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 Buckaroos, the backing band of country singer Buck Owens.
Donald Eugene Ulrich was born in Olympia, Washington on August 15, 1941, the adopted son of Bill and Anne Ulrich, Don grew up in the Tumwater area at 6th and Ferry on Tumwater Hill, then later in a log house next to where his father's barber business had been moved near Trosper Rd. and Capitol Blvd. in Tumwater. His parents began teaching Don the fiddle as early as age three. Bill also constructed a small scale violin for Don to play. His parents entered Don in numerous talent contests and had him playing at any venue. Don also moved to the guitar in his youth.
Don played both in and out of school (Olympia High School, class of 1959), playing locally in numerous venues, as well as in the high school orchestra. Don was only 16 years old when he opened for Elvis Presley in September 1957 at the Tacoma Lincoln Bowl. While in high school he formed an early rock and roll band called the Blue Comets with his friends, drummer Greg Hawkins and pianist Steve Anderson. By 1958, Don was playing regularly in Steve's Gay '90s Restaurant in South Tacoma. Buck Owens observed one of his shows and immediately went to speak with Don. Don was soon playing fiddle with Buck 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, Buck's "Under Your Spell Again" made it to No. 24 on the charts and Capitol Records wanted Buck to return to Bakersfield, California.
Buck tried to convince Don to come with him to Bakersfield, but to no avail. Don opted to go to Centralia College where he served as a music tutor and also continued playing local venues. While at Centralia, Don had renewed his acquaintance with Marlane Schindler, his future wife. They had met a couple years earlier in Morton, where Marlane reined as Queen of the Morton Loggers Festival. As a diplomat of sorts for the small logging town in eastern Lewis County, she was asked to meet with Don who was on a visit to Morton. Marlane notes that Don remained in the Olympia area in that year he attended Centralia College because he didn't want to leave her. Teaching music and attending college in that year was more of an excuse.
But after a year of college, Don decided to drop out and join Buck in Bakersfield in December 1960, signing on for $75 a week. Don 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.
The first single he played on was "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got A Heartache)" which peaked at No. 2. Buck and Don toured rather archaically, throwing Buck's Telecaster and Bassman amp and Don's fiddle into the back of Buck's old Ford pickup and hop from bar to bar, dance hall to dance hall, while playing with whatever house band they could find.
Buck and Don continued recording singles back in Bakersfield. In 1961 "Foolin' Around" spent eight weeks on the No. 2 slot. In 1962, change came to Buck and Don. Up until that point Buck had stuck to the Texas Shuffle style, with Don playing the role of the lonesome fiddler. That sound would change with Buck's 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. The off-beat was accented by an aggressive half-rimshot half-click on the snare drum. The bass went from upright to electric. Buck dubbed it the "freight train" sound, and it is now often referred to as the "Bakersfield Sound".
In 1963, Buck decided to create a backing band for the sake of convenience when recording and touring, including drums, bass, and pedal steel. Don, naturally, was chosen as the band leader. Buck's old Ford gave way to a Chevrolet camper. During the early years of the band, members came and went quickly. Former members include Ken Presley (who died in a car accident while a member), Jay McDonald, Mel King, Wayne Stone, and Merle Haggard. Before leaving, the latter christened the band "The Buckaroos" and the name stuck.
In early 1963, the Johnny Russell song "Act Naturally" was pitched to Buck. Buck initially didn't like it, but Don enjoyed it a lot. It eventually grew on Buck and he 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 Buck's first No. 1 hit.
"Act Naturally" also marked Don's first appearance on lead guitar. Over the years Buck had taught Don his guitar style and by 1963 Don was ready to put down the fiddle and pick up Buck's Telecaster. Buck was more than happy to oblige, as this allowed him to concentrate on singing and being the frontman.
Buck and Don followed up with another freight train rhythm song, "Love's Gonna Live Here". It spent eight weeks at No. 1.
During the summer of 1963, Buckaroo's bassist Kenny Pierce walked out on the band during a tour. Don called in a bass-playing acquaintance named Doyle Holly. Shortly thereafter, Steel player Jay McDonald quit and was replaced by Tom Brumley.
Buck, Don, and the boys soon 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 was a slow ballad about a returning love called "Together Again". Don played an excellent ride on "My Heart Skips a Beat" and Tom 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.
Don and Doyle soon hired a young man from Texas named Willie Cantu 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 brought forth another twangy guitar solo from Don's bag of tricks.
In 1965, the hits just kept coming. There was "Tiger by The Tail", "Before You Go" (which Don co-wrote), "Only You (Can Break My Heart)" and "Buckaroo" which was the only instrumental ever to go No. 1 on the country charts.
Also around that time, Fender took notice of the Buckaroo's popularity. They had given Buck a golden sparkle Telecaster prior, but this time they outfitted the whole band. Buck received a Fender Acoustic, Don a Champagne Sparkle Fender Telecaster, and Doyle a Champagne Sparkle Jazz Bass. On top of that, Willie received a sparkle Drum Kit from Rodgers and Tom got an 11-string pedal steel from ZB guitars (This allowed Tom to play Don's licks during the choruses of songs, leaving Don free to harmonize with Buck).
On January 3, 1966, "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line" was released which went to No. 1. On March 15, Buck and his Buckaroos began filming a half hour television show entitled "The Buck Owens Ranch Show" (the show was filmed and distributed for several years, being canceled because it came into conflict with Buck's other project, Hee Haw).
Ten days later the group would travel to New York City to play Carnegie Hall. The show was recorded live and is considered by many to be one of the finest live country music records of all time. Buck 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.
Buck and Don continued recording, scoring No. 1 hits in 1966 with "Think of Me" (which was penned by Don), "Open Up Your Heart" and "Where Does The Good Times Go?". In late 1966 Doyle Holly left for a nine-month period and his vacant spot was filled by Wayne Wilson. That didn't slow Buck and Don down, scoring two No. 1 hits in 1967 ("Sam's Place" and "Your Tender Loving Care") and recording another live album, this time in Japan, which also went on to great success.
During 1968, Buck and Don decided to start experimenting outside of the freight train sound, but the success continued. "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone?" hit No. 1 and the group recorded another live record at The White House. That LP would not be released until 1972. Buck also signed onto Hee Haw in 1968, and Don was appointed as the musical director.
In 1969, Buck and Don hit No. 1 with both "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?" and "Tall Dark Stranger". Don 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 in 1971 and remained a weekly series through the summer of 1992. The Buckaroos served as the house band, and Buck was suddenly getting national exposure on a weekly basis. Another live record was also recorded in 1969, "In London".
Buck and the Buckaroos continued playing, recording, and filming Hee Haw episodes. The Buckaroos continued changing and morphing, until Don was the only original member. Buck and Don together would reach No. 1 one last time with "Made in Japan" which was released in 1972. Buck started to turn his music back towards the style he had in the earlier years, but the short 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 amps. In the early days, Don would play Buck's '51 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 60's 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 7 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 70's 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.