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Charlie Rich

Big Boss Man: The Groove Sessions – 1998 (Koch)

Reviewed by Bill Sacks

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CDs by Charlie Rich

Originally recorded for RCA/Victor's Groove imprint under producer Chet Atkins, these sides from 1963-4 were Charlie Rich's first releases after his departure from Sun Records. Unlike those earlier singles, the Groove masters feature Rich's tenor in a fuller maturity, exhibiting for the first time a power and range unmatched by any other performer in Nashville then or since. They are also the first of his records to be ornamented with chorale vocals and occasional strings, accouterments which producer Billy Sherrill would later drop onto many of Rich's arrangements during his Epic tenure in the Seventies.

The best of these tracks, all the product of Rich's unique approach to gospel-inflected blues and standards which insisted on the rhythmic primacy of his own voice, made for some of the finest moments on last year's "Feel Like Goin' Home" double-disc compilation, and and the number of tracks from these sessions which bear repeated listening is easily three times what the compilation offered. There are also a (mercifully) few nods to then-contemporary dance trends in the choice of tempos, choices which would not be sustained in Rich's subsequent sessions for the Smash and Hi labels later in the decade.

Understanding the tone of the Groove sessions (which carried Rich through '65, the last year being represented by this disc's five bonus tracks) not only involves appreciating the strange freedom Rich enjoyed from the expectations of the mainstream country music market - in both style and influences, he was a quintessential Memphian working on the margin of a Nashville culture; it also entails accounting for the massive influence Elvis Presley was exerting over the entire Southern music scene in the early Sixties.

Like none of Rich's other recordings, many of these sides were arranged and mixed in accordance with the standards set by Presley's most popular film soundtracks: intermittent tambourine, tremolo-drenched guitar and the sonic punctuation of the backing singers are evidence of the trademark sound which RCA had developed for "G.I. Blues" and "Blue Hawaii" in the preceding two years. It is testament to Rich's great originality as a singer that, in spite of these incidental trappings, even a cover of "Tomorrow Night" from early '65 bears his unmistakable yearning hum which redefines every word as if we were hearing them for the first time.