Rich and Green: St. Francis County’s Musical Sons
Few states or regions can lay claim to producing as much musical talent as Arkansas, especially that easternmost corridor where the soil is as rich as the souls of the men and women who walk and work it. Legends known ‘round the globe — like Johnny Cash, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Levon Helm — once called the Arkansas Delta home.
While traces of musical greatness can be found up and down that alluvial plain, some communities just became synonymous with the artists who lived there and the works they produced. Think Helena and Robert Johnson’s legend; Conway Twitty’s awards; or Brinkley and Louis Jordan’s sax, Al Bell’s labels; or Turkey Scratch — yes, even Turkey Scratch — and its famous natives Helm and Robert Lockwood Jr.
Often overlooked, though, in the fanfare of Phillips County’s blues lore are the contributions of two St. Francis County sons: Al Green and Charlie Rich.
Born more than a decade but just eight miles apart, the two musicians shot to stardom almost in lockstep. They climbed to the tops of two very different charts, traveled two very different paths after their ascension, but both were shaped, influenced and inspired by the same row crops and religion of St. Francis County.
Rich was born in 1932 in the town of Colt, home to fewer than 300 people at the time. His parents were salt-of-the-earth Missionary Baptists, both members of the church quartet, and his mother played the piano during Sunday service.
For Rich, music was everywhere. Country music played on radios outside the gas station; church family practiced gospel music in the evenings after supper; and Forrest City Mustang band members played through sheets of jazz music outside the schoolhouse.
But it was on the family farm that Rich would receive the most inspiration, where he would learn blues licks and piano from a farmhand named C.J., who also joined the family during some of those Saturday night jam sessions at home.
Rich would join the high school band, too, and play his way up to the University of Arkansas Razorback marching band. But after only one year of higher education, he left and joined the U.S. Air Force. During his time in the military, he helped start a blues group called the Velvetones. His wife, whom he married right after high school, was the lead singer.
After four years in the Air Force, Rich came home to east Arkansas. He tried his hand at farming, playing the few local bars at night. He was only in his 20s, but his feathered mane of hair had already begun to turn white, earning him the nickname that would stick with him for life: Silver Fox.
Meanwhile, 45 miles west in Forrest City, a young Al Greene (he would later drop the “e”) was also being steeped in the soulful sounds of gospel music produced by his family. Greene was born in 1946 to a sharecropper family known for their gospel group, the Greene Brothers.
He was a key member of the family group as young as age 9, touring and performing, and at one point even moving to Michigan. But when he took a liking to more secular music, Greene’s father kicked him out of the group and out of the family home. He was only 16 years old.
Once out on his own, the teenage Greene was recruited by a band called the Creations. Greene became Green, and the Creations became Al Green and the Soul Mates.
Back in Memphis, Rich’s passion for music finally became a career when, in 1957, he signed on with the legendary Sun Records in Memphis after his wife secretly took a recording of his music to the studio. While having signed on as a session pianist and songwriter, Rich managed to cut his first record the following year. And the year after that, his “Lonely Weekends” would hit No. 22 on the pop charts.
Country fans familiar with Rich’s iconic sound would find that initial record almost unrecognizable. The folks at Sun Records were looking to shape the young singer into something that more resembled another one of the more recent successful signings: Elvis Presley.
That wasn’t Rich, but he played along and saw some more success in the mid-1960s with the release of “Mohair Sam,” which made it to No. 3 on the pop charts.
But real, sustained success would elude him for a few more years, as the 1960s proved to be pretty lean years. During that time, he experimented with styles that ranged from boogie-woogie to novelties to honky-tonk. As he rounded out the decade, Rich left Sun and signed on with Epic Records, teaming up with producer Billy Sherill. His life would never be the same.
At the time, Sherrill was known for having helped propel the careers of Tammy Wynette and George Jones. With Sherrill, not only would Rich embark on a new chapter of his career, but he would also solidify the burgeoning new musical genre known as countrypolitan.
Countrypolitan, often referred to at the time as that “Nashville sound,” steered away from the rough honky-tonk sounds of traditional country music and introduced smoother strings and choruses, orchestras and background vocals. Music producers like Sherrill hoped that, with the help of talents like Rich, that smooth new sound would allow them to capture the attention of pop music listeners.
It worked. Rich dropped the Elvis impersonation and, with Sherrill’s direction, found his sound in a winning countrypolitan formula.
While the late ‘60s were proving to be lean years for Rich down South, Al Green and the Soul Mates got their first taste of success. In 1967, the group recorded a single, “Back Up Train,” which hit No. 5 on the R&B charts.
Unfortunately, that taste wouldn’t last long, and before the turn of the decade, Green’s luck looked to have run out.
During a stint in Midland, Texas, Green met Memphian Willie Mitchell at a nightclub. Just as with Rich’s chance encounter with Sherrill, Green’s introduction to Mitchell would prove to be life-altering. Mitchell was a bandleader and an executive at the Memphis soul label Hi Records. He convinced Green to move back to the Delta and work with him on a new sound.
With Mitchell’s help, Green’s soft phrasing and falsetto embellishments brought himself and the entire soul genre into a new direction and ushered in an era of success the Forrest City native likely could not have imagined.
In 1971, Green released a cover of The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You.” It was a hit, but not yet a chart-topper. The same year, he released “Tired of Being Alone.” With that, Green had arrived.
“Hey baby, you didn’t go for that
It’s a natural fact
That I wanna come back
Show me where it’s at, baby”
“Tired of Being Alone” reached No. 11 on the charts, and it remains one of his most-recognized hits. Before the year ended, Green reached No. 1 with “Let’s Stay Together.”
Let’s, let’s stay together
Lovin’ you whether,
Whether times are good or bad,
Happy or sad”
The early 1970s proved to be the end of the lean years for Rich, too. Like Green, the Colt native dropped two of his most iconic hits in the same year. That year was 1973, with the first major release being “Behind Closed Doors.” The song climbed all the way to No. 1 on the country charts.
“‘Cause when we get behind
Then she lets her hair hang down
And she makes me glad I’m a man
Oh, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors”
“Behind Closed Doors” wasn’t just a hit. It took country music by storm. After 20 weeks on the charts, the song garnered Song of the Year and Single of the Year from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. Rich would also take home the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance.
Another song from the same album, “The Most Beautiful Girl,” reached No. 1 on both the country charts and the pop charts, launching Rich’s stardom, alongside Green’s, in the United States and beyond.
“I woke up this mornin’
Realized what I had done
I stood alone in the cold gray dawn
I knew I’d lost my morning sun”
All told, five songs from the Behind Closed Doors album would climb the charts. Rich would take home another four Academy of Country Music Awards, and the album was certified gold.
This was the pinnacle for Rich. Before 1973 ended, he was named the Academy of Country Music’s Top Male Vocalist and the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year. In 1974, he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year.
In the world of country music, Rich could do no wrong. And then he did.
As with Rich, Green’s first hit album, Let’s Stay Together, would be certified gold. But he didn’t stop there. His follow-up album, I’m Still in Love with You, which was released only a few months later, would go platinum thanks to its title track and hit, “Look What You Done for Me.”
A few months after that, he released another album, Call Me, that featured three top-10 singles. One of the hardest working men in the business, Green churned out a few more albums before 1977, including the certified gold Livin’ for You, and would become a radio staple with hits like “Love and Happiness” and a popular cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”
And just as with Rich, Green could seemingly do no wrong. Until he did.
Following his rapid ascension to stardom, trouble found Green. Perhaps the most infamous incident occurred in 1974, just months after his last album had been certified gold. While in the bathtub of his Memphis home, an ex-girlfriend burst in and poured a pot of scalding-hot grits on Green, resulting in second-degree burns all over his body. She then retreated to his bedroom and took her own life with his gun.
For Green, it was a sign. He had recently returned to the Christian faith of his youth but had not been ready to give up the secular world that had brought him fame and fortune. He would later buy a church just two miles from Graceland in Memphis, famously purchasing the building by signing a blank piece of paper as a check. But Green still wasn’t ready to turn his back on stardom.
Meanwhile, in Nashville, Rich was dealing with some problems of his own. He had reached the pinnacle of country music success, but he had painted himself into a musical box that kept him from expressing himself the way he had hoped he could by this point in his career. Later in life, he would say he had been “pegged” and crippling anxiety kept him from experimenting with the sounds he enjoyed as a boy. He began to drink heavily and occasionally caused a commotion in public.
His drunken misbehavior reached a fever pitch in 1975, when, at the Country Music Association awards show, a visibly inebriated Rich took the stage to announce the Entertainer of the Year. When he opened the envelope and saw John Denver’s name on the card, he pulled out his lighter and set it on fire, shocking the audience in attendance and watching at home, as well as industry moguls.
The industry took his actions as a form of protest to Denver, who was arguably more of a folk singer than a country artist, and Rich was never invited back.
In a 1992 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Rich confessed that his actions had more to do with being drunk and incredibly anxious — severe anxiety, he said, was something he later realized he had for most of his career; they just, he said, didn’t have a name for it yet.
Rich quickly fell from superstardom and left the spotlight for a while to find sobriety. In 1992, he returned with the release of Pictures and Paintings, his first album in years. The album was modestly produced but featured heavy jazz and blues influences — the kind of music he’d heard his father and the farmhand, C.J., play in his home those Saturday evenings as a boy. While the album didn’t sell, it received solid reviews from critics. Rich said it was the album he had waited his whole life to make.
Owning a church didn’t provide Green with the spiritual cover he’d hoped, and trouble continued to follow him through the end of the 1970s. He married in 1977, but the relationship soured quickly, and his wife would accuse him of being abusive during their relationship.
With ongoing controversy, Green’s reputation among his once loyal fans had begun to sour, too. His record sales began to dry up, and in 1979, Green was significantly injured when he fell from a stage while performing in Cincinnati, Ohio.
That was the last sign from God he would need. From then on, he would get serious about pastoring and turn his talents toward the kind of music that had inspired him as a boy: gospel.
With a new focus in life and performing gospel music exclusively, Green went on to record a series of albums in the early 1980s. While he had been nominated for Grammys before as an R&B star, the hardware had eluded him. But in 1982, he won the Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance with “The Lord Will Make a Way.”
That was just the first of eight Grammys he would take home through the decade, all within the gospel genre. The 1980s also saw him take the Broadway stage with Patti LaBelle in a gospel musical, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.
In 1994, Green teamed up with Lyle Lovett for “Funny How Time Slips Away,” which earned him his ninth Grammy.
While Pictures and Paintings helped restore Rich’s legacy as one of country music’s greats, it would be the last album he would produce. Living a semi-retired life in Benton, Rich and his wife of 43 years went on vacation to Florida after seeing their son, Allan, perform with Freddy Fender at Lady Luck Casino in Natchez, Mississippi.
Along the way, Rich began to experience a severe cough. They stopped to see a doctor in St. Francisville, Louisiana, and then continued traveling until he stopped to rest for the night in Hammond. That July night in 1995, Rich died in his sleep. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot in his lungs.
Rich was laid to rest in Memphis.
In 2002, seven years after Rich’s passing, Behind Closed Doors was certified quadruple platinum. The following year, Country Music Television (CMT) ranked the title track No. 9 among the 100 greatest songs in country music. In 2006, CMT would rank the album among the 40 greatest albums in country music history.
In the end, Rich’s broad scope of talent would prove to be an obstacle to his recognition. Few country artists were as big a star as he was in the 1970s, but he has yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But, despite having been from Colt, on the other side of the Mississippi River, Rich was posthumously inducted in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
In 1995, just a few months before Rich’s passing, Forrest City’s Green was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Green was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. Throughout the decade, he would occasionally collaborate with old friends like Willie Mitchell and new friends like Queen Latifah, Questlove and John Legend. During those years, Green was also included into the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame and The Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2009, BET honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award and Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 65 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In September 2018, Green broke a near-decade-long hiatus with the release of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” The song was originally released by Freddy Fender, the same artist Rich had gone to see perform with his son just before he died.
While he’s considered one of the last great soul singers, the Rev. Al Green can still be found behind the pulpit of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis any given Sunday morning.