Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Endless Quest: Charlie Rich: "The Most Beautiful Girl"

This is one of those songs that takes me back to a time – very roughly, when it was a big hit, a time I don’t recall that well, but this song crossed all kinds of boundaries on the radio, so the song’s easy for me to remember – and a more recent time, the 90s, when I was socially active with a bunch of good folks whose interests and obsessions and completist tendencies had almost nothing to do with mine.  I don’t talk about the Serial Diners much in my writing about music as I didn’t have a lot of experience with them that had a musical focus; they were collectively bound by a dining in a different restaurant every Friday night at 6 or so, and beyond that it was up to the group as to what would happen next.  A movie?  A games night?  A night where we’d just wander around, not up to much?  It all depended, but no two people’s musical tastes were really the same, so going to a concert was never on the agenda, not at even a small, affordable club on Queen St. West.  Why pay for fun when we could convene with a tape recorder and microphone and bell and do improv comedy at someone’s house? 

And so, within the group my own musical epiphanies and enthusiasms were mostly bottled up.  I had a Walkman and listened to CFNY by day and the easy-listening classical station at night to help me get to sleep, but found myself really isolated within the group, forever trying and failing to find common ground with anyone besides one person…and there were a lot of people in the Diners back then, men and women, older and younger than me.  I found myself at a loss once in being asked by one main member what made Jimi Hendrix so special; again at a loss when another one (who was courting me at the time, or about to) didn’t know who Al Green was; and long before I pretty much stopped attending the Diners on an even semi-regular basis (c. 1999) I was disheartened by an event that I will write about in the fullness of time*. 
This song I remember mentioning to yet another Diner and she didn’t know it and I attempted to sing it – my voice certainly isn’t like Rich’s – and she still didn’t know it.  I was a little puzzled**, since the song hits the bullseye for American music in so many ways – and it was a #1 hit in the US and Canada, obviously a number two in the UK, too – I remember hearing it on a jazz station at the time.  Rich’s ‘countrypolitan’ music finally saw him succeed in the charts after two decades in the business. . 

Rich was a jazz and r&b guy who wasn’t considered ‘bad’ enough for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, so he worked there as a session musician and songwriter, instead of being one of the Big Five – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins  and Johnny Cash.  He had the odd hit here and there on one label and another, including at Phillips (“Lonely Weekends”) and at another with “Mohair Sam.”  He considered himself a jazz pianist at heart and wasn’t really getting anywhere*** until producer Billy Sherrill (who helped Rich to write this, along with Rory Michael Bourke and Norris Wilson) turned him into a country crooner, a man with clear experience in his voice, a man who’d been there and back and didn’t need a damn souvenir.  His success came when, as “The Silver Fox” this (and other songs, notably “Behind Closed Doors”) were hits not just in the world of country music but in pop charts, too.

The story is just about the oldest one in pop; he said something he shouldn't have, she leaves, he wakes up in the dawn to the knowledge he's wrong and is looking for her, his "sun" - the one thing he has worth having in the world.  His casualness (starting a song with "Hey") isn't far from The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her" though you get the idea that Rich isn't about to go asking anyone who hasn't had the same experience themselves.  He's not about to talk to kids in the park about her; this is one guy speaking to another in a bar, a truckstop, the laundromat.  He asks if she's crying (not because she misses him too, but because he caused her such pain - this narrator knows he's in the wrong) - and that if she has been spotted, this intermediary should go and tell her that he needs her.  That's it, but the solemnity and maturity back it up, and I can imagine many a man hearing this song and maybe realizing, before it's too late, just how brutal and cold being alone is, that this song is one long exercise in hopeful hopelessness, that being without her is much, much worse than being with her.

As a girl when I heard this I didn't really understand how someone could be the "most" beautiful; someone either was beautiful or she wasn't.  How could he ever find her if there are so many beautiful women, I thought, this man is on a long, long quest.  And knowing now that beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, his quest seems even more hapless, that short of being like The Bee Gees and having a literal picture of her to show to others, or phoning the cops, he's never going to find her.  But the real story is the terrible gulf between the cold morning of his loss and the warmth she brings, as if there were no spring or fall in his life, just summer or winter.  And for his sins, he'll spend the rest of time asking for her, trying to describe the indescribable...

Next up:  the return of Glam Slam, football and the Fog.  


*It wasn’t the night I couldn’t go to the 8th  anniversary of the Diners as the guy who didn’t know about Al Green and I had an arrangement wherein I’d miss the dinner but get to hang out afterwards.  I did show up, feeling…odd, and when I asked the Diners if anyone knew anything about Stereolab, no one did.  It was 1997, and I’d just discovered them via a tv commercial for the new VW Bug, so it wasn’t like I was all that hip.  But it was alienating, nevertheless.  Something  much, much worse, however,  had already happened years before…and I will get to it on Then Play Long

 **There were plenty of times I'm sure she was puzzled by my musical knowledge (or lack of it) too.

***His exhaustion at being an outsider for so long can be heard in the b-side of this single, "I Feel Like Goin' Home"; this is the demo version.

1 comment:

George L said...

Hi! I didn't really care for this when it came out, but it sounds great now. Charlie Rich was very underrated. I love his song "Very Special Love Song". You have a great website. Have been enjoying it. Best!