In the late summer of 1951, the University of Arkansas was gearing up for the onslaught of students preparing to further their education. They came from every corner of the state, including a hamlet outside of Forrest City called Colt.
Photo taken of Charlie Rich while a student at the University of Arkansas.
There was no easy commute from the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. Interstate 40, which now runs through Forrest City, was barely an idea. But one young student from the St. Francis County town made the journey after he lost his football scholarship to what is now Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. The young musician, listed in the Arkansas Razorback yearbook as Charles Allan Rich, switched gears and enrolled at the University of Arkansas in the Ozark foothills of Fayetteville. While there, he successfully pledged the Kappa Sigma fraternity on Dickson Street, where he lived in Room 121, and became a saxophone player for the Arkansas Razorback band. He also would have been one of the first students to take music classes on the top floor of the university’s new fine arts building, designed by famed architect Edward Durell Stone.
That Charlie Rich would be known as “The Silver Fox” in the 1970s when he had a string of hit songs from “Behind Closed Doors” to “Most Beautiful Girl” was on nobody’s radar, let alone his. But his music and style was evolving as a Kappa Sig. Unlike his 1970s persona as a “countrypolitan” crooner, his main influence was straight-up jazz, which was evident in some of his early recordings in the late 1950s at Sun Studio in Memphis, where he drew an easy comparison to Frank Sinatra and other jazz singers before delving into rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, such as this song here:
There’s a strong likelihood that Rich was also exposed to some of Fayetteville’s music talent. New pledges and their dates were honored with an informal dance at the Uark Bowl on Fayetteville’s Dickson Street with jazz musician Buddy Hayes, who inspired many area performers, including Ronnie Hawkins.
The Kappa Sigma fraternity president at the time was Charles Allbright, a journalism student who remembered Rich as a young pledge. (Years later, Allbright would become a household name statewide as the Arkansas Traveler columnist for the Arkansas Gazette and, later, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.) Allbright, in 1995, wrote how fellow fraternity brother Charlie Jones — yes, also a Charlie — and Rich attempted to write a song after Jones was inspired by seeing “Singing in the Rain” several times. The song writing session occurred one afternoon at the fraternity house’s living room.
“We spent all that Sunday afternoon at the piano in the living room,” Jones recalled. “He was trying to write music and I was pacing about, trying to write words. After five hours he had maybe three bars, and I had two words — `beautiful waterfalls’ — and that was it. We gave up on being songwriters.”
Rich, shortly thereafter, gave up on college.
He was missing his high school sweetheart, Margaret Ann, and was failing his freshman English class (though he was reportedly making A’s in his music classes). He dropped out of school, joined the Air Force and got married. When his military service ended, he moved to West Memphis to take up farming. Rich didn’t give up music, however. In the evenings, he performed at the local nightclubs only to till the fields bleary-eyed the next day.
Just across the Mississippi River, a Memphis studio owner named Sam Phillips, the man who gave Elvis Presley his first recording contract, saw talent in Rich and hired him to be a session musician. Rich played piano on numerous musicians’ recordings, including Jerry Lee Lewis, wrote a hit song for Johnny Cash (“The Ways of a Woman in Love”) and had a hit song himself with the Elvis Presley-inspired “Lonely Weekends.” His career, however, ran dry until 1965, when he had his second Top 40 hit, “Mohair Sam.” (Trivia: This was the song Elvis Presley listened to repeatedly on his jukebox when The Beatles paid him a visit to his Los Angeles home in 1965.)
Rich managed to stay connected to the University of Arkansas, at least musically. Around the time of “Mohair Sam,” he recorded a 45 rpm record titled “Callin’ the Razorbacks,” written by his wife, Margaret Ann, which was reportedly a promotional record given out by RCA television dealers in Central Arkansas shortly after the Arkansas Razorbacks took the national football championship. The musical act was listed as The Hog Callers, but Rich’s voice is unmistakable, along with the song’s melody, which is strongly similar to “Mohair Sam.” We also hear Rich give a rousing “soooooie!”
Rich returned to the University of Arkansas at least once. Again, after the release of “Mohair Sam,” Rich had difficulty getting back on the charts. In 1967, the Northwest Arkansas Times ran a small article noting that Rich would perform a “psychedelic concert” at the University of Arkansas Men’s Gymnasium. Why the psychedelic reference? There would be a vast assortment of colored lights for the show, the article noted. At this point, Rich had temporarily abandoned jazz and pop music to focus on R&B and, yes, even funk. Having lost contracts with RCA and Smash (A Mercury subsidiary), he was now recording for Hi Records, a smaller, soulful Memphis label that would be best known for its star performer, Al Green. While there, Rich recorded his own material as well compositions by up-and-coming songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter. His 1967 UA concert may have included this song:
Rich, however, was on the eve of success. In the late 1960s, he signed with Epic Records, had solid premature white hair, grew massive lamb chop sideburns and had a string of hits from “Behind Closed Doors” to “Keep on Rollin’ with the Flow” (written by Springdale, Arkansas, native and musician Jerry Hayes).
Rich, who went into semi-retirement in the 1980s and 1990s, recorded a highly acclaimed jazzy R&B album, “Pictures and Paintings,” in 1992. Though not commercially successful, many consider it to be one of his best.
Sadly, Rich’s career was cut short. He died in 1995 from a blood clot to his lung at the age of 62.