Some talented figure might dwell in semi-obscurity for years, and then, suddenly, rediscovery happens. Whether the renewed burst of interest is triggered by an ad campaign (Nick Drake) or a book (Wyclef Jean at the moment) or nothing discernible at all, that initial spark is often followed by tools for going deeper – a Spotify playlist, a trove of videos on YouTube.
Just looking at the first batch of albums under Charlie Rich’s name on Spotify, one gets the sense that some sort of reappraisal is on the horizon: The singer, pianist and songwriter is best known for his soft-country ‘70s megahit “Behind Closed Doors” and album of the same name (1000 Recordings pg. 644); since he died in 1995, his legacy has sorta held steady as a country singer with a persuasive voice and jazz and R&B leanings.
Still, among the most recent albums on Spotify are several different anthologies devoted to Rich’s early career at Sun Records, when he transitioned from session musician to frontman. (Of them, this is the most comprehensive.) These brisk little gems exude all the panache we associate with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and the other titans of Sun, but with one important difference: Rich sings them. His delivery is sly and unassumingly authoritative, and even when the lyrics veer toward the cornball, he somehow seals the deal in ways you wouldn’t expect knowing his more nuanced later work. The material covers significant stylistic range – there are blithe rockabilly rambles (“Whirlwind”), heartsick troubled blues (“Who Will The Next Fool Be?”) and astonishingly credible forays into New Orleans R&B (“Easy Money”), suggesting that though Sun had a “sound” and a distinct rhythmic feel, the label was not averse to experimentation. Rich never sounds like he’s faking it, or just dipping a toe into unfamiliar waters. Quite the opposite: The best moments here have enough punch to knock you sideways, and make you think there’s an entire alternate history of early rock you somehow missed.