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Terry Gross, host:

We're going to conclude our country music series with an interview from our archive with the late Charlie Rich. He was one of country music's biggest stars in the '70s with hits like "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl."

He got his start in the 1950s as a session pianist and staff writer for Sun Records, the label that launched careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. Rich also had a hit on Sun, "Lonely Weekends." In the '60s he had the novelty hit "Mohair Sam," but there were many lean years in that decade.

In the '70s, he became famous. He was an originator of a style that became known as countrypolitan because of its slick orchestral arrangements and backup singers.

Rich died in 1995 at the age of 62 from a blood clot on his lung. I spoke with him in 1992, after he recorded an album that showcased him without the 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 "Moon Indigo" and "You Dont Know Me." The album is called "Pictures and Paintings."

Let's start with the title song. It was written by Doc Pomus and Dr. John and features Rich at the piano.

(Soundbite of song, "Pictures and Paintings")

Mr. CHARLIE RICH (Musician): (Singing) Pictures and paintings are etched in my heart, for a love with no ending and never had a chance to start. Now all I am left with, all that I have, are pictures and paintings etched in my heart. Pictures and paintings...

GROSS: Charlie Rich, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. RICH: Thank you, Terry. Nice to be here.

GROSS: Do you think that the country superstar image of yours gave listeners a very limited view of who you are musically?

Mr. RICH: I think once you get like pegged, so to speak, that you kind of have a tendency to not be able to know exactly what you can in a sense get away with and what you can't. So in that respect, I think that youre kind of up a creek, because if you, in a sense, if you go out and do something that's far out from the public that youre playing for, sometimes you might just lose a lot of them. So that's about it. And this one we had no holds barred and just could play like we wanted to. There wasnt any arrangements. There were not any, I dont know, it was really a pleasure for me to do it and work with the guys here.

GROSS: 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?

Mr. RICH: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: So your family owned a plantation in Arkansas?

Mr. 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.

Mr. RICH: That's true.

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

Mr. RICH: Well, they, you know, some were older, some werent. The, one of my main people was a guy named C.J., 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?

Mr. RICH: Well, didnt 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 dont know, its just stuff that was contagious kind of.

GROSS: I believe you parents were Baptist missionaries.

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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 session. 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?

Mr. 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, Arkansas 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 couldnt get any sound to come out.

GROSS: How old were you?

Mr. RICH: And I still, in a sense, sometimes have a problem with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How old were you when this happened?

Mr. RICH: Oh, I was about five or six.

GROSS: When you actually started performing, was stage fright ever a serious problem?

Mr. RICH: Well, I think so, yes. I dont know if that's - I dont know whether it's that or like anxiety or some of the new names they have for things now. But like once, you know, once the ball is kicked off everything fine, but before that it's a little nerve-racking, yes.

GROSS:: Right.

Mr. RICH: Still. It's anxiety-panic disorder I think is what they call it now.

GROSS: A (unintelligible) name.

Mr. RICH: A bad business to be in, huh?

GROSS: Yeah. If youre just joining us, my guest is Charlie Rich. Now what about piano? How did you start playing? Was there a piano in your house?

Mr. RICH: We had a piano in the house and my mother played. I have two sisters and they both took piano lessons. And I took from about the third grade till about the ninth grade and then decided I wanted to play football, and I did that. And in the meantime, I was learning to play saxophone in the band. And only after I got back into the - when I went into the Air Force, did I actually start playing piano again, professionally, so to speak.

GROSS: You were in an Air Force band?

Mr. RICH: Yes, in Enid, Oklahoma.

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?

Mr. 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...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. RICH: ...and I was 19 and she was 18 and we didnt 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 didnt 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 Webcor 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. Because Jerry was real hot at the time, you know.

GROSS: Yes. 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?

Mr. RICH: Well, at the time I was busy like, you know, with another occupation, or trying to be.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. RICH: And I didnt 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 dont 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."

Mr. RICH: Right.

GROSS: And you recorded it in 1950.

Mr. RICH: '60 wasnt it?

GROSS: Excuse me?

Mr. RICH: '59 or '60?

GROSS: Yeah, I'm sorry. You recorded in 1959. How did you get to record this?

Mr. RICH: I had written that song written 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...

(Soundbite of clearing voice)

Mr. RICH: ...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. This is Charlie Rich, "Lonely Weekends."

(Soundbite of song "Lonely Weekends")

Mr. RICH: (Singing) Well, I'll make it all right. From Monday morning 'til 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 'til 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?

Mr. 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 didnt know I guess what else to do. I dont think jazz was selling...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICH: ...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: We're concluding our country music series with out 1992 interview with Charlie Rich, who died in 1995 at the age of 62.

We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to my 1992 interview with the late songwriter, singer and pianist, Charlie Rich.

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?

Mr. 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.

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 didnt. 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 wouldnt always, you know, pay careful attention to it.

Mr. RICH: Yeah.

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

Mr. RICH: Sure.

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

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

GROSS: So, let's give this a spin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICH: Okay.

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

(Soundbite of song, "The Most Beautiful Girl")

Mr. 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?

Mr. RICH: Well, I traveled with country music folk and played country music shows and auditoriums. And I didnt - I liked country music but that wasnt 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 dont.

GROSS: In 1974 you won the Country Music Award for Entertainer of the Year. And in the next year, 1975, you were presenting the award to the winner, and you opened up the envelope which revealed that the winner was John Denver. So what you did was you took out your cigarette lighter and burned the piece of paper that announced who the winner was. What was going through your mind when you did that?

Mr. RICH: It's kind of strange. They're a lot of, on that particular instance there were a lot of people asking me if it was a form of rebellion or what have you or something of that nature or if I didnt like John Denver or if - but actually, that wasnt the situation at all. Things at those awards shows and things can get pretty hectic in the back, before you even get on stage and what have you. And it seems like millions of people running around back there and that sort of thing.

And I guess my anxiety-panic disorder kicked in or something. But there was no intent as far as trying to make a statement. It was just kind of a mistake that, you know, that I've done, I've made a few before.

GROSS: Well, no matter how it was intended, I'm sure a lot of people interpreted it as a slam to John Denver. I was wondering if there were any consequences that you suffered as a result of having, you know, done this at the Country Music Awards?

Mr. RICH: Well, I dont know. It may have...

(Soundbite of clearing voice)

Mr. RICH: Its hard to say exactly. It may have been that I had been overworked in '73, '74, '75 and that sort of thing and maybe I was rebelling but not against John Denver and not against country music. I just - like I say, it was just a mistake that I made that I guess was important. But actually, I think everything works to the good, so maybe I was saying, well, I want to try something else besides country or something. I dont know.

GROSS: So you think it was in your own way a way of getting out?

Mr. RICH: I think maybe so, yes.

GROSS: Was that the result?

Mr. RICH: Well, it was - I kept on recording and went with another couple of labels and some different producers and that sort of thing. And we did a lot of records, a lot of writing and the same things that wed been doing, not many being successful. And we tried doing some, you know, strictly country type stuff and I just said that I dont want to just do just country type stuff the rest of my life. I want to do some different things. And so that's kind of where I am now, I guess. And Peter Guralnick and Joe McEwen gave me that opportunity with this album, so that's kind of the result.

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

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

GROSS: Charlie Rich, recorded in 1992. He died in 1995 of a blood clot on his lung. He was 62.

We'll close with his recording, "Dont Put No Headstone on My Grave." When I asked Sam Phillips to choose his favorite of all the records he ever produced, and keep in mind, Phillips produced Elvis Presley's first records, Phillips chose this recording, describing it as a masterpiece.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Dont Put No Headstone on My Grave")

Mr. RICH: (Singing) Don't put no headstone on my grave. All my life I've been a slave. I dont want the world to know, here lies a man that loves you so.

Dont send no flowers when I'm gone. Just put me down and then move on. Just put me down and let me be, free from all this misery.

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