I first became aware of singer/songwriter Charlie Rich as a teen, constantly listening to Top-40 Radio, when I heard his first hit record, “Lonely Weekends” (#22 – March 14, 1960). Then in 1963, as a deejay and later Program Director at KSEM-Moses Lake, we played “Big Boss Man” (#108 – Oct. 30, 1963) written by the great Blues singer/songwriter Jimmy Reed. Because Larson Air Force Base in Moses Lake was in full swing at that time, with young Airmen from all over the US, the record was one of our more heavily requested tunes. Charlie hit the Pop Charts again with “Mohair Sam” (#21 August 28, 1965 US & #6 Canada ’65). During all that time I never thought of him as a country singer … he was a Rock ‘n Roll/Bluesy R&B singer to my ear.
Charlie’s early success was similar to another new bluesy Rock singer who also became better known as a Country artist … Ronnie Milsap. In 1963, Milsap’s debut single on Princess Records (later picked up by Warner Bros. Rec.) was “It Went To Your Head” b/w “Total Disaster.” “Your Head” was a regional hit for us at KSEM in ’63, but did little elsewhere. Eventually, Milsap’s single “Never Had It So Good” (November 26, 1965 – #19 • Scepter Rec.) became his first charted record and in due course, like Rich, he moved from the Blues tinged Rock genre to an amazingly successful career in Country music.
Time passes and in the fall of 1970 I was hired as a deejay at KBFW-AM, a Country Music station in Bellingham, WA. I eventually became Program/Music Director at the station and was pleasantly surprised when both Charlie Rich and Ronnie Milsap showed up as Country music artists.
Charlie Rich was born on December 14, 1932 in Colt, Arkansas. His mother played piano at church and his father sang in a Gospel quartet. A black sharecropper on the family land, C.J. Allen, taught Rich how to play Blues piano. He joined the Air Force in 1953 and after leaving the military in ’56 Rich moved to the Memphis area where he eventually began playing Jazz and R&B in clubs around the area and began trying his hand at songwriting. Sam Phillips and Sun Records of Memphis were in the middle of their early success with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Rich became a session musician at Sun and the record company issued a few recordings by Rich with the third time being a charm with the release of his successful “Lonely Weekends.” However, none of his seven follow-up releases were successful and in the end he left Sun. His eclectic style of music was often hard to classify, encompassing Blues, Soul, Jazz, Rockabilly, Country and Gospel…making it difficult for record companies to give his music a specific genre. His pairing in 1967 with famed Nashville producer Billy Sherrill at Epic Records paid off in a landslide of hits.
In 1972, he appeared on the charts with his first Top-10 Country hit, “I Take It On Home” (#6 US) after four less successful earlier releases. Then, like magic, everything he sang turned to gold, beginning with perhaps his most memorable hit “Behind Closed Doors” (#1 • 1973) which became the first of five #1 hits in a row … followed by two that peaked at #3 and one at #4. He continued to have success on the Country Charts through the early 1980s. His “The Most Beautiful Girl” even went to #1 on the Pop Charts in 1973.
“Behind Closed Doors” was written by Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Kenny O’Dell (nee: Kenneth Guy Gist, Jr.). O’Dell previously had a Top-40 hit of his own in 1967 with “Beautiful People” (#38) and in the mid to late 70s appeared on the Country charts with a number of minor hits. As strange as it may sound, O’Dell credits the Watergate Scandal as his inspiration for “Behind Closed Doors.” He recalls that during the scandal, the Congressional Committee investigating Watergate went into non-public sessions and literally did everything behind closed doors. He began thinking he really liked the sound of “Behind Closed Doors” as a possible song title. In due course, when he began writing the song he went into the bedroom where he did most of his songwriting. That was the one room in his home where he could find enough privacy to concentrate on writing songs. That setting literally helped evolve “Closed Doors” into the love song it eventually became.
“Behind Closed Doors” received a remarkable number of awards including:
∆ 1973 Grammy/Best Country Song
∆ 1973 CMA/Song Of The Year
∆ 1973 CMA/Single Of The Year
∆ 1973 AMC/Song Of The Year
∆ 1973 AMC/Single Of The Year
Rich’s final #1 Country hit was “Rollin’ With The Flow” in 1977 and his final Top-15 hit was “A Man Just Don’t Know What A Woman Goes Through” peaking at #12 in 1980.
I had the pleasure of meeting Charlie in 1973 at a shindig in Seattle hosted by his record company. There were hors d’oeuvres and drinks and Charlie performed and a good time was had by all. Charlie and I talked briefly and I was able to let him know I’d enjoyed his choice of material and his unique vocal stylings since the start. Here’s the song which in 2003 was ranked #9 in CMT’s (Country Music Television) 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music … and ironically received its initial inspiration from the Watergate break in. Country music’s Silver Fox, Charlie Rich, with “Behind Closed Doors.”
If your curiosity has been nudged and you’re interested in hearing Ronnie Milsap’s debut single “It Went To Your Head,” click (HERE).