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Charlie Rich; Eclectic Country Singer


Charlie Rich, the silver-haired country singer whose popularity peaked in the mid-70s and who is best remembered for his 1973 hits "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl," died Tuesday. He was 62.

Rich, who had struggled with alcoholism throughout his career, died in a Hammond, La., motel where he and his wife, Margaret, had stopped for the night during a trip to Florida. The local coroner, Vincent Cefalu, said the cause of death was a blood clot on the lungs.

Dubbed the "Silver Fox" because of his long mane that turned white when he was 23, Rich was selected by the Country Music Assn. of America as male vocalist of the year in 1973 and entertainer of the year in 1974.

"Behind Closed Doors" was chosen best album of the year in 1973, and "A Very Special Love Song" won the same honor in 1974.

Rich's last No. 1 single was a duet with Janie Fricke in 1978, "On My Knees."

His most recent popular songs were "I'll Wake You Up When You Get Home" and "You Made It Beautiful" in 1981.

Success eluded Rich for years before and after his mid-70s burst of popularity--partly because of his shyness and reluctance to perform outside small clubs in Memphis and Nashville and partly because of his eclectic style that cut across country, blues, jazz, pop and gospel categories.

"Of all the great country and rock singers who followed Elvis Presley out of the South in the '50s, Charlie Rich came closest to matching the soulful purity of Presley's voice," said Times rock music critic Robert Hilburn on learning of Rich's death. "Though categorized by the record industry as a country singer, Rich wove jazz, blues and pop influences into a seductive style that was equally commanding in a Las Vegas showroom or a Memphis roadhouse.

"Despite the acclaim and sales, Rich never felt comfortable in the spotlight," Hilburn said. "If he weren't so shy and insecure, he surely would have been an even bigger commercial success. But maybe it was those inner tensions that gave his artistry such a warm and revealing edge."

Born in Colt, Ark., Rich gained his appreciation of musical styles from childhood influences. He discovered blues from pickers on his parents' cotton farm and gospel from his father, who sang in a choir, and his mother, who played the organ. And he picked up an ear for jazz from listening avidly to the records of Stan Kenton.

Rich learned to play piano and saxophone and studied music at the University of Arkansas.

While serving in the Air Force in Oklahoma during the early 1950s, Rich formed a jazz-blues group, the Velvetones, patterned partly after the Four Freshmen.

After his first farm failed, he began playing in Memphis clubs for $10 a night. By 1958 he had wangled a job with Sun Records as a session pianist and songwriter, working with such performers as Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

Rich's first single was "Whirlwind" in 1958, and his first hit came two years later with "Lonely Weekends," a rock and roll song he had intended for Lewis. Rich's hits were few and far between, including "Mohair Sam" in 1965.

His wife wrote many songs for him, including the thinly-veiled account of their own marriage, "Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs," in 1968.

His first substantial country hit was "I Take It on Home," which was nominated for a Grammy in 1972. Among his other popular songs were "Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High)," "I Don't See Me in Your Eyes Anymore" and "I Love My Friend."

In 1974, Rich recorded a highly regarded gospel album, "Silver Linings."

In addition to the Sun label, Rich recorded for Groove (a subsidiary of RCA), Smash, Hi(cq) and Epic.


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