Inside the Sun Records Roots of Country Crooner Charlie Rich

Tribute album 'Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich' looks at the pre-country stardom output of the "Most Beautiful Girl" crooner

Charlie Rich is the subject of a recent tribute album focused on his pre-country stardom. Credit: Waring Abbott/Getty

As CMT prepares to debut Sun Records, an eight-part dramatization of the famous Memphis music company's early years, charting the rise of such icons as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich's own eclectic contributions to Sun – one of many labels for whom he recorded – are being celebrated with Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich. The tribute album, featuring artists like Jim Lauderdale and Shooter Jennings interpreting Rich's songs, focuses on his pre-country-stardom years, which peaked with the Number One crossover ballad "The Most Beautiful Girl" late in 1973.

By the time Rich had his first Number One country single, "Behind Closed Doors," early that same year, on Nashville's Epic Records, he had already spent two decades recording for nearly a half-dozen other labels, flirting with R&B, rock, jazz and gospel music. Public reaction to Rich's unclassifiable sound throughout the Fifties and Sixties ranged from curiosity to indifference, but according to Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, the Arkansas-born piano player was among the most "profound" artists he ever recorded. Once the Seventies hits, with their lush pop-country arrangements brought him worldwide acceptance, Rich's early material was largely forgotten, but this 13-track collection, produced by Michael Dinallo, seeks to remedy that situation.

Featuring appearances from Lauderdale, Jennings, Charlie Rich Jr., Keith Sykes, Will Kimbrough, the Malpass Brothers and Susan Marshall, among others, Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich was tracked mainly at the Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, with additional overdubs in Nashville and Boston. Dinallo, a recording artist and musician in his own right who has previously worked with such acts as Stax legend Eddie Floyd, was assisted by members of the Phillips family, including executive producers Jeff Phillips (owner of the Memphis International label) and Johnny Phillips, who penned the liner notes. Halley Phillips, who, like Jeff Phillips, is a next-generation member of the family, was also involved in additional label production work.

"A lot of the people that heard the mainstream country songs never even knew the Sun, Phillips International, Groove or Smash sides ever even existed," Dinallo tells Rolling Stone Country of Rich's early output. "It was real cool that we focused on the Memphis period, from a producer's standpoint because we could focus in on a certain sound. Of course, it was ultra-cool that we recorded in the studio where he recorded and wrote most of the sides that are on the record."

Dinallo, who grew up in Ohio, and studied at Berklee School of Music in Boston, was inspired to learn more about Rich when he read Peter Guralnick's books Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home, 30 years ago. His "intense admiration" of Rich, he says, led to first conceiving of the tribute album a decade ago, although the project was delayed by several false starts, including a flooded studio. The difficulties, however, never dampened Dinallo's enthusiasm or altered his vision for the way he wanted to record the album.

"I wanted to make a record with a bunch of different artists, but I wanted it to sound like a band," he explains. "So that each track has a sonic continuity even though each individual artist is different. I felt that if we did that, it would make a musical statement and a sonic statement and it would sound like a band, with 13 killer singers in front of it."

The LP kicks off with Lauderdale's fiery take on Rich's "Lonely Weekends," which put him on the pop charts for the first time in 1960, although his original rendition was more Elvis-soundalike that blazing guitar rave-up. Other highlights include Will Kimbrough's honky-tonk take on "Sittin' and Thinkin'" and the rollicking "Break Up," by Charlie Rich Jr., who pounds the hell out of the same piano his dad used on the original version. There's also a soulful reading by Holli Mosley of "Who Will the Next Fool Be," an early minor country hit for Rich that would reach the Top 20 in 1979 by Jerry Lee Lewis and was also covered by Mark Chesnutt. The collection closes with the gospel-infused "Feel Like Going Home," performed by Kevin Connolly.

The material on Feel Like Going Home is certainly a far cry from the across-the-charts blockbuster success that would greet Rich with the late 1973 follow-up to "Behind Closed Doors." "The Most Beautiful Girl," a schmaltzy ballad that Rich nevertheless sang with as much passion as he could muster, topped the U.S. country chart as well as the AC (then Easy Listening) survey and the pop Hot 100, matching those same positions on Canada's various charts and stopping one spot short of Number One on the U.K.'s pop chart. For two solid years, Rich dominated the country scene, perhaps hitting the pinnacle with his CMA Entertainer of the Year win in 1974.

In what has become the most infamous event surrounding Rich's legacy, at the 1975 CMAs, he relinquished the Entertainer title to John Denver, and on live TV set fire to the envelope containing Denver's name, while the bespectacled musician, seen only via satellite, remained blissfully unaware. Theories were floated as to why he torched the envelope, including possible anger over being shut out of the category that year, and the influence of Denver's music on the country audience. His son's theory, however, is two-fold. 1) He thought it would be a funny thing to do and meant no disrespect to Denver and 2) following a freak accident in which the elder Rich got his foot caught in a reclining chair, he was on pain medication and began drinking backstage with another performer before the awards show. Whatever the real cause, it's a brief moment that has, just like the slicker, pop-leaning hit singles from the years his career was peaking, all too often obscured Rich's undeniable far-reaching legacy.

Rich would have two more Number One singles, 1977's "Rollin' With the Flow," and "On My Knees," a 1978 duet with Janie Fricke, the same year he appeared as himself in the Clint Eastwood film Every Which Way But Loose. From there, he spent several years playing Las Vegas, although he eventually retired from performing until 1993 when he recorded the jazzy Pictures and Paintings album, produced by Peter Guralnick. On July 25th, 1995, Rich died at a motel in Hammond, Louisiana, having suffered a blood clot in his lung. He was 62.

Although Dinallo never met Rich, his impressions of the entertainer have been shaped by both Rich's music and other's memories of his artistry. "He was a really self-effacing, sweet, sweet guy who had a really big case of shyness and he used his music to overcome that," he says, noting that he especially learned a lot from his conversations with Charlie Rich Jr. "He just loved music for the sake of music and that's where I come from, too. He had a complete grasp over everything he did in every musical sense, from singing to playing piano to writing to being just one of the most soulful cats that ever was."

As soulful (and country) an artist he was, Charlie Rich has yet to be enshrined in either the Rock & Roll or Country Music Hall of Fame. He is, however, a deserving member of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame