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Fresh Air Remembers Country Superstar Charlie Rich

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Country music star Charlie Rich died in 1995 at age 62, but his influence is still strong in country music and beyond. A new tribute album with artists providing their versions of the songs he wrote and popularized is called "Feels Like Going Home: The Songs Of Charlie Rich." It includes recordings by Jim Lauderdale, Charlie Rich, Jr. and Holli Mosley, who provides a cover of Rich’s 1961 recording "Who Will The Next Fool Be."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO WILL THE NEXT FOOL BE")

HOLLI MOSLEY: (Singing) After you get rid of me, who will the next fool be? I know, I know, I know there's things she'd like to know about the boy I love so 'cause after all that's said and done you won't be satisfied with anyone. After you get rid of me, who will the next fool be? Will she believe all those lies or end up like me, tears in her eyes? I know, I know, I know and I'd like to be the one to tell you so 'cause after all that's said and done.

BIANCULLI: Charlie Rich got his start in the 1950s as a session pianist and staff writer for Sun Records, the label that launched the career of Elvis Presley. Rich also had a hit on Sun, "Lonely Weekends," but fame arrived in the 1970s with such hits as "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl." He was an originator of a style that became known as countrypolitan because of its slick, orchestral arrangements and backup singers. Terry Gross spoke with Charlie Rich in 1992 after he recorded an album called "Pictures And Paintings" that showcased him without those big production values. It was just Rich and a few musicians doing songs written by Rich and his wife, Margaret Ann, as well as jazz and R&B standards, like "Mood Indigo" and this song, "You Don't Know Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T KNOW ME")

CHARLIE RICH: (Singing) You give your hand to me, and then you say hello. I can hardly speak. My heart is beating so. And anyone can tell. You think you know me well, but you don't know me. Whoa, you don't know the one that thinks of you at night, that longs to kiss your lips, arms to squeeze you tight. To you, I'm just a friend. That's all I've ever been. You just don't know me. I never knew the art of making love, though my heart aches with love for you. Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by, a chance that you might love me too. You give your hand to me and then you say goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

I'd like to talk with you about your life. Maybe we can start with your childhood. You grew up, I believe, on a family plantation?

RICH: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: So your family owned a plantation in Arkansas?

RICH: Yes. It was actually a rental-type thing. My father was a planter, and he rented, like, about 3,000 acres of land and farmed it. I guess that's probably where I first, you know, heard the blues that I still enjoy so much and everything was on this plantation.

GROSS: So you were exposed to black music from the people who worked on the plantation.

RICH: That's true.

GROSS: How did you make friends with the people there? I assume that they were older than you were.

RICH: Well, they, you know, some were older, some weren't. The - one of my main people was a guy named C.J. (ph), and he kind of taught me some blues licks, and I used to sit and watch him play piano and that sort of thing. And he was kind of a honky-tonk piano player for the time. And, of course, there was still - there was a quite a few blues things around Memphis, which the plantation was over in Arkansas, but it's only about 30 miles from Memphis. So Memphis had a pretty good blues thing to start with, you know.

GROSS: Did you go to black churches and listen to the music there?

RICH: Well, didn't really have to go. I did but, you know, you could hear it like on a Sunday or if you were riding your horse down the path or whatever, you could hear the black music come from the black churches. And as a matter of fact, in the, you know, in the cotton fields and that sort of thing you could hear the singing and the - I don't know. It's just something that was contagious kind of.

GROSS: I believe you parents were Baptist missionaries.

RICH: That's true.

GROSS: And they sang in the gospel quartet. What did they think of you learning the blues? Did they object to that?

RICH: No, they did not. No. As a matter of fact, my father and the sharecropper I was telling you about, C.J., they used to get together for, you know, some Saturday night sessions. My dad played guitar and C.J. played piano and that sort of thing. So there was no - really no racist thing or any of that to speak of, even though the times were that way. In our particular situation, it just never occurred that way.

GROSS: So did you ever sing gospel music yourself?

RICH: Well, of course, when, you know, when we went to church and that sort of thing, I sang what I guess we consider now white gospel music, which is, in a sense, kind of like the quartet-type singing. My mother played piano, my dad sang and two or three of their friends sang and kind of - they did a lot of churches and they did some radio shows and things like that. And they took me one time to a little station in Jonesboro, Ark., and I was supposed to sing. And they put a chair under me to - so I could reach up to the mic, but I never did sing. I was shell-shocked or something - mic shocked, maybe.

But anyway, the quartet was performing and I was supposed to sing a thing myself but I couldn't get any sound to come out.

BIANCULLI: Charlie Rich speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. He died three years later at age 62, but a new tribute album was released this fall. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 1992 with country music star Charlie Rich. He died in 1995 at age 62, but a new tribute album with other artists covering his songs was released this fall. It's called "Feels Like Going Home: The Songs Of Charlie Rich."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, I think that your first real professional break came when your wife, Margaret Ann, took a tape of your songs to the Sun studios in Memphis. And I was wondering if she did that secretly or if you knew that she was going to do that.

RICH: She did it secretly. At that time, we had just gotten out of the - because we got married while I was in the Air Force and I was 19 and she was 18. And we didn't have anything to do and we had two kids and another one on the way, and I was getting out of the Air Force, so I didn't have a check coming in. So my uncle set me up in the farming business over across the river in West Memphis. And that is where I was doing some stuff just at home and putting it on a little Webco recorder. And she took some of it secretly over to Bill Justis at Sun Company.

And he gave her - he was nice to her and everything, but he gave her a Jerry Lee Lewis record and said, go tell Charlie when he can play that bad, come see me (laughter) because Jerry was real hot at the time, you know.

GROSS: Yeah, and Sun was the studio that had Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Would you have had the nerve to take that tape to Sun yourself?

RICH: Well, at the time, I was busy, like, you know, with another occupation, or trying to be. And I didn't really know that much about the recording industry and that sort of thing. If it hadn't been for my wife, probably the tape would never have gotten to Bill and I don't know where I'd be now, maybe driving a tractor or something.

GROSS: Right. Well, the first record that you made you made for Sun Studios. It was a song of yours called "Lonely Weekends."

RICH: Right.

GROSS: And you recorded it in 1959. How did you get to record this?

RICH: I had written that song and as we got the ball rolling, so to speak, Sam got interested in the stuff we were writing more so than being an artist. And I think I wrote that for Elvis or Jerry Lee or whoever would cut it probably. And I guess we got a pretty good demo on it. And so Sam decided we'd cut it on me, and we did and ended up getting a good cut and it's the first record that we had out that, you know, that did quite well for us back I think it was 1959 or '60.

GROSS: Let me play it, and this is Charlie Rich, "Lonely Weekends."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONELY WEEKENDS")

RICH: (Singing) Well, I'll make it all right. From Monday morning till Friday night. Oh, those lonely weekends. Since you left me. I'm as lonely as I can be. Oh, those lonely weekends. You said you'd be good to me. You said our love would never die. You said you'd be good to me. But baby, you didn't even try. Well, I'll make it all right. From Monday morning till Friday night. Oh, those lonely weekends.

GROSS: Now listening to that, it sounds like you were a little influenced in your singing back then by Elvis Presley. Did you think of yourself as being influenced by him then?

RICH: Back then, everybody in a sense tried to - you know, they tried to either write something that Elvis would like or would do or would maybe even, you know, imitate him if they could to some degree. And being it was my first time out, I didn't know I guess what else to do. I don't think jazz was selling (laughter) real great about that time. But - so I think in a sense, he set a style that a lot of different people, including myself, tried to imitate to some degree - knowingly or unknowingly.

GROSS: In the 1970s, you hooked up with the record producer Billy Sherrill and he produced your really big hits like "The Most Beautiful Girl" and "Behind Closed Doors." How did you meet up with him and start working with him?

RICH: Well, at the time, I had met Billy before as an engineer for Sun Records in Nashville. Sam also had a studio in Nashville, so we went over there one time and recorded some things, and Billy was an engineer on the sessions. That's really the first place I met him.

The next time I met him, he was kind of the head producer over at Epic Records in Nashville. And we worked together for about three or four years and we did stuff, like you say, "The Most Beautiful Girl" and "Behind Closed Doors" and "I Take It On Home" and quite a few different things. And some worked and some didn't, but those were the biggest selling records. And, of course, that meant, you know, overseas tours and moving around a lot. And finally, we even played Las Vegas quite a bit and places like that. So it just led to quite a bit of work.

GROSS: Well, I want to play "The Most Beautiful Girl" and I have to tell you that, you know, I just recently went back and listened to this record again and you sing so soulfully on it. You really sing beautifully on it. I'll confess, though, when it was a hit, I used to just, like, hear it in the background a lot and I wouldn't always, you know, pay careful attention to it…

RICH: Yeah.

GROSS: …Like one does with a lot of hits, you know, that you're just hearing like on jukeboxes...

RICH: Sure.

GROSS: ...And in stores and in the background on the radio. But you really sing so well on it.

RICH: Well, thank you. That's very nice of you.

GROSS: So let's give this a spin (laughter).

RICH: OK.

GROSS: And this is Charlie Rich, one of his big hits, "The Most Beautiful Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL")

RICH: (Singing) Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world? And if you did, was she crying, crying? Hey, if you happen to see the most beautiful girl that walked out on me, tell her I'm sorry. Tell her I need my baby. Oh, won't you tell her that I love her.

GROSS: Did you feel that you fit in with the country music crowd in the '70s?

RICH: Well, I traveled with country music folk and played country music shows and auditoriums. And I didn't - I liked country music, but that wasn't all that I liked. And I still think there's some great country records out there and some good things come out of country music. I just can't seem to just stay in one particular thing because I kind of - I feel like it kind of makes me stale if I try to stay in one particular category. And so I venture out on a lot of new things. Some work, some don't.

GROSS: Well, Charlie Rich, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

RICH: Terry, it's nice to talk to you.

BIANCULLI: Charlie Rich speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. He died three years later, but a new tribute album recorded by other artists called "Feels Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich" was released this fall. It was produced by Michael Dinallo. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Jackie" starring Natalie Portman as former first lady Jackie Kennedy. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.