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7 February 2021

Flicking Your Bic – Charlie Rich

Charles Allan Rich (14 December1932 – 25 July 1995) is one of my favorite singers, regardless of the genre that he sang. And, for Mr. Rich, the genres were many before he hit it big in 1973 with “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl”. By the early 1970s, he’d sung, played and composed his way through rock n’ roll, r&b, rockabilly, gospel, blues, soul, and jazz.

Yes, Charlie was too diverse to cash in early on his extraordinary talents. Some might say he was too talented for the music recording industry to label him and thereby cash in on those talents. I’d say he knew he was too talented for the music recording industry suits to label him, and it suited him just fine.

He farmed and worked as a session musician and wrote songs for the country singers who had been labeled, and pegged, by Music Row executives into making lots of money for those suits. Those “singers” included Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Rich switched record labels so often that the word must have gone out that Charlie was a label-jumper, thereby ensuring he was at the bottom of the pile of good songs and whatever “fair” treatment might have existed at those small fledgling companies.

Rich was beyond pushing forty when he pushed his way to a string of #1 hits; he thereafter augured into alcoholism, became semi-retired during the 1980s, and flamed out by 1995. The soulful, silver-haired fox died in a Louisiana motel, and his soul was finally freed from those hellish earthly road trips.

During the mid-late 1950s, he’d recorded some demos for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, but Sam deemed the music, and the smoothly emotive voice of Rich, too jazzy. The stuff wouldn’t sell. Being told he was not commercial enough and too good to be commercial, Rich was the recipient of a severe truth he likely never forgot. Phillips also gave Charlie a stack of records by Jerry Lee Lewis with the advice:  “Come back when you get that bad.”

Charlie Rich only got better as the music industry, especially in Nashville, got worse, and worse, and worse. By the early 1970s, producer Billy Sherrill packaged a Nashville sound just for the Silver Fox. It was good; it was very good. In fact, the sound was so much more than the “countrypolitan” straining to keep country music alive.

This “new” Charlie Rich style was an amalgamation of all of those years of his trying to blend just about every type of music that he could sing, alongside that jazzy-bluesy piano playing of his. In a country where country music was one step above another George Jones no-show, Charlie Rich and his starkly original way of singing and of playing piano — of being — were instant classics. And he was more than easy on the eyes! Imagine a country singer in the 1970s who sang with the purity and depth of emotion that belonged in a church, an actual house of worship.

I did not see, live, the 1975 CMA award show where Charlie flicked his Bic to present the winner of the Entertainer of the Year. I have, however, watched clips of those legendary moments and that legendary singer. You just don’t get that kind of spontaneous and sincere response anywhere anymore on TV, on-stage, heck, even in a grocery store! Charlie did not steal the show; he WAS the show.

I have also researched the Music Row industry reaction to a pure act of rebellion — although it is not clear exactly what Charlie was rebelling against. There are so many theories, this simple deed of fiery destruction becomes almost farcical.

Was he making an emblematic statement about the state of Country Music in the mid-1970s? Was he telling those industry insiders they could go outside and bring their stupidity on home? Was he hostile to the New Direction of country, heading straight to NashVegas? Was he, at last, coming out, from behind closed doors, to express his disgust with the entertainment machine? Was he slyly confessing “you never wanted me”, and I no longer want you?

Was he just too drunk to know what he was doing? Was he drunk enough to finally come clean about what he was feeling? Had he saved up all of that inner rage and then seized the moment, and offered the flame of Arkansas resistance to the CMA and millions of tv-viewers? Was it a momentary flash of rancor that kindled that piece of paper? Having taken the world of Country Music by storm, did he want to go out in a blaze of Bic-glory!

Maybe the rebel act came from all of the above!

The scared look in the sideways glance of Glen Campbell at that podium in 1975 — on LIVE TELEVISION — really said it all. Oops, he’s let that cat out of the bag. What do we do now?????

Charlie Rich was a musical artist who sang and played piano and wrote, and lived pretty much by his own rules. When he finally achieved fame and fortune, he was nearing the end of his creative rope. The fact that his songs did not sell well after he flicked the Bic at “my friend, Mr. John Denver” had very little to do with his inebriated state of blatant honesty, and everything to do with a creative talent who had seen too much, and had had it, up to there, with what became Jimmy Carter’s America.

From the hyperactive gooey-ness of the depressed Mr. Denver, to the glittery glam of the faux-country Faith Hill, to trashy American Idol bleaters and u-u-laters, the country music industry killed itself. It rode an ugly roller coaster of chasing the demographics that once upon a time in The U.S.A. came quite naturally to it. It was music that rolled with the flow. Now there is no music, and no flow. Just rip-off acts of the real-things that died long ago.

I haven’t listened to Country Music since the hey-day of Clint Black, the New Traditionalist who also got dumped by the Suits when Nashville became Na$hVega$ in ways that insult even Vegas. I almost long for the days when the jukebox at the Dew Drop Inn played Charlie Rich and Lynn Anderson. R.I.P. to both of those singers. My farewell wish to Country Music involves flicking a Bic.