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The Silver Fox

It was a pivotal moment in Pop Music. Charlie Rich was in Memphis auditioning for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records who’d discovered the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Phillips kept insisting that Rich, a proficient jazz pianist, “keep it simple.” Rich, however, couldn’t resist showing off his considerable keyboard skills. Deeply annoyed, Phillips handed him a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records and told him, “Come back when you get that bad.”

A native of Arkansas, Charlie Rich considered himself a jazz pianist first and a pop singer second. Phillips signed him because he had the requisite Elvis baritone and the requisite Elvis pompadour. After a couple of failed pop singles (too jazzy), Rich took Phillips‘ advice and in 1960 scored his first big hit with “Lonely Weekends.” Suddenly, Charlie Rich, jazz pianist, was Charlie Rich, Teen Idol. TV appearances and a national tour followed, but no more hits.

Phillips, meanwhile, bought a string of radio stations and no longer had time for developing promising talents into pop stars. Rich moved to Nashville and signed with RCA Records. Despite working with Chet Atkins and his team of can’t-miss song writers, Rich failed to score a follow-up hit record. In 1965, he signed with a smaller label and finally scored that illusive follow-up hit with “Mohair Sam.” Yet another round of TV appearances and a second national tour and then nothing--no more hits.

Rich consoled himself that he was after all a jazz pianist, and he always found work. Years went by. In 1972, he met legendary record producer Jackie Shirrill who convinced him to give up pursing pop music stardom and to think of himself as a country singer. Why not? A number of former teen idols had switched to country music with great success, including Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis. Even Elvis Presley had scored with country songs. With his resonant baritone and good looks, Charlie Rich was a natural. Sure enough, the first song Rich and Shirrill recorded jumped to the top of the charts. “Behind Closed Doors” scored big on all fronts--Country, Top-40, and Adult Contemporary radio. A long string of hits followed, and Charlie Rich, jazz pianist, became Charlie Rich, “The Silver Fox.”

Years later, in an interview on National Public Radio, Sam Phillips talked about his years as a record producer. In the 1940s and ‘50s Phillips had recorded the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike Turner, Sonny Burgess, and Little Junior Parker. Then one day a 19-year-old kid with long greasy hair walked into his studio asking if he could record a song for his mother’s birthday. He turned out to be exactly what Sam Phillips had been looking for--a telegenic white singer who sounded black. His name was Elvis Presley. It took about a year to find Elvis’ true voice, but once he did Presley’s career took off like a rocket. That led to a host of similar white singers Phillips discovered--Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Charlie Rich.

Phillips said Howlin’ Wolf was his greatest discovery, followed by Elvis Presley. There was one singer he particularly favored, however, the one who thought he was a jazz pianist but ended up being a star of the first magnitude. That was, of course, the Silver Fox. Phillips concluded the interview not with a song by Howlin’ Wolf or Elvis or Johnny Cash but with an achingly sad ballad by Charlie Rich: “Who Will the Next Fool Be.”

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