Donald Eugene Ulrich, best known by the stage name Don Rich (August 15, 1941 - July 17, 1974) was a country musician who helped develop the Bakersfield sound in the early 1960s. He was a noted guitarist and fiddler, and a member of the The Buckaroos, the backing band of country singer Buck Owens.
Early life and career:
Donald Eugene Ulrich was born in Olympia, Washington on August 15, 1941. The adopted son of Bill and Anne Ulrich, he grew up in nearby Tumwater, living at 6th and Ferry on Tumwater Hill, then later in a log house near Trosper Rd. and Capitol Blvd., next to his father's barbering business. His parents began teaching Don the fiddle as early as age three, his father building a small scale violin for him to play. His parents entered him in numerous talent contests and had him playing at various events. He also began playing the guitar at an early age.
While attending Olympia High School (from which he would graduate in 1959), Rich played in various local venues, as well as in the high school orchestra. In September 1957, at age 16, he opened for Elvis Presley at the Tacoma Lincoln Bowl. He also formed an early rock and roll band called the Blue Comets with his friends, drummer Greg Hawkins and pianist Steve Anderson. By 1958, Rich was playing regularly at Steve's Gay '90s Restaurant in South Tacoma. Buck Owens, who was living in Tacoma while working at radio station KAYE, attended one of his shows and immediately went to speak with him; Rich was soon playing fiddle with Owens at local venues. They were featured on the weekly BAR-K Jamboree on KTNT-TV 13, where Loretta Lynn was a guest with them for her television debut. Soon after, Owens' "Under Your Spell Again" made it to No. 4 on the country music charts, and he returned to Bakersfield, California to do more recording for Capitol Records.
Owens tried to convince Rich to come with him to Bakersfield, but Rich opted to go to Centralia College, where he served as a music tutor; he also continued playing local venues. While at Centralia, he renewed his acquaintance with Marlane Schindler, his future wife. They had met a couple years earlier in Morton, Washington, a small town in eastern Lewis County, where Marlane reined as Queen of the Morton Loggers Festival.
After a year of college, Rich decided to drop out and join Owens in Bakersfield, signing on for $75 a week in December 1960. Rich returned to Washington to escort Marlane to Nevada, where they married. Marlane would work in support of keeping Don, Buck and his Buckaroos performing. Don and Marlane would have two children, Vic and Vance Ulrich.
With Buck Owens and The Buckaroos:
The first single Rich played on was "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got A Heartache)", which peaked at No. 2. Owens and Rich toured somewhat haphazardly, throwing Owens' acoustic guitar and Rich's fiddle into the back of Owens' old Ford pickup and hopping from bar to bar, dance hall to dance hall, playing with whatever musicians they could find.
Owens and Rich continued recording singles in Bakersfield. In 1961 "Foolin' Around" spent eight weeks in the No. 2 slot. Up to that point Owens had stuck to the Texas Shuffle style, with Rich playing the role of the "lonesome fiddler". That sound would change with Owens' 1962 single "You're For Me", a song he'd written several years prior. The shuffle on the snare drum moved to a tightly closed high-hat, and the off-beat was accented by an aggressive half-rimshot half-click on the snare drum. The bass went from upright to electric. Owens dubbed it the "freight train" sound; it is now often referred to as the "Bakersfield Sound".
In 1963, for convenience when recording and touring, Owens decided to form a regular backing band, including drums, bass, and pedal steel, with Don Rich as the band leader. Owens' old Ford was replaced with a Chevrolet camper. In the early years of the band, members came and went quickly. Alumni included Ken Presley (who died in a car accident while a member), Jay McDonald, Mel King, Wayne Stone, and Merle Haggard. Before leaving, Haggard dubbed the band "The Buckaroos", and the name stuck.
In early 1963, the Johnny Russell song "Act Naturally" was pitched to Owens. Owens was initially unimpressed, but Rich liked it, and they recorded it with the Buckaroos on February 12, 1963. It was released on March 11 and entered the charts of April 13. By June 15 the single began its first of four non-consecutive weeks at the No. 1 position. It was Owens' first No. 1 hit.
"Act Naturally" marked Rich's first appearance on lead guitar. Over the years Owens had taught Rich his guitar style, and by 1963 Rich was mainly playing guitar, rather than fiddle, allowing Owens to concentrate on singing and acting as frontman.
Owens and Rich followed "Act Naturally" with another 'freight train' rhythm song, "Love's Gonna Live Here", which spent sixteen weeks at No. 1.
During the summer of 1963, Buckaroos bassist Kenny Pierce walked out on the band during a tour. Rich called in a bass-playing acquaintance named Doyle Holly. Shortly thereafter, steel player Jay McDonald quit and was replaced by Tom Brumley.
Owens, Rich, and the band recorded two songs to release as a single in late January 1964. One was a fast song entitled "My Heart Skips a Beat", the other a slow ballad called "Together Again". Rich played an excellent ride on "My Heart Skips a Beat", and Tom Brumley played what has been called one of the greatest steel guitar solos ever on "Together Again". Both songs shot up to No. 1 simultaneously and switched spots multiple times.
Rich hired Willie Cantu, a young Texan, to play drums for the Buckaroos in January 1964. In July of that year, the new band recorded "I Don't Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)". This too went to No. 1, and featured another twangy Don Rich guitar solo.
In 1965, Owens and the Buckaroos scored hits with "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail", "Before You Go" (co-written by Rich), "Only You (Can Break My Heart)", and "Buckaroo", which was the only instrumental ever to go to No. 1 on the country charts.
Around this time, musical equipment manufacturers took notice of the Buckaroo's popularity. The Fender company had already given Buck Owens a golden sparkle Telecaster; now they gave Owens a Fender acoustic, Rich a Champagne Sparkle Fender Telecaster, and Doyle Holly a Champagne Sparkle Jazz Bass. Willie Cantu received a sparkle Drum Kit from Rodgers, and Tom Brumley got an 11-string pedal steel from ZB guitars (This allowed Brumley to play Rich's licks during the choruses of songs, leaving Rich free to harmonize with Buck).
On January 3, 1966, "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line" (written by Owens, Rich, and Nat Stuckey) was released, and went to No. 1. On March 15, Buck and his Buckaroos began filming a half hour television show called The Buck Owens Ranch Show. The show was filmed and distributed for several years, eventually being canceled because it came into conflict with another Owens project, the TV show Hee Haw).
In late March 1966 the group performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The show was recorded live and is considered by many to be one of the finest live country music records of all time. Owens would later say that the band was so tight that they didn't have to go back in post-production and fix any mistakes, as there were none to be found.
Owens and Rich continued recording, scoring No. 1 hits in 1966 with "Think of Me" (written by Don Rich and Estella Olson) and "Open Up Your Heart". In late 1966 bassist Doyle Holly left for a nine-month period and his vacant spot was filled by Wayne Wilson. Owens and his band scored three No. 1 hits in 1967 - "Where Does The Good Times Go?", "Sam's Place", and "Your Tender Loving Care" - and recorded another live album, this time in Japan, which also went on to great success.
In 1968, Owens and Rich began experimenting outside of the 'freight train' sound, but their success continued. "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone?" hit No. 1, and the group recorded a live album at The White House (which would not be released until 1972). Buck also signed onto Hee Haw in 1968, with Don Rich named musical director.
In 1969, Owens and Rich hit No. 1 with both "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?" and "Tall Dark Stranger". Rich added a new experimental fuzztone guitar part to the former. Hee Haw aired on CBS from 1969 through 1971, and afterward promptly went into syndication. It remained a weekly series through the summer of 1992. The Buckaroos served as the house band, and Owens was suddenly getting national exposure on a weekly basis. Another live record, "In London", was also recorded in 1969.
Buck Owens and The Buckaroos continued playing, recording, and filming episodes of Hee Haw. The Buckaroos' line-up changed over time, until Don Rich was the only original member. Owens and Rich together would reach No. 1 one last time with "Made in Japan", which was released in 1972. Owens began turning his music back towards the style he'd had in the earlier years, but the success of this turnaround would be cut short in an instant on July 17, 1974.
On July 17, 1974, after finishing work at Owens' Bakersfield studio, Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident. He had been en route to join his family for vacation on the central coast of California. For unknown reasons, his motorcycle hit a center divider on northbound Highway 1 at Yerba Buena Road in Morro Bay. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the then Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo at 10:55 that evening, 50 minutes after the incident was reported. California Highway Patrol officials stated that there were no skid marks and no apparent mechanical problems. Reports indicated that Owens had pleaded with Rich not to take his motorcycle that day and had been pleading with him for years to quit riding.
Owens was devastated by the news, and for years did not talk about Rich's death. In a late 1990s interview, Owens said, "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. Oh yeah, I carried on and I existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightning and thunder is gone forever."
Years after Don's death Marlane remarried to Larry Dunivent and had two children - David William and Denali Marlane. She continues to stay involved in Don's legacy and endeavors to keep the love for his music alive.
Don Rich used primarily Fender guitars and amplifiers. In the early days, Don would play Buck's 1951 Telecaster through a Fender Bassman amplifier. In 1964, Fender gave Buck Owens an endorsement deal and the band gained instruments. Don received a Telecaster that had both its body and headstock finished in champagne metal flake in addition to having checkerboard binding on both sides of the guitar's body. The band received other Fender amplifiers as well, and so Don also played through a Twin Reverb amplifier.
Buck and Don received new guitars in 1966, a pair of Silver Flake Telecasters that were double bound in plain black. Also around 1966, Buck had Bakersfield guitar repairman/technician Gene Moles finish another set of guitars in Red White and Blue. Fender would also give Don a Gold Sparkle Tele in the late 1960s that was bound in plain black. It had no finish on the headstock.
Fender's deal with most of their artists was that they would exchange their instruments for new ones every seven years, or so. Buck refused to return the instruments given to them by Fender, so Fender stopped giving them instruments. Gibson picked up on this and in the early 1970s they struck up a deal with Buck. Don received an ES-335 as well as a Les Paul Professional model.
Buck and Don would later go back to playing their red, white and blue Telecasters.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license