The current issue of the Southern-themed magazine The Oxford American has an excellent article about Charlie Rich, the great pianist and singer who's best known for his 1973 hit "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (and who also recorded a ton of less schlocky, underappreciated music). The article begins with its author, Joe Hagan, explaining that he'd recently come across over 40 fan letters that had been sent to Rich in the 1970s, and it ends with Hagan's subsequent attempts to track down the letter-writers.
The letters, several of which are excerpted in the article, are amazing. Here's a snippet from one of them (Hagan left all the misspellings and grammatical errors intact and I've done likewise):
The first thing I want to say is: I hope to god this letter gets to you. From the first time I ever heard your record, “The Most Beautiful Girl,” I thought it was the prettiest song I ever heard. ... I see your picture in magazines + your a very nice looking man. Your my favorite country + western singer. You have a beautiful voice + I love to hear you sing. I used to cry when I heard “The Most Beautiful Girl” (T.M.B.G). ... I guess that song just got to me.
Well, to tell you about my self. I’m 15 years old, blonde hair, past the shoulders, green eyes + I weigh about 128 to 130 pounds. I’m about 5’4 feet tall. People tell me I look the age of 19. It’s really a compliment to me. ... I start school in a few days, in which I’ll be in the 11th grade. I’m fixing to get married to a 21-year-old guy named Donald McGowan. I love him very much + my mother thinks I don’t know what love is, but I’ve tried to tell her I do know what it is. ...
We’ve had a lot of family problems involving my boyfriend Donald. My mother told me if something didn’t work out between us + we couldn’t get married, she said not to ever come back to her house again. [My father is not living. He died when I was 14 years old (drinking problems).]
And then there's the girl who told Rich that she'd had a dream in which he performed on a floating platform in a pond. She jumped into the pond to swim toward him, after which they both swam back to shore and the following scene unfolded:
We went into the [apartment] and you dried off and put your other clothes on and we sat down at the kitchen room table and you said what do you want to talk about + I said well nothing I needed an excuse to get up close to you and you started laughing and I said what’s so funny and you said well for a while I thought you were going to say something nice like I love you or your really tuff looking, cause girls come up to me and say that all the time . ... then you said come over here and sit on my knee. I came over and you came real close and I thought you were going to kiss me and I said please do and you did kiss me and it sure was something.
Wow. How could you not try to track down the person who'd written that?
The center of Hagan's article, in between the part where he introduces the fan letters and the part where the seeks out the letter-writers, is a fairly lengthy assessment of Charlie Rich's life and career. This middle section features some wonderful writing — if you care at all about Rich's music, or about American roots music in general, you'll want to read it — but it runs over 5,000 words. If you're pressed for time or don't care much about Rich, you can get away with reading just the first and last sections, which are about the fan letters.
Only one gripe: There are no photos or scans of the letters themselves — just transcriptions. Disappointing. Aside from that, though, this is a sensational article that's right in the Permanent Record wheelhouse. Check it out here.
(My thanks to Peter Greenberg for bringing this one to my attention.)