50 Years Ago: Charlie Rich Records Iconic “Behind Closed Doors”
There are many iconic songs in the history of country music. But there are only a small handful that have gone on to define what it means when someone says “country music” to millions of people. The song “Behind Closed Doors” written by Kenny O’Dell, and performed by Charlie Rich is definitely one of those songs, and it might be the most recognizable song in country music where a piano plays the melody. A Top 10 country song of all time? “Behind Closed Doors” most certainly deserves to be in that discussion. And it was recorded 50 years ago today: November 28th, 1972.
Charlie Rich did not start his career in country music. After leaving the Air Force in 1956, he purchased a 500-acre farm in West Memphis, Arkansas, and would drive over the Mississippi River bridge at night to play piano in jazz and R&B outfits in Memphis clubs. Eventually he ended up at Sun Studios in Memphis as a studio musician. Sam Phillips didn’t see him as a performer though, chiding that Rich was too jazzy. At one point, Sam Phillips handed Charlie Rich a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records and told him, “Come back when you get that bad.”
For years Charlie Rich struggled as a performer since he wasn’t dirty enough for rockabilly or country, and not distinctive enough to make it in the world of pop. But when the Countrypolitan sound became all the rage in country music, it gave Charlie Rich an opening. Where some more hard country artists struggled to perfect the more genteel Countrypolitan approach, Charlie Rich’s balladeer style and smoothness fit the era perfectly.
They called Charlie Rich The Silver Fox. Looking at even some of the very earliest promo photos of him during his Sun Records days, silver streaks emanated from Charlie’s sideburns and widow’s peak. By the time he became a country artist, Rich was pretty much full on grey. But it wasn’t just the premature pigment loss Rich suffered from that resulted in the nickname, it was his ability to charm ladies with his delivery. This was part of the calculus when he stepped into the studio to record “Behind Closed Doors” with producer Billy Sherrill.
“Behind Closed Doors” wasn’t just Charlie Rich’s breakout single. Everything about the song had been meticulously planned out to custom fit it to Charlie and the persona they wanted to present to the listening public. Songwriter Kenny O’Dell wrote the song specifically for Rich, with Sherrill tinkering with a few lines to get it dialed in perfectly. Released in April of 1973, the lyric was a little racy for the time, and some radio stations refused to play it initially, or outright banned it from playlists. But as we’ve seen from other iconic songs in country history, all that mild controversy did was boost the song’s popularity. “Behind Closed Doors” was pure sex, and Billy Sherrill played the public perfectly, while Rich turned in the performance of his career.
One critically important note about the song is that even though Charlie Rich was a piano-based country performer and “Behind Closed Doors” is a piano-based song, it’s not Charlie Rich who played the iconic intro and piano part in the studio. Instead, it was Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins that composed and played the simple melody that sets off “Behind Closed Doors” and immediately evokes fond memories whenever you hear it.
In fact, throughout the 80s and 90s, and up to today when Time Life broadcasts their infomercials on network television for their collections of country classics, not only do they lead segments with Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” the “Pig” Robbins piano part is also used as a music bed that plays as the announcer explains what the music collection includes.
“Behind Closed Doors” didn’t just hit #1 in country and #15 in pop, the song eventually won both Single of the Year and Song of the Year from both the CMA and ACM Awards. It won the Grammy for Best Country Song, and Best Country Vocal Performance for a Male. Rich also won Best Male Vocalist from the CMAs in 1973, and the album Behind Closed Doors won for Album of the Year.
The song’s success also sparked off a succession of seven #1 singles from the Silver Fox leading into 1974. The songs “The Most Beautiful Girl,” “There Won’t Be Anymore,” “A Very Special Love Song,” and “I Love My Friend,” all fed into Charlie Rich’s massive popularity and persona. He was the biggest star in all of country music, and in 1974, along with winning Album of the Year again, the CMA’s dutifully awarded Charlie Rich with the most important award that exists in country music, the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy.
Along with “Behind Closed Doors,” what happened the next year at the CMA Awards went on to define Charlie Rich’s career. This is when the reigning Entertainer of the Year flipped out his zippo lighter, and while reading the name of John Denver as the new 1975 Entertainer of the Year, burned the envelope with John Denver’s name. It’s been disputed over the years if Rich was just drunk or did it in protest. But either way, the incident would go on to overshadow the rest of his career, and Charlie Rich soon lost his grip as one of the top performers in country.
Nonetheless, here 50 years later, “Behind Closed Doors” has persevered, and still stands as one of the greatest country songs of all time, telling a patently human story, with just a little bit of risque spice to keep it interesting.
November 28, 2022 @ 11:36 am
Great song by a great singer. It is one of those songs that still sounds as great today as it did when first released. Still enjoy his music. Never really thought Rich was a country singer though.
November 28, 2022 @ 2:38 pm
Doesn’t stop others from getting the label John the HACK Denver,Crystal Gayle,Glen Campbell and Kenny Rogers.
Much rather hear Rich over them.
Southern Man, Country Fan, and Stuck Somewhere Else
November 29, 2022 @ 7:57 pm
Just because you don’t like John Denver’s music doesn’t mean, at all, that he was a “hack.” The man was a very talented singer and musician, he wrote and performed his own songs, and he did not chase musical trends. I get that it will probably never be “cool” to like his music, but I could not care less about what’s cool. Country music, itself, couldn’t really be less “cool,” socially and culturally, where I live, but I still love it.
November 28, 2022 @ 3:23 pm
He started out doing R&B just like Kenny Rogers, Mickey Newbury and so many others.
November 28, 2022 @ 12:22 pm
“There Won’t Be Anymore” was actually recorded by Rich in 1964 by RCA. It never did anything there for a decade, but when Rich hit it big with Epic RCA released the song as a single.
November 28, 2022 @ 12:24 pm
“the lyric was a little racy for the time,”
Heck, the lyrics to “Behind Closed Doors” sound positively innocent or G-rated compared to some of the cheating songs that country radio played in the ’60s and early ’70s–often by male-female duets like Bill Anderson and Jan Howard and others. Or one of the all-time champions of creepy songdom that came out around the same time, Conway Twitty’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” where the then 40-ish Mr. T sings about his hands “touching forbidden places.” Charlie kept it classy.
Country Charley Crockett's Butter
November 28, 2022 @ 2:17 pm
This song is more “70s pop ballad” than “Country” — regardless, it’s a beautiful song!!
David: The Duke of Everything
November 28, 2022 @ 2:37 pm
Wasn’t a big fan of the song or rich but I can see it as a big song in country lore. I believe rich was probably loaded when he burnt the envelope but I also thought he did it as a protest. Which is weird when at least I figure Denver is more country than rich. I don’t really have a problem with rich being so defined as country cause country has always been more open than people try to make it out to be but most of Denver’s stuff is closer in my eyes if you are trying to parse things.
November 28, 2022 @ 3:19 pm
Not doubt “Pig” Robbins’ piano intro is iconic and the intro might be one of the most recognizable in country lore, but I’m not ranking it in my top 100 country songs. I don’t even think it’s country. Do you know who would record Charlie Rich’s catalog today? Dan + Shay.
Country Charley Crockett's Butter
November 28, 2022 @ 5:27 pm
I should probably go to bed x Behind Closed Doors
The collab + Remix
November 28, 2022 @ 6:31 pm
If this song isn’t country, then Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” isn’t country, and that’s not a country world I want to live in. Totally understand it may not be everyone’s jam, but just because it’s piano-based doesn’t mean it’s pop. Piano has always been part of the country repertoire, and that’s the reason Hargus “Pig” Robbins is in the Hall of Fame.
Frozen Alaskan Beard
November 28, 2022 @ 7:37 pm
One of my favorite Charlie Rich songs is “I Take It On Home.” There is no fiddle, no steel guitar, no dobro…but it is 100% stone cold country.
December 8, 2022 @ 10:55 pm
Both Charlie and the song’s writer, Kenny O’Dell, started out as rock ‘n rollers. (Lonely Weekends); (Beautiful People)”
Country Charley Crockett's Butter
November 28, 2022 @ 10:43 pm
“Crazy” has Doowop vibes mixed with country
November 29, 2022 @ 7:53 am
I’ve never considered Patsy Cline “country” either.
Maybe you were addressing the room, but I’m not one to think piano instrumentation isn’t country. Robbins was more than HOF worthy.
November 29, 2022 @ 8:07 am
The strings, and vocals in the second half of the chorus (from about 1:14) really move it out of country to my ears. I’m not a purist “I only listen to country” person, because I do listen to tons of other genres. Removing the strings would help immensely. What was up with those awful strings in the 60s-80s?
March 19, 2023 @ 12:31 pm
If you compare Hargus with Floyd Cramer (who is certainly one of the greatest country pianists, you can appreciate how brilliant Mr. Robbins is. It’s not that he’s flashy–it’s that he plays exactly what the song needs. Hargus transcends genres.
November 28, 2022 @ 3:41 pm
I don’t think Charlie Rich considered himself as purely a ‘country’ artist – I think he primarily thought of himself as a jazz player. But he was so multi-genre that I suspect the record labels just didn’t really know what to do with him.
To my mind, he seems an unfortunately overlooked figure – but I think he was great. ‘Feel like going home’ is such a beautiful and sad song – check out the demo version (available on YouTube) if you’ve not heard it before.
November 28, 2022 @ 6:57 pm
Feel Like Going Home is one of the greatest songs and performances ever — one I turn to often when things get especially dark. The “Feel Like Going Home: Essential Charlie Rich” CD has both demo and release versions.
November 29, 2022 @ 10:01 am
Agreed on the “Feel Like Going Home” demo. Powerful stuff. As soon as I saw this article I thought of that song and version.
November 28, 2022 @ 3:46 pm
Part of it may have to do with race.
A lot is written about blacks having a tough time getting accepted in country music, but not much is written about barriers to whites in R&B. Artists like Rich, Razzy Bailey, T. Graham Brown, Lee Roy Parnell and some others may have considered themselves soul singers, but they saw that country music was where they had their shot.
November 28, 2022 @ 5:47 pm
Most people my age and thereabouts can play this record in their heads note for note from memory, such is the quality of the arrangement. The rhyme scheme is kinda random, disappearing entirely for a bit. Doesn’t matter at all, Mr.Rich makes you believe every syllable. A popular music masterpiece.
November 28, 2022 @ 6:19 pm
The fact that Charlie was able to have a lot of, dare I use this term, pop/country crossover hits like “Behind Closed Doors”, followed by the big one “The Most Beautiful Girl”, and several others is a testament to the man’s versatility (thus one can conceivably forgive that “lighter” moment of his at the 1975 CMA’s). And just for arcane chart history, it’s also notable that during this crossover period, he was able to share some pop singles chart space with another piano player of some renown–one Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Sir Elton John).
November 28, 2022 @ 6:51 pm
He did see some success later on. My favorite song of his, “Rolling With The Flow”, and my second favorite, “On My Knees” went number 1 later in the 70’s.
By the way, Mark Chestnutt’s cover of Rolling is a classic on its own.
Ole Rich could sure croon a song out, that’s for sure.
November 28, 2022 @ 7:28 pm
Wayne, 200% agree. Rolling With the Flow is KILLER! Its got a monster hook, also a killer steel lick thats so simple and melodic. Also love his version of Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues. As for Closed Doors, it’s epic. As for the naysayers, yall are entitled to your opinion. I’ve got mine. No problem with accepting it in the Country Canon. Look at the syrupy sounding stuff Ray Price was doing during that same time period. It was a phase and a style of that time. But look at it this way: Melody- check, Monster Hook- check, killer writing – check. Memorable- check, Beautiful- check. Rich was a class act. A mother of a song!
November 28, 2022 @ 6:52 pm
I’ve always favored “The Most Beautiful Girl” over this one, in part because the lyrics of the first verse strike me as just absolutely perfect. But I love a lot of Charlie’s stuff.
Sir Adam the Great
November 28, 2022 @ 8:52 pm
I think I’m here because of this song.
Country Charley Crockett's Butter
November 28, 2022 @ 10:45 pm
Does this mean your parents conceived you while making love to this song?
If so, Happy 50th Birthday Adam!!
Sir Adam the Great
November 29, 2022 @ 7:35 am
Not quite 50, but…yeah probably.
November 29, 2022 @ 11:19 am
I watched the video of Charlie Rich burning the CMA winner card naming John Denver. There’s no indication that it was meant to show disrespect to John Denver.
These awards shows, particularly the Oscars, make a big to-do about how secretive and protected the process is, including having a representative from the major accounting firm that conducts the vote. It looked to me like Rich was joking around, treating the card as a top-secret message sent to an intelligence operative. What does a spy do after her receives and reads such a message? He burns it. (Or in the case of Mission Impossible, the audio message on a cassette tape “self destructs” by buring itself.
Charlie had the butane ligher with him as a prop and lit it as he was reading John Denver’s name. The audience started laughing, Charlie then laughed, and John Denver, appearing by remote, laughed.
It was a joke that went over quite well, as seen live. Seems that afterwards, someone decided to turn a nicely done joke into an attack on John Denver and his music.
December 3, 2022 @ 6:32 pm
Luckyoldsun, Trigger did an interesting article and podcast about the incident a while back, which you might find interesting if you missed it at the time:
But yes, from what I understand, I think you’re right in that Rich had nothing against John Denver.
December 5, 2022 @ 9:54 am
John Denver was not laughing due to the card burning stunt that night. On tour in Australia the night of the CMA show the satellite connection provided John with only the audio feed of the program. Because he could not see what was happening in Nashville he had no idea what Charlie Rich had done. His wide smile expressed his joy about winning the award. He did not become aware of Rich’s antics until afterward.
My take at the time that it happened (and in the years since) is that Rich did it due to his bad judgement fueled by intoxication. He never indicated any animosity toward Denver. Not as widely reported, Rich later admitted that he had in fact voted for Denver in the Entertainer Of The Year category on his very own CMA ballot. Charlie was clearly inebriated that night and I feared how his extremely poor judgement might affect his career. However his country hits continued until the end of the decade so the blowback was not long lasting. His chart success was not as consistent post 1975 but that was due to some songs that were not of the same high caliber as his 1973-74 breakthrough hits.
It can be said that Rich was way ahead of his time because recordings he had made a decade earlier for RCA Victor and their Groove subsidiary became huge country hits in 1973-74. There Won’t Be Anymore, I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore and She Called Me Baby were all number one country hits. Producer Chet Atkins deserves a share of the credit for those successes Likewise Floyd Cramer who played piano on those sessions.
November 29, 2022 @ 9:25 pm
This was one of the songs I was exposed to by my parents. One of those songs I’ve known forever. A building block in my country music beginnings
November 30, 2022 @ 9:03 pm
Sitting and Thinkin.