Music Features

Charlie Rich's Swansong

Pay no mind to iTunes, which has Pictures and Paintings (1992) listed as a country album. If fact there's nothing on it that could be categorized as such, except that the songs are sung and played by the one and only Charlie Rich, who was CMA's Entertainer of the Year in 1974. Before he reached that plateau, Rich was halfway through a career that began as a jazz performer and gained traction as a rock 'n' roller in the late fifties. Though his role at Sun Records began as a studio musician and songwriter, his talent couldn't be contained. Sun's owner, Sam Phillips, was pivotal in launching the careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, but Rich won a special place in his heart. "I don't think I recorded anyone who was better as a singer, writer, and player than Charlie Rich," Phillips once said. What impressed him most was the way he moved effortlessly from rock to blues to jazz. As a genre hopper, Rich grew to love country music as well, which catapulted him to stardom in the early seventies. However, it rankled him to be pigeonholed as a country artist; in fact, it was that issue and his disdain for the recording industry what pushed him to cut his career short. As a musician, he had seen life's ups and downs, but success was too hard to handle.

The years of retirement gave Rich sobriety and peace of mind; however, the recording industry he had shunned wasn't clamoring for a comeback. Pictures and Paintings came to be thanks to writer Peter Guralnick, who helped Rich put together a deal with Sire Records. The resulting album, which grew out of jam sessions, was to be his last. Guralnick and the production team of Scott Billington and Joe Ewen ensured a recording environment free of pressures, allowing Rich free range as an arranger and musician. With nothing to hold him back, there's a purity here not found in previous recordings, a willingness to challenge preconceptions to give us a truer picture of himself. The defiance fueling the flames was benign, not meant to turn country fans away. Take for instance his new version of Everytime You Touch Me (I Get High), which foregoes the original's strings arrangement for a danceable bossa nova beat. There's no whiff of nostalgia here. Rich was tipping his hat to the past, but he couldn't assume the old role, not when the creative juices were still flowing.

Written by Dr. John and Doc Pomus, the title song saunters along with jazz cool, another side of his expansive talent. The lyrics are about memories, those that linger and gain emotional resonance through the years. It's no coincidence that this style of music harks back to the time when he made a hard living in smoky jazz clubs. The timbre of his voice showcases that of a man at peace with his past, and when the verses stop his piano takes over to express what can't be conveyed through words, the tinkling notes giving shape to remembrances. The bluesiest part of the jazz spectrum is represented by Mood Indigo and Am I Blue? The former is a Duke Ellington classic that Rich makes his own, launching the song with the original's piano chords before taking it in a new direction with a swinging arrangement and expressive solos. The latter is an American songbook standard that gains immediacy through Rich's despairing voice.

Rich grew up with the blues. As a young boy, he'd watch his father, an Arkansas farmer, play together with his black farm workers, and the music touched him deeply. Rich was soon learning his first blues licks from a farm hand. Though his musical education was an organic progression, the wisdom came from within. Few singers can reach deep down and bare their souls. Rich had that power; the blues lived inside him. Everything he did, no matter the genre, had that feel. The album keeps the fire alive on songs like Don't Put No Headstone On My Grave and Juice Head Baby, both glowing red-hot. With percussive Stax horns, Somebody Broke Into My Heart shows that Rich was equally at ease as a soul singer, recalling the energy and swagger of the sides he recorded for the Smash label in the mid sixties.

Though Rich was good in every genre he tackled, he found his niche as a balladeer, which saved his career and made him a country star. However, the album stays clear of the countrypolitan sound that became his bread and butter in the early seventies. The backing is sparer here, superbly atmospheric. You Don't Know Me keeps close to Ray Charles' soulful version, yet Rich gets in full crooner mode for Anywhere You Are and Go Ahead And Cry. He brings forth the aching melancholy within these songs, which isn't far from the emotional heft of his blues repertoire.

The album ends with a new version of Feel Like Going Home. It's a significant choice. Rich wrote the song in 1971 for Peter Guralnick, naming it after his book. Rich felt indebted to the writer, whose book had a chapter dedicated to him. It came at a juncture when the musician was struggling to keep his career afloat and was thinking of giving up. Two decades later, Guralnick was still playing a significant role in his life. As for the song, it has become a gospel standard in the intervening years, but the covers can't replicate Rich's delivery. "I tried and I failed, and I feel like going home," Rich sings with the weariness of a man who's seen rock bottom and longs to start over, the new version making the most of the interaction with the chorus of singers. The track, one of the consummate songs of his career, is his testament as a man of faith.

Rich died on July 25, 1995, leaving a treasure trove of great music. Though his role in the rock and country fields is well documented, he remains an intriguing figure. A chronicle of his recording career couldn't do him justice because his jazz tracks rarely made the final cut and were often pushed to the margins in favor of sellable pop. Rich knew no musical boundaries, and it posed problems for his producers, who extracted from him what they could use and sell. They couldn't understand that Rich only wanted the freedom to be himself. That wish was finally granted. As the last chapter of his recording career, Pictures and Paintings succeeds in capturing Rich's essence.