We were living in a time when there wasn’t anything to lose. There were enough changes going on around us to keep us sufficiently dizzy for extended periods of time. The ’60s were over and there was plenty of despair to go around. All of these things were very likely weighing heavily in the minds of artistic people back in 1972. It was still essentially the ’60s, but we were turning a new page and the ’70s, as I would know it to be, didn’t really kick in until late 1974.
But radio audiences and music listeners still had something really going for them back then. They had diversity. It was still alive and well. That diversity gave us the rich ability to transport ourselves out of the current place and time and to take us into a place of our own. I don’t know how the hell I managed to be as aware of the musical diversity going on during radio programming on AM radio back then, but it was very sharp and very distinct to me. I was only in 5th Grade in the Fall of ’72 and yet it was hitting me flush in the face.
I had been throwing myself so deeply into music on the radio the previous two years that I actually began to develop very rudimentary thoughts about what was going on in the music I was listening to. In late 1972, you could not avoid hearing lushness in production values in singles that were being played on Top 40 radio. There were two primary places where I was getting heavily influenced by production values reflecting orchestration and/or reverb in late 1972 and into early 1973. One was from Soul music artists. I was hearing it in “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” from The Temptations. I was getting it from Gladys Knight & The Pips “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)”. I was most certainly hearing it in the production work of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of Philadelphia International Records by way of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” from Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and from “Me And Mrs. Jones” from Billy Paul.
In that same spirit of diversity that was the radio back then, audiences back then were blessed to have been gifted with lush orchestrated production values from another source. It came from Country music. Specifically, it came from Billy Sherrill and his work with long-time veteran artist Charlie Rich and the smash crossover Behind Closed Doors album.
I wish to point out that this is where I’d like to concentrate my energy. I can’t claim to know all of Billy’s work from other periods of time. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But the two great singles from that album, “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” rocked my world because I was being given examples of how diversity created its own world where there was harmony in my mind while not necessarily being the case in real life. I was hearing Black artists using great production values on their singles and I was hearing Country artists using it on their own-in this case, specifically, Charlie Rich. As I type this right now, I am considering the fact that I felt no politicization going on among different classes of people on the radio. I was only hearing politics directed at leaders disappointing us. And now, I’m thinking about the fact that we live in a world where races and classes of people are pitted one against the other. I am now living in a world where there is no diversity on the radio. There’s all different classes and types of music to be found out there, but you get the distinct impression that none of them are speaking out in conjunction with anybody other than themselves. In late 1972, I felt like they were all one big close-knit army and that they were throwing influences and advancements back and forth to each other all of the time. Naive as it was on my part, it was an impression I had of the music world back then. Radio was getting ready to begin the process of fragmenting, albeit very slowly, after ’74. Reality would rear its ugly head and change the landscape of what I was listening to. And hence, that’s why I began to switch over to FM radio in the Summer of 1974.
“Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” got an incredible amount of Airplay on Bay Area radio back then. What struck me most about both songs was that the d.j.s at San Jose’s KLIV-AM kept repeating a new term that I would remember for the rest of my life. Countrypolitan. They kept referring to it very frequently. I was hearing Charlie Rich do a form of music called Countrypolitan. It was lush. It had room reverb. It was sophisticated and threw light on Southern artists as not being hicks. This was all because of Billy Sherrill. Both of those songs, in late ’72 and into early ’73 (in the case of “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”) got heavy airplay on KFRC and KYA in San Francisco as well.
Over the ensuing decades, especially in the ’90s, I began to read about how there were two camps of thinking involving Billy Sherrill and Charlie Rich and just what the success of the Behind Closed Doors album brought to the both of them. There was the camp that felt like Charlie should have gotten the lion’s share of the credit because he was, afterall, the artist who allowed Sherrill’s production work on the album to help make it what it was. Plus, Rich had a history of being able to do arrangements as well as Sherrill. There was another school of thought which felt that, if it hadn’t been for Sherill’s production values on that album, that Charlie never would have broken through and reached the heights that he did. As an afterthought, it was being considered by some that Charlie’s success stemming from the album would turn out to be a curse instead. Some have cited Rich’s alcoholism as the curse which followed him and manifested itself into greater pressure as a result of the success of the album and that the followup albums never broke through like Behind Closed Doors did. It seems to me that people are forgetting the bigger picture. If it wasn’t for the pairing of Billy Sherrill and Charlie Rich for the Behind Closed Doors album, that Fall of 1972 wouldn’t have been as diverse as it could have been. It may boil down to the both simple and yet complex fact that their pairing may have turned out to be a paradox that we just shouldn’t even attempt to break down in order to be able to take any sides at all.
Billy Sherrill and Charlie Rich’s influence gave me the subliminal message to never count out Country music in my life. The Country music that would matter to me would make its way into my life at some point, whether the music was from the past or in the present, it would still come through. I know that there’s a lot of you, like myself, with whom, Country never really filled up your music collections in quite the massive numbers that the Rock and Soul did. But Billy Sherrill and Charlie Rich (along with Mike Nesmith’s first 2 solo post-Monkees albums and “Chestnut Mare” from The Byrds) were my gateway to opening up another side of my musical life that I never saw coming. I am so grateful that Billy Sherrill existed on this Earth and gave me this beautiful gift.
This is why I am mourning his passing now.