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20 Essential Songs from the Silver Fox

semi silver fox

Charlie Rich is an artist that makes you dig.  Much of his best work was either failed singles or buried album tracks.  His biggest fame came when Nashville producer Billy Sherrill bombarded his records with syrupy string arrangements.  Nobody could figure out how to let a white blues singer from Colt, Arkansas follow his artistic vision and simultaneously make money.  Here are twenty of his best songs, in chronological order.

1.  “Rebound,” 1959.  Sam Phillips had one major concern regarding Charlie Rich, he though he was too musically sophisticated for the marketplace.  Phillips gave Rich some Sun Records to study and instructed him to “come back when you get this bad.”  This piano hooked rocker is one of many (many, many) Elvis inspired records that Rich would cut over the next decade.

2.  “Lonely Weekends,” 1959.  Released in late 1959, this became Rich’s first pop hit, hitting #22 in 1960.  The production on this rocker plays it safe, the saxophone solo doesn’t wail, it bops.  Rich sounds more elated than defeated when he proclaims, “Well, I make it alright…”!

3.  “Caught in the Middle,” 1961.  The girl group era comes to Sun as female singers chirp and coo in the background.  Caught in the middle of country and pop music, this single went nowhere.

4.  “Who Will the Next Fool Be,” 1961.  A traditional blues style number penned by Rich, Bobby Bland released it as a single in 1962.  Jerry Lee Lewis and the Amazing Rhythm Aces have also covered it.  Became a minor country hit in 1970 after the critics discovered The Fabulous Charlie Rich.

5.  “Midnight Blues,” 1962.  Also titled “Midnite Blues” on some recordings, this has a Ray Charles groove and imitation Raelettes in the background.  Our hero wants to be a good boy, but that evil nightlife keeps calling his name.

6.  “Mohair Sam,” 1965.  Released on Smash Records, this was the biggest hit the Coasters never had.  Fast talking, slow walking, good looking “Mohair Sam” was Rich’s second pop hit, reaching #22.

7.  “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Waters,” 1965.  This guilt by association number was the b-side to “Mohair Sam” and was a country hit for Stonewall Jackson in 1965.  Johnny Rivers had a pop hit with it in 1966 and Elvis had the bloodhounds on his trail on his 1971 cover.  A seven-year-old Steve thought the chorus was one of the deepest philosophical statements in the history of the universe.

8.  “You Can Have Her,” 1966.  Rich brought an element of gospel testifying to this Bill Cook composition that Roy Hamilton took to #12 on the pop charts in 1961.

9.  “Set Me Free,” 1968.  Joe Tex meets Elvis as Rich goes for extended spoken passages, then curls his lip.  His first entry on the country charts, reaching #44.

10.  “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs,” 1969.  In 1968, Rich signed with Epic Records and started being marketed to the country audience.  His 1969 album The Fabulous Charlie Rich had no significant hits but is now considered a classic.  Written by then wife Margaret Ann Rich, this song is about a woman whose faith in her husband transcends his success.  Ouch.  Reached #41 on the country charts.

11.  “Bright Lights, Big City,” 1969.  Another number from Fabulous, Rich covers this Jimmy Reed classic like Vegas era Elvis.  There are worse role models.

12.  “Memphis and Arkansas Bridge,” 1970.  Playing up his geographical roots, the country boy gets drunk and lost in the city, just hoping to return to Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.  I’ve been in Walnut Ridge plenty of times.  He should have stayed in Memphis.

13.  “I Do My Singing at Home,” 1970.  Rich makes the most of his material here with his gospel turned jazz piano playing and a fine vocal performance.

14.  “Nice ‘N’ Easy,” 1970.  Sinatra recorded this in 1960 and Rich did his first version in 1964.  It’s stylistically a dramatic contrast to Sinatra’s big band sound as Rich gives the number an extended blues piano solo.  Weirdly enough, this was his first Top 40 country hit, sneaking in at #37.

15.  “I Take it On Home,” 1972.  Pushing age 40 and after approximately a decade and a half of recording, Rich hit the country Top Ten for the first time with this slow, soulful number about turning down all the neighborhood hussies.  Sherill stamps the number with a string avalanche after a low-key intro.

16.  “Behind Closed Doors,” 1973.  An instantly recognizable piano lick serves as the intro to the Silver Fox’s signature song.  He glides into the huge sing-along chorus, then bears down on the payoff lines.  I wondered whether this condescendingly sexist “lady in the living room, acrobat in the bedroom” number would be too offensive for modern listeners.  Then I heard “Bubble Butt” on the radio and this sounded positively quaint.

17.  “The Most Beautiful Girl,” 1973.  A rather banal pop song, this was Rich’s biggest hit, topping both the U.S. pop and country charts.  In 1974, Rich had five #1 country hits, four of which crossed over to the pop Top 40 charts.  Commercially, it was the best of times.  Musically, it was the worst of times.

18.  “Since I Fell For You,” 1976.  In the mid-70s, country radio began pushing pop stars like Olivia Newton-John and John Denver.  The traditional country establishment was not amused.  At the 1975 CMA Awards, a drunken Rich announced that John Denver was the “Entertainer of the Year,” then set fire to the award paperwork.  Rich took a commercial hit for his actions and his singles, for the most part, began charting lower.  This version of the 1945 jazz standard, which Lenny Welch took to #4 on the pop charts in 1963, peaked at #10.

19.  “Rollin’ with the Flow,” 1977.  A good easy listening song about being a hell raiser, this would be Rich’s penultimate #1.  His last #1 was 1978’s “On My Knees,” a duet version (with Janie Fricke) of a song that Rich originally recorded in 1960.  Nashville has been the leader of the recycling industry for decades.

20.  “Feel Like Going Home,” 1992.  Originally the b-side to “The Most Beautiful Girl, Rich did a new version for his final album, 1992’s Pictures and Paintings.  It’s the tale of a weary traveler that’s ready to go to the promised land.  His own epitaph, rendered with a longing mix of pain and hope.  Go home, kind sir.  And, thank you

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