It may be that Charlie Rich's most famous – or infamous – moment came in 1975, at the Country Music Association Awards. Rich was, at the time, a massive country music star coming off a very successful year during which he’d had five songs top the country charts and cross over to the pop charts – and won the CMA's Entertainer of the Year award. His celebrity stature naturally made him the choice to present that same award to a new winner, John Denver. But instead of reading Denver's name, Rich set fire to the envelope that contained it.
It was a shocking moment to fans, who weren't sure if Rich was protesting Denver's win, making some other statement about the country music industry, or just showing the effects of a few too many drinks. And it was the beginning of the end of his career. A few hits followed, but they didn't rival the success he saw pre-1975.
It's easy to focus on that career-killing moment when we think about Charlie Rich. But on the day when Rich would have turned 80, we want to make sure we also take some time to listen to the hits that brought him to that CMA stage.
It all started with "Lonely Weekends" in 1960. Almost ten years after his musical career began, Rich finally cracked the charts with vocals inspired by Elvis Presley. It wasn't exactly country… because country music wasn't Rich's first love. He had always considered himself a jazz pianist, and hadn't paid much attention to the country music scene.
His 1960s R&B-tinged singles brought Rich only limited success, so he enlisted a new producer at a new record label to steer him in a fresh direction. Billy Sherrill at Epic Records helped Rich remake himself in the popular "Countrypolitan" vein – and it worked. His 1973 single, "The Most Beautiful Girl," rocketed to the top of the charts on the strength of that new sound.
1973 was a good year for Rich, but 1974 blew it out of the water. At the peak of his fame, he hit the top of the country charts again and again. His earlier music was rereleased, he won the top CMA award, and he even recorded the Oscar-nominated theme song for the movie Benji, "I Feel Love."
After the CMA Awards incident, Rich suffered a career slump from which he only partially rebounded. Before his death in 1995 at the age of 62, he had a few more hits – like his last No. 1, 1978's "On My Knees" – but he would always be "the singer who burned John Denver's name," not just "award-winning country music star Charlie Rich." But for one last track on his birthday, we'll remember him as the latter.
Written by Linnea Crowther