Most would agree that Mick Jagger would have been nothing without Keith Richards. The same could be said about Buck Owens, regarding his musical relationship with Don Rich. Both men were instrumental in developing what has become known as The Bakersfield Sound. Don learned how to play the fiddle and the guitar from an early age, and was playing in bars by the time he was 16 in his hometown of Olympia, Washington.
|Don and Buck having a good time during the early days.|
Buck's career had already started to take off. With Don, it seemed to be accelerate. But after "Under Your Spell Again" reached No. 24 on the Country Charts in 1959, Capitol Record executives asked Buck to return to Bakersfield.*
Buck didn't hesitate, and asked Don to join him. Don had other plans however. He enrolled at Centrailia Community College in Centrailia, Washington where he began studies to become a music teacher. Meanwhile he tutored other students in music and continued to play local gigs. After about a year - in late 1960, Don decided to move to Bakersfield to resume playing with Buck.
The first single he played on was "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)" which peaked at No. 2. Don and Buck played seedy bars up and down the west coast. Most of the time they would play with a house band, but sometimes it would just be the two of them together on stage. Meanwhile they continued to record singles in Bakersfield. Don, now employed by Buck, earned $75 a week.
|Buck Owens and the Buckaroos circa 1963 (Don Rich is on the fiddle)|
Now, it's known as The Bakersfield Sound.
In 1963, for the sake of touring and recording, Buck decided to employ a full time band to back him up. Naturally, Don was chosen as the band leader, and in the early days, the band resembled a revolving door with members coming and going. One such member was Merle Haggard, who had christened the band "The Buckaroos." While Haggard left after just a short time, the name stuck.
Early on after forming this new band, Johnny Russell's "Act Naturally" was pitched to Buck. Buck rejected it at first, but Don latched on to it. Eventually, Buck came around to it and the Buckaroos recorded it on February 12, 1963. That summer it went on to become Buck's first No. 1 hit, spending (non-consecutive) weeks at the top.
"Act Naturally" also marked the first single on which Don played lead guitar. Over the years Buck had taught Don his signature guitar style and by 1963, Don was ready to set down his fiddle and pick up Buck's Telecaster. Buck was more than happy to relinquish it, knowing that he could concentrate on his songwriting and honing his skills as the frontman of the Buckaroos.
|Buck, Don and the rest of the Buckaroos in promo photo at Carnegie Hall|
In 1966, the band went to New York City to record a live album at Carnegie Hall. Many have called it the greatest live country album ever recorded. Buck later revealed that The Buckaroos played so tightly at Carnegie that there wasn't a need for the band to go to post-production to fix mistakes. There were none to be found.
Buck, with Don and the other Buckaroos had become the hottest country band in the world.
|Buck and the Buckaroos. Notice Don's fiddle next to the drum set.|
In 1969 Buck Owens and the Buckaroos released "Tall Dark Stranger" and "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass." Don recorded the latter using a heavy fuzz tone, that until that point had generally been used by '60s garage bands. Traditional Country music fans were shocked, and even became irate at Buck for defacing country music with such a blatant rock and roll sound. Buck essentially shrugged off this criticism. He never confined himself to the status quo, and anybody who knew Buck would know that his entire career was a musical evolution.
"Purists never like any sort of progress." Said Buck years later. "I'm a purist, and I don't usually like progress in anyone except myself. A real purist wants everyone else to stay the same, but he himself wants to change."
Regardless, "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," shot up the charts and reached No.1, where it sat for two weeks in 1969. It's become a cult-style classic among Buck Owens fans, and today it is regarded as an innovative cog in the development of the Bakersfield Sound.
In a twist of irony, the next song that went to the top of the country charts was a live cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode, from the Buck Owens in London "Live" Lp. Buck always seemed to be one step ahead of his audience, and he always seemed to have the last laugh.
The last No. 1 song the two recorded together was "Made in Japan," which hit the top of the charts in 1972.
On July 17, 1974 Don finished work at Buck's Bakersfield studio and left on his motorcycle to meet his family for a vacation in Morro Bay, California. Earlier in the day Buck had suggested to Don not to take his bike, but instead drive a car. Maybe it was premonition, but Buck had pleaded with Don for years to quit riding, as it was something that worried him deeply. Don shrugged it off, and said goodbye to his friend. Later, at some point in the night Don hit a center divider on northbound Highway 1. He was thrown from his motorcycle and suffered heavy damage to his head and body. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital, but he died before he arrived.
Later, police investigating the scene said that there were no skid marks and that in probability, he hit the divider at a high rate of speed. Other than that it was unclear what caused the accident.
Buck was absolutely devastated. He not only lost his creative partner, but also his best friend. In an interview in the late '90s Buck said of Don, "He was like a brother, a son, and a best friend. Something I never said before, maybe I couldn't, but I think my music life ended when he died."
Buck continued, "I carried on and existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightening and thunder is gone forever."
|Don was buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Bakersfield.|
His gravestone commemorates him as "Always Smiling."
Don Rich was just 32 years old. His musical influence has been felt throughout the world in rock and roll, country and other genres. He is considered by many to be the most innovative country guitar player that ever lived.
*"Under Your Spell Again" would eventually peak at No. 4.