Fellow professionals admired his combination of jazz-tinged piano and bluesy baritone. But somehow Rich couldn't be pigeonholed or packaged commercially. "Charlie had to educate us all; the public had to catch up to him," remarks guitar virtuoso and record executive Chet Atkins. "But we all knew his time would come."
This year, at 41, Charlie's time has come. Reports of his professional demise were as premature as his white hair (which began frosting when he was 23 and got him the Nashville nickname of "The Silver Fox"). After warming up last year on a country-chart hit, I Take It on Home, Charlie cut Behind Closed Doors, a gold-record single which achieved rare "platinum" status (sales of $2 million) as an album with the same name. His follow-up single, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, also made platinum, and Charlie won an American Music Award and a Grammy, and was honored as top male vocalist of the year at the ninth annual Country Music Awards held in the John Wayne Theater at California's Knotts Berry Farm this spring. Sums up Charlie on his mixed musical bag and his success, "I think we're a pretty good white blues singer, competent at good pop music and at our particular brand of country. There are more and more country people who like the blues. They don't even know they like it, but it's goin' down real well."
If down-home downers were all it took to sing the blues, Charlie would have been a sensation years earlier. 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 7, Charlie saw his brother killed by a tractor and hid in the woods for three days. Nonetheless, after a year of music theory at the state university and a hitch in the air force, Rich, his bride Margaret Ann and three very young children settled on their own Arkansas cotton patch. Two and a half years later Charlie decided that "a farm is a wonderful place to be when you're a kid, but a miserable one to make a living." Margaret Ann, herself a country songwriter, trundled a batch of Charlie's demonstration tapes to Memphis, but by the late '60s he was lucky to keep from falling off the piano stool when dead drunk on gin. "I think a guy who's had just the right amount of booze can sing the blues a hell of a lot better than a guy who is stone sober," Charlie would rationalize. But, coupled with pills, his boozing led beyond a creative buzz. As recently as last fall, Charlie checked himself into a sanatorium for a special two-week drying-out program, and now he drinks gallons of coffee and Coca-Cola every day instead.
The Rich family has just moved into an $80,000 home in a subdivision outside Memphis. But beyond that—and an antique, mahogany, signed Steinway Grand just acquired—their adjustment to Charlie's success has been minor. Margaret Ann, who wrote Charlie's hit Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs, smiles and says, "We're having withdrawal symptoms from poverty."
Just two years ago Epic was about to become the sixth record company to dump him. And why not? Charlie Rich had been going nowhere for 20 years, except to drink and to $10-a-night singing piano gigs in sad honky-tonks.