Thick-set and with a shock of silver hair, Charlie Rich always looked like an archetype of country music. When we included his original version of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby’ on the “Take Me To The River” southern soul box set, we were taken to task for it in some quarters, but one listen to that performance and you couldn’t fail to recognise a voice steeped in soul. His love of jazz and R&B and his rich voice proved a hindrance to him finding widespread popular success until he was well into the second decade of his career. Until then he lived off an occasional hit, one of which was the wonderful ‘Mohair Sam’, which kick-started his time working with producer Jerry Kennedy at Mercury Records’ Smash subsidiary. Over his 18 months there he recorded some of the best music of his entire career and in Kennedy found a producer who was willing to give him the freedom to express himself.
The 29 tracks he cut are gathered up here – repeating a long deleted US CD release of the material in the early 90s – and reveal an artist who was hugely talented, but also out of place in trying to score pop hits. ‘Mohair Sam’, written by Dallas Frazier, was a slick slice of R&B-influenced pop with a somewhat novelty lyric. It captivated radio stations and their listeners, as Charlie’s performance seems to epitomise the easy swagger of “fast grooving, slow walking, good looking Mohair Sam”, but elsewhere on his Smash material – many tracks written by him – themes seem a lot more grown up, and a lot less happy. ‘I Can’t Go On’ tells the tale of a man whose lover has left him, and it moves from a mournful beginning through to a storming denouement. Charlie wails, almost operatically at times, and it isn’t difficult to hear in this the basis for the arrangement that would be used for Elvis on ‘Suspicious Minds’ some years later. ‘No Home’, with its sparse arrangement of strings, piano, bass and vibraphone, sounds like George Martin arranging for Roy Orbison and is the perfect setting for Charlie’s mournful tale of lost love in which his velvety rich voice is only interrupted by a piano solo of such bluesy intensity that Horace Silver would have been proud of it.
Rich released two albums in his time at Smash, both gorgeous ensembles of numbers ranging from his wife’s beautiful song ‘Field Of Yellow Daisies’ to the R&B dancer ‘Party Girl’, where Kennedy’s production creates a perfect setting for the tale of the girl who wouldn’t stay home. This CD is a collection of an artist at the very top of his game.
By Dean Rudland