The man who, over sixty years ago, unknowingly jump-started my songwriting career by recording the first song I ever had cut in Nashville, has passed away.
Most of you probably never heard of him. Some of you were and continue to be big fans of his unique style of singing. Others knew him only as the evangelist he became following a music career that stalled. Only a few days ago, in the midst of a lingering illness, he said, “I want to go to heaven.”
Dave Rich got his wish yesterday.
If all this social distancing and quarantining stuff has a good side I guess maybe it lies in the fact that I’ve had the time last night and today to sit still, think back and reflect on how Dave’s life intersected with mine. And how neither of us knew at the time how profoundly that one little 45rpm record would change both our lives.
The song Dave recorded in 1958 was, of course, “City Lights.” It was Dave’s recording that Ray Price heard on the radio riding to the golf course with Ernest Tubb one afternoon that prompted Ray to cut the song himself. Ray’s recording completely covered up Dave’s marvelous version, rising to #1 in the country charts and remaining there for something like seventeen weeks. Very few people were even aware that Dave had recorded it first.
But I was. I can remember just like yesterday the ringing of my telephone down in Georgia and the booming voice of RCA Record’s Big Sam Wallace inviting me to come to his office in Atlanta and pick up a copy of “a little record you might be interested in.” I broke every speed limit there was between Commerce and Atlanta, my heart wild with anticipation.
And yet, when I first saw and heard Dave’s record, I was disappointed. First, my writer’s credit was listed only as “Anderson.” Gee, they could have at least put B. Anderson on there, I thought, but they didn’t. And then when I listened to Dave’s amazing vocal on my song, I was shocked to hear that he had changed the lyric I had worked so hard to craft into the second verse.
I wrote the second verse to “City Lights” as a question: “Did the God who put those stars above make those City Lights?” Dave turned it into a statement…and one that I felt wasn’t nearly as potent and was out of meter…when he sang, “But God who put those stars above I don’t believe made those lights.” I was crushed.
Dave told me in later years that he changed the lyric because of his Christian faith. He felt I was questioning the existence of there being only one God in the universe, and he wasn’t comfortable singing it that way. I had not intended that at all…I was simply questioning how the same God could make something as beautiful as the stars above then turn around and create something as potentially “ugly” as the honky-tonk lights below. I guess it was a matter of interpretation.
Dave had been making records since the early fifties, and while the critics loved his work and other singers praised him as having “a pedal steel guitar in his throat,” he had never tasted success on a large scale. Chet Atkins, who produced Dave’s records, never gave up on him. People often said that all he needed was that perfect song. Everybody thought he had found it in “City Lights.”
But he had and he hadn’t. I think when Ray covered Dave’s record and the song became the smash hit that it was, Dave decided perhaps God had another calling for his life. He gave up the country music business and became a full-time evangelist, criss-crossing the country spreading the gospel in message and song.
All these years later, though, the guy whose last name was his only credit on the record, has never quit remembering or being grateful to Dave Rich for being the first artist on a major label to record one of his songs. He’s had hundreds more songs recorded since then…they’ve even put his first name on the labels of many of them…and yet he’s never forgotten how much that very first one meant.
Nobody ever sang one of his songs with more feeling and conviction than Dave Rich did, the only man in recorded history to take the word “array” and stretch it into five gut-wrenching syllables.
Rest in peace, Dave Rich. May God welcome you with a hearty, “Well done, my son.”
And thanks for the memories.