Germany’s Bear Family is arguably the finest label in the world when it comes to reissues of seminal figures in country, blues, early rock & roll, and even Deutsch music. Along with their lavish, exhaustively annotated and compiled box sets, they issue single-disc compilations that are of equal quality. This single-disc set in its Ballads series complements two other releases by Charlie Rich on the imprint, Charlie Rocks and the box set Lonely Weekends: The Best of the Sun Years, 1958-1962. There are a whopping 33 cuts here, ranging from the original ballads cut for Sun, RCA, and Mercury's Smash labels between 1958 and 1966. On the surface, it would seem that everything here has appeared in one form or another in other compilations issued since Rich’s death in 1995. But many of these tracks, at least in this form, have never been released before or were issued on unofficial recordings. All of the tracks here contain original studio versions or demos, before there were overdubs added. This is especially true of the RCA material, when large groups of backing singers and strings were added to Rich's takes ad nauseam. Some of the demos have noticeable mistakes, not necessarily on the part of Rich, but in his rhythm sections -- though to be fair there are a few by him as well. Check this alternate version of "Don’t Put No Headstone on My Grave," originally issued by Sun. The take included here is damned by the rhythm section trying to play a slap-bass rockabilly version of the blues that just doesn’t come close to the hard gospel-styled rhythm & blues in Rich's vocal and piano. They lag behind in their timing and then they do manage to be on time, but they are stiff. That said, Rich’s singing is chilling and deeply emotive, even in the higher register where his voice cracks. His version of "Unchained Melody" is another awe-inspiring piece here and an unissued Sun alternate. One could go on and on with track picks, but it’s the entire set that matters. Taken as a whole, it’s a genuine revelation to anyone who's never heard anything but the Columbia material, and even for fans this is one of the most satisfying collections of his work out there -- as well as the only one that focuses exclusively on ballads.
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