Born December 14, 1934, in Colt, Arkansas; son of a cotton farmer; married, wife’s name Margaret Ann; three children. Education: Attended University of Arkansas, majored in music. Addresses: Home– 8229 Rockcreek Parkway, Cordova, TN 38018.
No singer’s career illustrates the vicissitudes of country-music stardom better than that of Charlie Rich, the “Silver Fox.” Rich achieved superstardom as a “crossover” artist in 1973 with two hit singles, “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl,” but for two decades before that he had struggled to find the right sound and style. The years since 1973 have been almost as daunting, because Rich, a blues and rock aficionado, has never been comfortable with the label “country star.” All categories aside, Rich appeals to a broad audience with his soul-wrenching vocals. “I don’t really like happy music,” he told Newsweek. “I don’t think it says anything.”
Like many of his contemporaries in country music, Rich grew up in poverty on a cotton farm, miles from the glittering promise of Nashville. He was born and raised in Colt, Arkansas, population 312. Before he finished high school he was earning wages as a cotton picker for his father and other local farmers. Music was a sideline–one that was strictly monitored by his Baptist missionary parents. Rich was allowed to play the tenor saxophone in the high school band, but playing at dances and playing for money were forbidden.
Rich was a serious music student who developed a taste for jazz, especially the works of Stan Kenton and Oscar Peterson. For some time he attended the University of Arkansas, where, as a music major, he perfected his blues and jazz techniques on horn and piano. In 1952 he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Enid, Oklahoma. There he joined a jazz group and began moonlighting in the local honky-tonks and clubs. During this period he met and married his wife, Margaret Ann, also a jazz buff and singer. Upon his discharge he returned to his father’s cotton farm, but Margaret Ann had other ideas. She took a demo tape to the Sun Records studios, where producer Sam Phillips was working with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison. Phillips’s associate Bill Justis listened to the tape and hired Rich as a session musician.
Justis and Phillips were candid with Rich: his sound was too jazzy and too elegant for success as a solo performer. He would have to loosen up and start composing and singing in the Jerry Lee Lewis vein. Rich obliged, even to the extent of writing a hit for Lewis, “I’ll Make It All Up to You.” Although Phillips predicted at one point that Rich’s future in music looked as promising as Presley’s, Rich had only one charted single on the Sun label, “Lonely Weekends.” Rich wrote and sang the tune, which has since been recorded by a wide variety of country and rock artists. The singer told Newsweek that he had become quite disenchanted with Sun Records by the early 1960s. “Sam Phillips had gotten wealthy,” he said, “and was more interested in Holiday Inn stock than the record business.” Rich switched to Groove, a subsidiary of RCA, in 1963 and earned his second charted hit, “Big Boss Man.”
The 1960s found Rich groping for a marketable style as he returned to the honky-tonk circuit. He had a brief period of success with Smash Records, where he recorded the rhythm-and-blues hit “Mohair Sam,” but again subsequent albums failed to sell. In 1968 he signed with Epic Records and worked with up-and-coming producer Billy Sherrill.
Gradually Rich began to integrate his blues, rock, and country influences into a cohesive sound. Sherrill directed him more toward country music, feeling that country fans would respond to his mature years better than the youth-oriented rock audience. The 1972 Best of Charlie Rich and the 1973 Behind Closed Doorsbrought Rich the elusive stardom he had sought so long–and, ironically, Behind Closed Doors sold to pop fans as well as to the country market. Overnight the silver-haired Rich became a sought-after headliner, with million-selling singles such as “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl.”
Sherrill was right in one respect: country fans are more loyal than pop-rock fans. Rich has been the recipient of that loyalty for almost twenty years, remaining a favorite in Nashville despite his penchant for jazz and the blues. Drawing from eclectic sources as it does, Rich’s work has been dubbed “countrypolitan,” and the singer has been likened to Frank Sinatra for his middle-of-the-road sexiness. Country Music Encyclopedia author Melvin Shestack quotes Peter Guralnik on the enduring appeal of the “Silver Fox”: “The music that [Rich] does, his approach to the music, his ability to make each song a unique and personal vehicle for individual expression is something which in a way is lost to the star who is as much concerned with panoply as performance, who is forced by his image to be something he is not…. Charlie Rich is free to be whatever he likes. He feels none of the terrible restraints of stardom.” Even so, he has remained famously independent (he once walked out on an imminent appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show), and he has kept himself at arm’s length from musical Nashville’s sociopolitical vortex. He currently lives near Redding, in northern California, well away from music industry power centers.
There is no such thing as a typical Merle Haggard concert. He prides himself on riding the winds of whim and cussedness and, on any given night, might divert from chart and fan favorites and give himself over to a long set of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, or Bob Wills. The three men constitute Haggard’s most lasting musical influences. Additionally, he takes great pride in the Strangers’ musicianship, and their importance transcends that of mere sidemen. The band has ranged in number from three to ten over the years, incorporates such atypical country instruments as trombones, trumpets, and saxophones, and has included long-respected players such as Roy Nichols, Norm Hamlet, Biff Adam, and Clint Strong. The Strangers themselves have garnered eight ACM Touring Band of the Year awards.
Ironically, Haggard is inextricably linked with a casual ditty that shifted attention from his soaring musicianship to his politics. “Okie from Muskogee” (Capitol, 1969), a #1 song for four weeks and the 1970 Single of the Year for both the ACM and CMA, is a seemingly belligerent and defensive screen of traditional American-heartland values that appeared at the height of the fractious decade of the Vietnam War. Haggard’s retellings of the song’s intent are manifold and contradictory. In 1974 he told a Michigan newspaper reporter, “Son, the only place I don’t smoke is Muskogee.” A dozen years later, however, he told the Birmingham Post-Herald that “Okie” was “a patriotic song that went to the top of the charts at a time when patriotism wasn’t really that popular.” Although he has frequently bemoaned the public’s perception of him as a political animal, he followed “Okie” with the truly angry “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (Capitol, 1970) and, in 1988, a sentimental reaction to flag burning, “Me and Crippled Soldiers.”
Nor has Haggard’s personal life been without drama. His business acumen is notoriously erratic, and he has been married five times. At the time that this was written, he had five children, four by his first wife, Leona Hobbs, and one by his present wife, Theresa Lane. From 1965 to 1978 Haggard was married to singer Bonnie Owens, with whom he recorded a duet album, Just Between the Two of Us (Capitol, 1966) and who is a regular member of Haggard’s musical company. He was also married for a time to singer Leona Williams, who wrote his #1 hits “You Take Me for Granted” and “Someday When Things are Good” (co-written with Haggard).
In 2000 Haggard aligned himself with Los Angeles-based punk label Epitaph Records to release If I Could Only Fly on its Anti imprint. Just as Johnny Cash had done by moving to rock- and rap-oriented American Records, Haggard inspired a flurry of media attention with his choice for a label home. On his second release for Anti, Roots Volume 1 (2001), Haggard worked with guitarist Norm Stephens, who played on Frizzell’s early recordings. On Hag Records, his own label, Haggard issued two gospel albums in 2001 and was slated to release Haggard Like Never Before in 2003. A single, “That’s the News,” criticized the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. – Bryan Di Salvatore
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.