Thursday, 21 January 2010

Feel Like Going Home

Back in the early 1980s, when I worked as a waiter at the barfadelic Steak and Ale on Summer Avenue (the building survives, and is almost certainly one of very few mock-Tudor Chinese restaurants anywhere on the planet), Charlie Rich and his stunningly beautiful wife Margaret were quasi-regular patrons. They lived in a large-ish house on Cherry, off Poplar, surrounded by a high fence and a lot of beautiful old trees, and why they chose to eat on a fairly down-at-heel stretch of Summer Avenue, I don't know. Nevertheless, they did, typically coming in early on a Saturday or Sunday evening, to avoid the crowds.

I recall hearing at the time that he was spending a lot of time playing at hotels and resorts down in Florida, and no doubt these quiet evenings out with his wife (they genuinely appeared to be totally smitten with each other) were some attempt to snatch a precious piece of a normal life for a man who was working very hard to maintain momentum in a career which had largely been consigned, unfairly, to the Nostalgia bin.

I could tell they were private people and was always careful not to show any sign of recognition, or treat them any differently from anyone else, which seemed to suit Charlie just fine. Margaret was very personable, but he was a bit more business-like, and I remember one occasion where another customer appeared at their table to ask for an autograph, and he firmly, but politely, said something to the effect of "I don't want to be rude, but I'm trying to enjoy some time with my wife and you're disturbing us," to which the fan had no real comeback and skulked away.

At the time, I, like probably most people even today, thought of him as a country artist, for his string of early '70s hits, which seemed like ancient history to me. Being a young and irreverent smart-ass, on one occasion when a colleague was waiting on the Riches, I waited until Charlie was at the salad bar (next to the waiters' station, just outside the kitchen entrance) before bursting into (from the safety of the kitchen, but undoubtedly audible) "Kiss an Angel Good Morning." Charlie was either too cool, or just oblivious, to respond to my feeble and unkind attempt at "where are they now?" humor, to his eternal credit.

What I didn't appreciate at the time, and not for many years to come, was just what a visionary and versatile musician he was. Sam Phillips apparently said that he regarded Charlie Rich as the most talented musician he ever worked with, and I think he was probably one of the first genuine and credible genre-hoppers (check out "Love is After Me" as an example - if you didn't know it was him, you'd never guess it, so complete is the transformation in his voice and delivery to suit the material). Perhaps this is what made his career more difficult than that of the average Sun alumnus - he embraced all flavors of music at a time when artists had to be firmly pigeonholed. At least he got to demonstrate what he was really made of on his final album, Pictures and Paintings, which contained a version of this song, though I think this demo version is incredibly powerful and moving.

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