving home from Florida after watching one of his sons perform in concert. He fell ill on the drive, and after seeing a doctor in southern Louisiana, he stopped at a hotel for the night. He died in his sleep at the age of 62.