Charlie Rich, who had a long career of making great music, suddenly found himself with a huge hit album with the 1973 release of Behind Closed Doors. The title track was one of the most popular songs of the time. And it was followed by the equally popular hit, “The Most Beautiful Girl.” The Country Music Association named him Entertainer of the Year in 1974. But it would be his return to the CMA Awards stage the following year that many would most remember.
The following year on October 13, 1975, Rich returned to the Country Music Association Awards show to pass the torch to the new “Entertainer of the Year.” After Rich announced the nominees, which included a bit of rambling, he opened the envelope. After picking up the dropped announcement of the winner, he set it on fire. After a brief pause, he said the winner’s name, “My friend, Mr. John Denver.”
Then, John Denver appeared via satellite, apparently unaware of what just happened. But when the camera returned to the stage, host Glen Campbell looked a little confused.
Why Did Rich Do It?
Many regarded Rich’s actions as a protest against giving the award to Denver. Some speculated that Rich thought Denver was not “country” enough.
That reasoning does not seem quite right, as Rich himself was not a traditionalist, having started out with rock music at Sun Records. Further, his previous year’s success came from an album with a non-traditional country “Countrypolitan” sound based on a suggestion from producer Billy Sherill.
Rich himself never made a statement that the act was one of protest. If one watches the video, one sees the more logical explanation: Rich was drunk and/or on drugs. His speech sounds slurred, he rambles at times, and he struggles to open the envelope. Further, there does not seem to be much time for reflection between clumsily opening the envelope and pulling out his lighter, as if he planned to do it all along (although maybe he knew the winner ahead of time).
Rich’s son has offered a similar explanation of the night. On his website, Charlie Rich Jr. explains how his dad was not one to judge other musicians and he also was friends with John Denver. He believes his father lit the announcement on fire out of a combination of bad judgment and believing it would be funny. Charlie Rich Jr. explains that his father was on pain medication for a foot injury and was also drinking gin and tonics that night.
He continues: “I know the last thing my father would have wanted to do was set himself up as judge of another musician. He felt badly that people thought it was a statement against John Denver.” Additionally, Charlie Rich Jr. remembers his father later unsuccessfully trying to meet up with John Denver while on a trip to Colorado. He does not know if his father ever got to explain things to Denver.
Viewers still debate the meaning of Rich’s act. One commentator has speculated maybe it was a combination of all of the theories, thinking “the gesture was partly a joke, partly the result of mixing meds and booze, and partly a sincere expression of annoyance at the notion of John Denver as a country music legend.”
Rich’s Later Career
Unfortunately, Rich’s fire-lighting act before a large audience and the country music industry helped send his career into another slump. And the CMA banned him from future shows.
Rich eventually did record some great songs again. But he never again reached the level of the hits from Behind Closed Doors. Additionally, he had some bit parts in movies.
Rich’s last record was a wonderful jazz-influenced album released in 1992, Pictures and Paintings. He died in his sleep in 1995 of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 62.
Charlie Rich is one of my favorite artists of all time. If you only know him from his hit country songs in the 1970s, you should check out other parts of his catalog.
One of my favorite songs of his is “I Feel Like Going Home,” which appears in a jazzy version on Pictures and Paintings. But I especially love the demo version that features only the piano and that voice. The first time I heard this song, I was driving in my car and I had to pull over to listen to it. Here, it is a perfect bookend to the discussion of his fire at the CMAs.
Surprisingly, Charlie Rich is not in the Country Music Hall of Fame. For more information about lending your voice to supporting his membership, check out the Charlie Rich website. He also deserves to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
On October 14, 2016, Memphis International Records is releasing Feel Like Going Home (The Songs of Charlie Rich), a tribute album of Charlie Rich songs recorded by artists such as Jim Lauderdale, Will Kimbrough, Susan Marshall, Shooter Jennings, and Charlie Rich, Jr.
What is your favorite Charlie Rich song? Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)