Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
The irony behind this feature is that, despite my intentions to discuss country music’s biggest ever hits, more than a few of these discussions have centered around artists getting lucky with a song no one else thought would be a hit. Very rarely have these discussions centered around artists attaining hits while at the top of their game.
Sometimes those discussions also revolve around new artists looking for that big breakthrough, and sometimes they stem from an artist or band making the big comeback no one expected from them. Granted, the industry is much more perilous today than it was then – one flop single can spell everlasting disaster for just about anyone, let alone letting a few years slide by with no momentum. In other words, in a genre that values authenticity and the unsung heroes of America, it’s the underdog who can hardly ever catch a break.
Not to turn this into a discussion of “the good ol’ days,” but you don’t hear of the same comeback success stories today that often emanated throughout the 20th century in the genre. Producer Billy Sherrill, for example, found huge success with George Jones, whom he signed to Epic Records in 1971. By revamping the singer’s sound by surrounding him with lusher arrangements and encouraging him to rely more on the bottom end of his enormous range, Jones’s career experienced a needed rejuvenation and launched him even higher in his superstar status than ever before. Later, Sherrill would help 13-year-old Tanya Tucker seize on her precocious voice to fashion seven top 10 hits in two years, one of which being the iconic “Delta Dawn.”
Another artist who’d receive a big break from Sherrill’s help would be Charlie Rich, a piano-bar-type entertainer who managed to have some rock ‘n’ roll success with an expressive, smoky voice. The year Rich signed with Epic Records in 1968, he laid the foundation for the biggest hit of his career, though it would take half a decade to arrive. While Rich was inking his contract for the record label, a few blocks away Norro Wilson was struggling as a new artist for Smash Records. Wilson had turned to one of the label’s promotion men, Rory Bourke, essentially asking him to write a hit song. Together, they wrote “Hey Mister,” where a male character searches for the woman who left him. It’s a simple concept, yet the two struggled to describe the girl the way they wanted to, trying to blend populism with specificity. Soon, they’d realized everyone has someone they consider to be the most beautiful person in the world, so by leaving out those physical attributes, they managed to be vague, yet effective.
Rich, too, was looking for hits during this time. According to Sherrill himself, “he [Rich] had some kind of old station wagon – and we’d look for songs, and we’d record this or that. He was hittin’ the cracks – he was like too country to be played pop, and too bluesy to be played country. We just had mediocre record after mediocre record. We put out ‘I Take It On Home’ and it did pretty good. And then we put out ‘Behind Closed Doors,’ which was the same kind of song, written by the same guy [Kevin O’Dell] – same tempo, same musicians – and it just went wild. Number one, country; very big pop!”
Wilson, however, was not experiencing the same kind of success. He had cut “Hey Mister” for an album, but also repeatedly pitched the song to Sherrill. Later, Wilson pitched another song, “Mama McCluskey,” and Sherrill decided that combining both tunes might work best. Basically, Sherrill took a few lines from the latter song and forced them into the former one, changed the title to “The Most Beautiful Girl,” and just like that, a hit was born.
As for how it became a single, Sherrill was sitting in his office one day when his secretary, Emily Mitchell, notified him that Rich and his people were there to see him. “Charlie sat down, picked up a Billboard, and was lookin’ at it,” Sherrill said. “You ever watch the Andy Griffith Show where Don Knotts puffs out his chest and says, ‘Well now, just listen here I’m gonna tell you’? [Seymour] Rosenburg (Rich’s manager) said, ‘We been talkin’, we been thinkin’ about it, doin’ some research.’ He had a song which was a real piece of garbage called ‘Peace On You’ that he published. He said, ‘We think that Charlie needs a good up-tempo and we think ‘Peace On You’ has gotta be the follow-up to ‘Behind Closed Doors.’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something. When we did ‘Behind Closed Doors,’ Charlie and I, it was not we who picked the record, I picked the record. And ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’ is gonna be the next single. It’s not we, it never has been we, it’s me. I pick the record as long as I’m the record producer.’ The place got deadly silent. And after about ten seconds, Charlie looked over the Billboard, said, ‘I told you he’d say that!’ ”
Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss Billy Swan and “I Can Help.”
Here’s another fun fact about the song that speaks for itself:
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding Billy Sherrill was largely taken from Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music In America by the Country Music Hall of Fame, specifically the chapter “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” by Chet Flippo and an excerpt on Sherrill by Geoffrey Himes.
- Quote attributions for Sherrill and the story of “The Most Beautiful Girl” come from How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A. by Michael Kosser, specifically the chapter, “Strings and Power Saws.”
- Further information about Norro Wilson taken from this article by Richard Buskin.