Most people probably don’t remember Charlie Rich today. It’s hard for me to fathom that the world is generally so unknowing. He was a soul and jazz singer who struggled through the late ‘50s and ‘60s trying to have a rock and roll career. Through his color and his age, he must have finally caved in to becoming a country singer. Charlie Rich was known as The Silver Fox.
Rich hooked up with legendary producer Billy Sherrill trying to find the combination to a country career. Their work together jelled with the creation of an album called Behind Closed Doors, released in 1972, that sent Charlie’s career through the stratosphere. The album was driven by two outstandingly successful singles, the “Behind Closed Doors” title track and “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a warm love song that solidified his new-found superstar status. By 1974, Charlie had five #1 country hits that all crossed over to be Pop hits as well, from his Epic Recordings with Billy and from a stockpile of tracks that he had left behind at other labels.
When I launched the first publicity department for a label (Columbia and Epic) in Nashville with Mary Ann McCready in 1974, the press demand for Charlie Rich was likely CBS Records’ inspiration to initiate the department. I was barely unpacked in my new office on Music Row when Epic head of country promotion, Bill Williams, said we were headed to Memphis to meet with Charlie, who was already a full-blown superstar. Another Bill Williams, the Nashville Editor of Billboardwas also going to Memphis to complete interviews with The Silver Fox for a major advertorial for that industry trade bible.
Epic’s Bill Williams asked me if I could scramble and get some other press happening while we were there. Charlie was a reluctant star in many ways, and although Behind Closed Doors was on its way to 7 million album sales, very little press had been done. Epic’s Bill was hoping that Charlie could get to know me and I could work on helping him begin to be more comfortable with the interviewing process. I never did. And Charlie never did either.
Bonnie Garner was a young A&R star at CBS in those days. Bonnie had friends on both coasts based on her progressive musical tastes. She mentioned to me that a New York photographer friend, Raeanne Rubenstein, was in town and eager to connect with our artists. I met with Raeanne and soon we had a New York writer, Carol Offen, from the short-lived Celebrity magazine on for a junket to Memphis.
So the two Bill Williams’, Raeanne, Carol, and I all headed to Memphis. Billboard’s Bill immediately went to Charlie’s home in the Germantown section of Memphis to do his interview. Epic’s Bill, Raeanne, Carol, and I went to dinner, with the plan to meet with Charlie the following morning. As it turned out, Charlie was so comfortable doing the Billboardinterview that it continued the next morning. The four of us then arrived around noon for Carol’s interview and with the hope that Charlie would be comfortable enough to shoot a few shots with Raeanne.
As we put the Billboard editor in the car to the airport, Charlie suggested that the remaining four of us take a ride with him in his van to pick up one of his sons who was at a friend’s house not too far away. Epic’s Bill Williams knew Charlie very well and had been a passionate force in the set up and success of The Silver Fox’s rise through country radio. Bill was as close and trusted by Charlie as any record company person could expect to be. Three of us knew that Bill was very concerned that Charlie would have a positive experience doing press. And this ride in the van seemed like a great, casual way to get started, and we’d meet his teen-aged son Alan. As we left the house, we met Charlie’s lovely and gracious wife Margaret Ann, who seemed happy that Charlie was comfortable with this young crowd in their living room. Bill had told us that she was Charlie’s rock. She was a very talented songwriter herself and the soulmate of this reluctant star. Certainly, her special talent was understanding this tortured soulful singer.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to pick up Charlie’s son in that same upscale suburban Germantown neighborhood. Charlie couldn’t quite locate the friend’s house where Alan was to be picked up. And after driving around for all of five minutes looking for the house, Charlie asked if we’d like to take a drive out to the country across the Mississippi into Arkansas. He said there was a man there who used to play the blues when he was growing up. Charlie continued, “No one can teach you the blues…” But if there was a mentor this man must have been the one!
Raeanne immediately lit up, obviously envisioning a phenomenal exclusive photo op with one of the biggest pop stars in America. We all nodded our interest in the adventure and Charlie pointed that white van west, through Memphis toward the bridge. We never again heard a word about the whereabouts of his son.
It was one of those scorching hot days with not a cloud in the sky. We drove an hour or so into rural Arkansas, to what I believe was somewhere near Marrianna. We drove through the cotton fields on a gravel road until Charlie finally pulled the van over to the side where a lone tin-roofed shack stood on a patch of grass surrounded by a seemingly endless landscape of cotton shrubs.
As we surveyed this desolate plot, an old black man rose from a chair on the side porch to greet us. He embraced Charlie as they met midway in the yard. The four of us scrambled from the van and Raeanne grabbed her cameras, loaded and began shooting as if to capture this mirage before it disappeared in the Arkansas heat.
The old farmer welcomed us all with a peaceful warmth that I still remember. He and Charlie then engaged in a joyful reminiscence that removed the rest of us to pure spectator status. It was only minutes before the two found their way to a weathered upright piano that was literally the only furnishing that graced the shanty’s living room. The front door must have been open for the summer to coax any hint of a breeze from the dead-still sun-baked Arkansas air. The four of us took turns standing in that doorway or sitting on the side porch listening to these two old friends play that piano together for the next couple of hours. They were in a world unto themselves. The walls of the room were as bare as the furnishings, save for a framed picture of Martin Luther King that presided proudly over this humble domain. When you looked up, a criss-cross of wires networked an electric source that I never saw working. Raeanne captured it all.
Here we were with perhaps the biggest country and pop star in the US of the moment, completely isolated from the world. No cell phones. No texting. No landlines. Raeanne snapped. Carol took notes. Bill and I simply waited patiently through the heat of the day as this private blues concert unfolded.
It was late afternoon when a pick-up truck pulled up behind Charlie’s van on the side of the road. A neatly dressed, blue-collar type guy walked across the lawn and greeted Charlie as he too seemed to know him from childhood. Charlie was 42 at the time and they seemed of the same age. We came to learn this fellow was the foreman of the “plantation.” Which struck me more simply as a farm.
The foreman was happy to see Charlie too. However, he seemed to have a greater understanding of The Silver Fox’s celebrity. He invited us all to his house for the evening, where he was having a high school graduation party for his son. He spent a good bit of time one-on-one with Charlie attempting to convince him that we should stop by. In the meantime, Bill Williams was carefully, but steadily urging Charlie that we needed to get back to Memphis. He said we all needed to be in touch with our families and that Margaret Ann was probably concerned about where we were.
Unfortunately, our new-found foreman had somehow slipped Charlie a beer. And if you know anything about the legacy of Charlie Rich, you know that he struggled mightily and notoriously with alcohol at several junctures of his life. Bill was beside himself when he realized that Charlie had had a drink. However, Bill did convince Charlie that it was time to leave, and we said good-bye to this beautiful bluesman and the sweet piano that had filled our afternoon.
However, once in the driver’s seat again, Charlie decided we were going to stop at the foreman’s house. Charlie Rich was a formidable man. With a beer or two under his belt, there was no arguing. Our next stop was the foreman’s house.
Somehow, I think the son’s graduation party guest list expanded a bit once the word was out that Charlie Rich might stop by. We arrived to a packed house and the foreman quickly made sure to separate Charlie from his minders. Bill was exasperated. And we then spent the next couple of hours uncomfortably in this packed living room with a well-oiled group of people who were very happy to have Charlie Rich there, but weren’t entirely interested in having two ladies from New York and a couple of record guys there. I distinctly remember the son, who was apparently headed to college to play football, repeating over and over with a dedicated enthusiasm that he “just wanted to hit someone.” I’m sure he found the opportunity over that next four years.
Bill finally convinced Charlie to leave about 10 PM that night, and he also managed to get the van keys as Charlie dozed after a lot to drink at the foreman’s house. We were all extremely relieved to be heading toward Memphis. As we drove, everyone started remembering that we had not eaten since breakfast (thanks to the hospitality at the foreman’s house!), and it was determined that we should make a quick stop in West Memphis, Arkansas, for a bite to eat. West Memphis is a sea of 24-hour truck stops, but we found a pizza shop that was ready to close around 11 PM. The place was empty save for the owner, a very friendly and hospitable Lebanese man, along with a young waitress. They put some pies in the oven for our ravenous crew and we all had a couple of beers in the relief that we were close to getting Charlie home. Bill headed quickly for a payphone to call his wife. Then, Charlie collared me.
He was on the downside of his drunk and ordered me to get as many quarters as possible, and then directed me to play the B side of “The Most Beautiful Girl”, a song he had written called “Feel Like Goin’ Home.” It fit his melancholy, the hour, and the direction we were headed perfectly. He then asked me to play it again… and again. I dutifully pumped quarters for nearly two hours as The Silver Fox found a single, solitary place in his mind he was searching for. “Lord, I feel like goin’ home…”
It was close to 1:00 AM when we got Charlie out of the pizza joint. The Lebanese pizza man and his helper were locking the door and leaving too. And just as we thought we were on the last leg of this escapade, Charlie Rich suddenly had a new idea. He pronounced, “I want to see the sunrise over Colt, Arkansas!” Colt was where he was born. Bill quickly began trying to convince Charlie that he needed to go home. But Charlie had found some new energy and on top of that, he wanted the pizza man and the waitress to go with us!
I guess there wasn’t much going on in West Memphis that night, because our new found friends were more than eager to see the sunrise over Colt with the giant celebrity who so unexpectedly graced their shop that night. Bill was completely exasperated. His wife was upset that he wasn’t home. Margaret Ann must have been extremely worried. Charlie was ultimately his responsibility, since I was just the new kid in the company, and Charlie had reached a point of defiance. Raeanne and Carol were more than eager to get back to the hotel in Memphis at this point, but they rolled with the punches. Charlie, now back behind the wheel was planning to drive the 75 miles down I-40 to the birthplace of The Silver Fox. Bill finally relented to this new side trip if Charlie would agree to riding shotgun. And speaking of guns, some years later, one of my three partners in this odyssey mentioned that Charlie might have had a gun that night and made a threat. I don’t remember it, but he may have had one may have been under the seat.
Now, we were headed west again. But, at least we had eaten! There were now seven in our party. I fell asleep at some point on this drive, but I woke up to the van violently rocking as we drove uphill through the brush and trees of a wooded area somewhere in the middle of Arkansas. We must have still been going 15 MPH off-road as everyone was tossed around the back of the van. Within seconds the truck stopped haltingly and we all piled out into the middle of that steamy Arkansan night. Charlie quickly urged us to follow him another fifty feet, through the brush up the hill, when we suddenly burst upon the end of the path… and a sharp cliff below. Now, before us from this peak was the Arkansas flatland, the overnight lights of Colt, that glazed into a sky full of stars. Charlie Rich was proud in his alcoholic glow that we had achieved his wish. He intended to sit on that precipice to see the sun rise over Colt.
The rest of us rambled back down the hill to where the van sat. The night heat was excessive, but we discovered we had stopped directly beside an overgrown pond, and the lure of the water had us quickly pulling off shoes, rolling up pant legs, and ditching our shirts. We had dressed for an interview at Charlie’s house the previous morning. The clothes had burdened us too long!
For an instant, the water was cool and a welcomed relief, but literally within seconds the water, the sweat, and the scent of fresh blood ignited a mosquito orgy like I have never experienced in my life since! We were screaming from the welts as we shut ourselves in that sweltering van trying escape those ravenous bugs. I was nearly out of my mind from the bites for the next hours till dawn.
Hot, bitten, eyes burning from the morning light, and stiff from sleeping on the floor, I felt the van start bouncing down through the brush to the road. Within minutes we were on the highway and then we pulled into a Stuckey’s. Everyone was pretty groggy and looking for caffeine. And as we started to find our equilibrium again, an Arkansas State Trooper pulled in. When he got inside Bill met him. He told Bill there were people look for us, including Margaret Ann. Assured that we were okay, he left and surely radioed in that The Silver Fox was alive and maybe well somewhere in the middle of Arkansas, with two ladies from New York, a pizza guy and a waitress, and two record guys.
The long drive back to Memphis was quiet. Bill drove. We dropped the pizza man and his assistant at the shop and we continued across the Mississippi into Memphis, Tennessee. When we got to Germantown, Bill suggested that it might be better if Raeanne, Carol, and I wait a couple of blocks from Charlie’s house on a street corner. He would take the big man home and try to explain it all to Margaret Ann.
Today, it was almost exactly 15 years since Charlie Rich made that ultimate trip home. He died in 1995. He pretty much avoided the spotlight past the early ‘80s. Tom Waits toured with him in later years and wrote a song called “Putnam County” that included the line “The radio’s spitting out Charlie Rich… He sure can sing, that son of a bitch.”
I saw Charlie win countless awards later in 1974, and perform gloriously behind grand pianos as the true star that he was, with that shock of gray hair and that strong chin standing out as he gave us his soul in songs. Some may remember him drunk on national television presenting the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award to John Denver in 1975, when he set the envelope on fire in defiance that only he understood… if even he did. I thought of how much Margaret Ann had to bear for the love of a tortured man.
I thought I would lose my job at the record company for such a potentially damaging PR fiasco with one of the most profitable recording stars of that era. Carol wrote the story for her magazine, but I begged her to keep our names out of it, which she did. I thought Margaret Ann would call the head of Epic Records and condemn us. But in hindsight, I’m sure she knew that whatever happened was driven by the restless impulses of her soulmate, the Silver Fox.
I got a note from Mary Ann McCready this week. It said that the rock of Charlie Rich’s life, Margaret Ann had passed away a few days ago. A songwriter and a singer herself, she was the only one who knew him. So now God has finally gotten some help with that restless soul he took 15 years ago.
He’s at peace, now that Margaret Ann is home. Maybe she waited a while just to show him what it feels like to sit home and wait. I dearly hope Charlie takes her to see the sunrise over Colt…
…And maybe there will be an old fella playing an upright piano. Because I’m just about out of quarters…
Lord, I feel like going home
I’ve tried and I fell and I’m tired and weary
Everything I’ve done is wrong
And I feel like going home
Lord, I tried to see you through
But it was too much for me
Now I’m coming home to you
Yeah, I feel like going home
Clouded skies are closing in
And not a friend around to help me
Of all the places I’ve been
Lord, I feel like going home…