In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Nashville country-music establishment has always had a weird relationship with the pop mainstream. Country is its own alternate pop universe. It has its own songwriters, session musicians, studios, producers, and labels. It has its own radio stations and cable networks. It has its own aesthetics, its own rules. And it has borders. Nashville country is pop music, but that doesn’t mean it gets along nicely with the rest of pop music.
Every once in a while, someone from country will cross over to pop. Every once in a while, someone from pop will cross over to country. And in both cases, certain forces within Nashville seem to crave that sort of validation, while other forces seem to resent the incursion. We’ve been hearing a lot about that lately with respect to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the novelty country-rap cowboy song that’s currently the #1 song in America. A big part of the “Old Town Road” story is the question of whether it belonged on Billboard‘s country charts — a question that raises the bigger question of what country music even is. This isn’t new. People have been fighting about that for decades. Case in point: The story of Charlie Rich and John Denver at the 1975 CMA Awards.
Now: John Denver did not make country music. He was a laid-back folk-rock guy who found massive success in the ’70s. But the Nashville establishment embraced Denver, at least in part because he had a couple of huge hits with the word “country” in their titles. (One of them will eventually show up in this column.) In 1975, the Country Music Association named Denver their Entertainer Of The Year. That’s the big award in Nashville country, the equivalent to the Album Of The Year Grammy. Denver wasn’t in the building that night; he accepted the award via satellite. But not before Charlie Rich made his feelings known.
Charlie Rich, the Silver Fox, had won Entertainer Of The Year in 1974, and he hadn’t been nominated in 1975. At that year’s show, he was in charge of presenting the award. Onstage, Rich was visibly drunk and also reportedly high on pain pills after breaking his foot. Rich fumbled with the envelope for a few seconds. And when he got it open, he pulled out a lighter, set the slip of paper on fire, stared at it for a few seconds, and then announced that the winner: “My friend, Mr. John Denver!” It’s one of the all-time great moments of fuck-this-shit rebellion in country music history, and it got Rich blacklisted from the ceremony afterward.
If only people had the balls to do stuff like this these days. God bless Charlie Rich… and the Cubs! pic.twitter.com/95HeufTM5m
— Margo Price (@MissMargoPrice) November 3, 2016
Rich’s son has said that Rich didn’t really want to protest against John Denver; he just thought it would be funny. And it was! It was funny, at least in part, because Charlie Rich was nobody’s idea of a country music purist. Rich had come to country late in life after working in a bunch of different genres. And he’d just had a pop-crossover moment of his own when “The Most Beautiful Girl,” his orchestral but understated ballad, hit #1 on the pop charts. That’s probably the main reason Rich won Entertainer Of The Year in the first place.
Rich grew up on a farm in Arkansas. He went to the University Of Arkansas on a football scholarship, immediately got hurt, and dropped out to join the Air Force. In the early ’50s, when he was stationed in Oklahoma, he and his wife formed a jazz group called the Velvetones. After the Air Force, they spent a few years farming in Tennessee and playing occasional club shows in Memphis. At some point, Rich auditioned for Sun Records boss Sam Phillips. Phillips thought Rich was too smooth and jazzy, and he gave Rich a pile of Jerry Lee Lewis records to study. Eventually, Rich became a session pianist for Sun, and he released a few singles for them, too. (His gospel-flavored 1960 rockabilly track “Lonely Weekends” made it to #22 on the Hot 100.)
Throughout the ’60s, Rich kept recording music and shifting from one genre to the next: Rockabilly, jazz, white soul. He got to #21 with the 1965 bluesy strut-song “Mohair Sam.” But he wasn’t really going anywhere before Billy Sherrill signed Rich to Epic in 1967. Sherrill, a former Sun Records in-house producer, had moved on to Epic, where he’d basically invented the sentimentally sophisticated, string-drenched countrypolitan sound. Sherrill discovered Tammy Wynette, signed George Jones, and produced a ridiculous number of classic records for both of them. He also helped launch a whole lot of other huge careers. (Tanya Tucker was 13 when Sherrill recorded her version of “Delta Dawn.”) Working with Sherrill, Rich reinvented himself as a countrypolitan singer, and he got a whole new lease on his career. Rich’s songs started doing well on the country charts in the early ’70s, and he hit #1 the day after he turned 41.
Sherrill co-wrote “The Most Beautiful Girl” with Norro Wilson and Rory Bourke, two other behind-the-scenes country lifers. The song was pretty old when Rich released his version; Wilson had released it himself under the title “Hey Mister” in 1968. It’s a heartbreak song, one that’s simple and straightforward and almost totally unconcerned with things like cleverness. But it resonates. The narrator knows that he’s said something stupid and fucked up his relationship, so he’s just asking for any news on his ex, hoping for some way to apologize: “I lost my head and I said some things / Now comes the heartaches that morning brings.”
The original Norro Wilson recording is relatively spare and intense; Wilson almost shouts the verses. That’s not what Rich does with the song. Instead, Rich uses it as a showcase for his impressive white-soul baritone and for Sherrill’s melodramatic orchestration. Sherrill really piles on the schmaltz, with his strings and pedal steel sobbing to each other. But Rich, like fellow Sherrill collaborator George Jones, manages to imply big emotions without ever indulging in histrionics. Rich and Jones are both essentially old-school crooners; they’re just crooners with pronounced Southern twangs. (Rich isn’t as great a singer as George Jones, but basically nobody is as great a singer as George Jones.) It’s a broad and simple song, and Rich sells it by letting shades of regret seep into his voice. It’s a subtle command performance, and it makes the hook stick that much harder.
Rich kept recording after that, and he scored a few more country hits, even after he lit John Denver’s name on fire. He also showed up as himself in the hit 1978 movie Every Which Way But Loose, the one where Clint Eastwood plays an underground fighter who’s best friends with an orangutang. But the hits eventually faded out, and Rich more or less retired in the early ’80s. In 1995, Rich and his wife went on a road trip to see their son perform in Louisiana. Rich suffered an embolism in a hotel room and died in his sleep. He was 62.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tom Waits shouting out Charlie Rich on his 1975 song “Putnam County,” rhyming his name with “he sure can sing, that son of a bitch”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 1975 Swedish-language cover of “The Most Beautiful Girl” from ABBA member Anni-Frid Lyngstad, better known to most of us as Frida:
(ABBA will show up in this column eventually.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Isley Brothers’ absurdly lush seven-minute cover of “The Most Beautiful Girl,” from their 1985 album Masterpiece:
(The Isley Brothers’ highest-charting song is “It’s Your Thing,” which peaked at #2 in 1969. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a bereaved George Costanza singing “The Most Beautiful Girl” on a 1992 episode of Seinfeld: