Charlie Black’s friends reflect on ‘one heckuva guy’
Charlie Black was as good as they get when it comes to
Composer of more than 15 chart-topping hit songs for what
reads like a thick Who’s Who of country music’s greatest stars, Black was so
good he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1991, after
about two decades of enviable artistry dating back to when he first moved to
the Music City in the early ‘70s.
But for those who worked with him, that’s not all they mean
by the word good when they reflect on their friend, who died at his home in
Port St. Joe on April 23 at the age of 71.
“He was a gift while he was on this earth, not only as a writer but as a human being,” said Rory Bourke, a longtime collaborator who co-authored
with Black many of his most well-known songs.
“He was one of the kindest, easygoing in relationships with
people as I’ve ever known,” he said. “And everybody loved him. He was a magical
“Everybody loved writing with him, they couldn’t wait to get
there and be in a room with him,” Bourke said. “The people who wrote with him,
the group, we were all highly social with him too. He was a great friend to all
“Of all the people, he was the easiest to work with, always
open to ideas,” he said. “Sometimes when we got stuck, we’d know we were stuck,
and Charlie would say ‘How about this?’ and something great would pop out of
“There’s a group of us, myself, Tommy Rocco, Phil Vassar, Tim
Ryan, Bobby Fischer, that group of people have always been friends,” Bourke
said. “If you put Charlie in the center, you have spokes going out to all the
Getting started in the ’70s
A former promotion man in Cleveland, Ohio and later Chicago
for Mercury Records, Bourke had been writing songs for himself before he decided
to quit his job and pitch his songs. He signed with Henry Hurt, general manager
of Chappell Music in Nashville.
Around the same time, Black, a recent graduate of the University
of Maryland, had moved to Nashville, and after a brief try at becoming a singer,
decided songwriting was where his heart lay. His first cut was “Girl, You
Came and Eased My Mind” by Tommy Overstreet.
Black had left Tarot Music, the publishing company he
started with at $50 a week, and Hurt jumped at the chance to sign him, encouraging
him to team up with Bourke.
As fate would have it, on their first time together, at
Bourke’s house on the outskirts of Nashville, the pair penned “Shadows in the
Moonlight,” a song that would top the charts for Canadian country pop music
singer Anne Murray.
In a later interview, Black recalled driving
alone the night before, focused on making sure he would have something for his first session with Bourke.
“I didn’t want to go in cold, I’d like to have something,”
he said. “I was looking into the moonlight and thought that’s maybe an idea.”
Black’s path to songwriting, he told music journalist Vernell
Hackett in a 1984 interview, began when he was about age 13, growing up in
“I always spent my allowance, whatever money I had, buying
records,” he said. “I remember being at a dance in junior high and the band was
playing and thinking ‘I can do that.’ I must have been 13.
“And once I got that guitar, that was it,” Black said.
He always played in a rock-and-roll band with friends, in
the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC area where they lived, all the way
into his college days.
After he and a buddy had accumulated enough songs, they
decided that on their way down to vacation in Fort Lauderdale, they would stop
And they never left.
“All we knew we had a bunch of songs and we liked to sing
and play,” Black told Hackett.
After the penned his first hit “I Don’t Know You
(Anymore),” along with Overstreet and Ricci Mareno, “there didn’t seem to be any question about that, it seemed like
that was what I was supposed to do.
“I just loved that somebody would pay me for what I loved to
do,” he said.
In the Hackett interview, done at a time when Black already had a number of hit songs to his credit, he conceded that as a staff
writer, authoring songs as part of a workaday routine, “you’re going to write
some that are just terrible.
“A lot of times you will chase an idea that just not that wonderful,
or you get caught up in something that speaks to you but it speaks to nobody
else,” he said.
‘A Little Good News’ becomes huge hit
But some songs speak to everybody and for a long time, and
perhaps Black’s most famous one is “A Little Good News,” which in 1983 was named
the Country Music Association’s Single of the Year, earned Murray, then at the
peak of her career, a Grammy Award and was nominated as the year’s Best Country
Song at the Grammys.
Black would go on the receive ASCAP’s Country Songwriter
of the Year honors in 1983 and 1984, and pen hit songs for Reba McEntire (he co-wrote “You Lie” with Fischer), Jennifer Warnes, K.T. Oslin and Alan Jackson, to name just a very few.
Murray, now retired from the music business and living in
her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, did her recording at a studio
She already had a hit with “Shadows in the Moonlight,”
so when her producer, Jim Ed Norton, a legend in the music industry, came to
her with “A Little Good News,” she knew it had to be listened to.
“I just knew that every time I got a song of his I would
definitely sit down and listen,” she said in a telephone interview last week.
The story of how the song came to be is a matter of
Nashville lore, as it was a happenstance bringing together of Bourke with Black and
writing partner Tommy “Skipper” Rocco, on a particularly bad day for news.
It was Sept. 1, 1983, and Bourke had planned to team up with
another songwriter when that had to be scratched. “He called me and said ‘I’m
sick as a dog.’ I can’t work together today,” Bourke said.
So he called Black, who told him “get in your car and
come out and write with me and Skipper. So I went to Charlie’s house.
“I walked in the door, and on the Today Show there was a terrible
story about a Korean jet shot out of the sky.” Bourke said. “We were horrified
looking at it.”
That jet was Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which had deviated
from its planned route and flown through Soviet airspace about
the time of a U.S. aerial reconnaissance mission. The Soviets treated
the unidentified aircraft as an intruding spy plane, and destroyed it
with air-to-air missiles, killing all 246 passengers and 23 crew members
“It was a time when things were happened in Nashville, robberies
and such,” Bourke said. “We picked up guitars, and ‘a little good news’ popped
out of our mouths from letter A to Z in one sitting. That song was a miracle.”
Black told Hackett that “some place during the middle of
that discussion we started writing it. It sort of blended. The division between
where we stopped talking and started writing gets fuzzy.
“That was the only song the three of use wrote that year,”
he said. “I had an idea it would be good if somebody good recorded it. Anne Murray
is a diva, she can sing anything. I think she was feeling somewhat the same as
were. She does that song with a tremendous amount of conviction.”
Don Williams was among the country greats they pitched the
song to, but he turned it down. “You never know what they are thinking, it’s always
a hit-or-miss proposition when you pitch a song,” said Rocco, now retired and living in East Smithfield, Pennsylvania, just south of the border
with New York.
“If it was a big hit, I always remind them ‘I did pitch it to
you,’” he said.
Murray, who in 2008, reprised it with the Indigo Girls on a Duets album of her classics, said the song “had an effect on a lot of people. It’s a
universal testament, it’s always relevant.”
She said she recorded about a dozen of Black’s songs, the
most she’s done of any songwriter. Her favorite? The song “Sentimental Favorite, it’s a beautiful song.”
Country star Rodney Atkins released a version of “A Little Good News” a few months ago, in response to the ravages of the pandemic. “My wife, Rose, refused to let me give up on it, saying people
really need to hear it,” he said. ” I pray it will lift up the heavy hearts this last year
has affected and remind us that this country and this world has been through
hell before and by the grace of God, we will get through all of this now, together, stronger.”
These days, Rocco writes for his church, and any CDs he
creates he sells to raise money for the congregation. “I ask for just donations
when I go out and play, and turn it all over to the church,” he said.
In looking back on the hit song, with its suggestion of the
Gospel message by use of the term “Good News,” Rocco said “I don’t honestly recall
if we thought that when we wrote it. But after that I certainly did.”
One Overstreet man who it did have an effect on was Buddy
Nachtsheim, a longtime boat captain who decided to name his Tupelo honey “Good
“Charlie had given me a plaque, and I was looking at the
plaque one day and I thought ‘That’s a good name,’” Nachtsheim said.
Nachtsheim would visit the Fit As A Fiddle exercise studio
at Windmark, a business owned by Charlie and wife Dana Hunt Black, who is a
distinguished Nashville songwriter in her own right.
“I talked to him every day. I was always interested in songwriting,
always talked to him about that,” he said. “He had a very humble spirit about
“I remember I was going to FSU in early ’84 and that was one
of my favorite songs, it was so positive,” said Nachtsheim.
A man from whom the outreach of the Gospel flows easily from
his lips, Nachtsheim said he talked with Dana about God and salvation, but that the subject didn’t arise in his many conversations with Black.
“Charlie never talked to me about God or Jesus,” he said. “He
just didn’t speak about it to me.”
Nachtsheim has a portion of his new book “Promised Land
Honey” about Black, and cherishes a plaque from ASCAP, citing “A Little
Good News” as the most played country song of 1983, Black gave him.
Holed up during the pandemic in Guatemala, Nachtsheim said
he had hoped to give Charlie a copy of his new book.
“He’d been sick for a while,” he said. “I was just about to
bring the book by and give it to him.”
A visit from his friends
Rocco said that like Bourke and many others, he talked
with his friend often, and became aware the cancer had come back and was
Fischer, who arrived in Nashville the same week Black did in 1970, said they would long joke during their careers together about who had gotten there first. Not long before his friend’s end was near, Fischer relinquished on one of their calls and conceded that Black had arrived first.
“He had such a positive attitude right up to the end,” said Fischer.
“I knew he was close, we talked quite often,” Rocco said. “Even
during all his sickness, he never once complained. The most he would say ‘I’m a
little tired, Skipper,” and to call him back the next day.”
Rocco offered to come down, and to join Dana and son Casey, together
with Rory and Rita Bourke, on a weeklong visit.
“When I asked him, the first words out of his mouth were ‘Skipper, it’s a long drive,” said Rocco. “That’s all it took; then I went down.”
The visit gave the songwriters a chance to reminisce about their
days together, how they would sometimes break up a night session with a racquetball, or
share a gallon of apple cider after a long morning as they pressed ahead for the
afternoon, always appreciative of the chemistry that comes with collaboration.
“It just felt warmer when we hugged each other afterwards and
said ‘We did it,’” Rocco said.
One memory he recalled was how after starting out with
nothing, during days when they had to pool their money to buy lunch, one time Black
called him up and offered to go to lunch. Rocco was concerned about the cost.
“Don’t worry about it, I got a card,” Black told him. “And
the first thing we did was he went out and bought lunch.”
The moment that Rocco said made his life was just before he
returned home to Pennsylvania, Black turned to him and said simply, “Thanks for
bringing all the memories.”
“He was one heckuva guy,” Rocco said.
A Celebration of Life Ceremony will be held on Sunday, May 16,
at The Mill in Windmark Beach, from 3 to 5 p.m. In lieu of flowers, please make
donations to your local hospice or animal shelter in memory of Charlie Black.