A “When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring” Anniversary Retrospective: The Cancellation Of Charlie Rich

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I wasn’t paying attention in 1975 when this episode occurred: it was a big year for me. I graduated from law school, took the bar, moved back to Massachusetts and then back to D.C. Most of all, the Red Sox went to the World Series and I had prime seats to see Carlton Fisk hit his immortal homer in the 12th inning of Game 6, waving the ball fair, but barely. The Country Music Awards (CMAs) were nowhere on my radar. They still aren’t: there isn’t a sock drawer in America I wouldn’t rather color-code that watch that show. But on October 13, 1975, 45 years ago to the day, an ethics drama unfolded with many lessons.

Charlie Rich, the soulful country music singer they called the Silver Fox (Even I had heard “Behind Closed Doors”) had been voted Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association of America one year earlier, and thus was chosen to  announce that year’s winner of the CMA’s greatest honor at the televised 1975 show.  He opened the envelope, appeared to read the name on the slip of paper,  and instead of announcing it, Rich reached into his pocket, took out a cigarette lighter and set the slip on fire.  While the paper burned, he finally announced that the winner was “my friend Mr. John Denver” Denver was only available to accept the awards via satellite linkup, so he made his acceptance speech with no knowledge of Rich’s gesture.

The audience was horrified, and many country music fans—and obviously John Denver fans— were furious. Charlie Rich was blacklisted from the CMA awards show for the rest of his career. His popularity crashed: from that moment until the end of his career in 1992, Rich had only one more #1 hit in those years, though a couple of songs reached #3 on the country charts. By any standard, his career after flaming John Denver was greatly diminished. Denver, universally regarded as a nice guy, was seen as the victim of a jerk. (The “my friend” seemed like a particularly nasty touch.)

What was going on here? The assumption was that Rich was taking a stand for country traditionalists against pop music turf invaders like Denver and Olivia Newton-John, who had won the Most Promising Female Vocalist award in 1973.  To this day, some even see his uncivil attack on Denver as courageous. The Saving Country Music blog opined in 2013:

[W]hether Rich had the authority to make such a stand as someone who had crossover radio hits himself, it remains an inspiring and significant moment in country music history, one where an artist had the guts to stand up for the integrity and autonomy of the genre. How we could use a Charlie Rich right now.

That was another obnoxious feature of Rich’s gesture: the singer, like Denver, had often been accused of not being “country enough.”

Rich made the strategic decision neither to apologize to “his friend” nor anyone else, and never explained what was going on in his head. The singer was obviously drunk when he took the stage, and his son, among others, blames demon drink.

Ethics lessons:

1. It is unethical to drink, take medication, or otherwise not make sure that you are compos mentis and completely in control when going on stage, performing or speaking to a group, large or small. Performers are particularly vulnerable to breaching this ethics rule, which normal people, most of whom would rather wrestle cougars than go on stage, assume is as obvious as “don’t jump off building ledges unless there’s a net.”

2. It seems like Charlie Rich was an advocate of the Nathan Brittles “rule” John Wayne articulated for his hard-bitten character in “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”: “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.”  The character was wrong, and Rich was wrong (and Jethro Gibbs, who quotes Brittles often on the endsess CBS drama “NCIS,” is also wrong). If you have done wrong, and there was and is no justification for Rich’s stunt, say so, and as soon as possible.

3. Hubris was at work. (You would expect Charlie Pride to have that problem, not Charlie Rich) Rich thought that The King’s Pass would protect him, but he wasn’t as big a star as he thought he was. Interestingly, Kanye West was never banned from the Grammys for two equivalent on-stage insults to winners, but a) everyone knows he’s insane b)West was a bigger star than Rich ever was c) West is black, and was insulting white artists. Anything the Grammys did would have turned into a racial incident. Nah, there’s no such thing as black privilege!

4.The principle ethics rule in all public appearances by entertainers and those who depend on the good will of their fans is the one Elwood P. Dowd neatly articulated in  the stage and screen comedy classic “Harvey”:

“In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

13 thoughts on “A “When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring” Anniversary Retrospective: The Cancellation Of Charlie Rich

  1. “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

    Whew! Words to live by.

    • If we are talking about favorite Elwood P. Dowd quotes, mine is this: “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”

      First saw it printed in the inside cover of, appropriately enough, Alice Cooper’s album, “From the Inside,” only to have a strange Deja Vu moment when I later saw “Harvey” for the first time.

      -Jut

  2. Not that I agree with Gibbs on rule six (never apologize) but it does go a bit further than that. Never accept an apology from someone who sucker-punched you (rule 42) the implication here is apologizes can and are often meaningless, but also rule 51 sometimes you’re wrong meaning admit your mistakes.

    Also I just want to be clear and maybe this is obvious to everyone but me, but did Denver actually win?

    • Yes, Denver won. The gist of the story is that Charlie Rich didn’t think Denver constituted a legitimate Country Music singer and burned the slip of paper with Denver’s name on it before announcing him as the winner.

    • Boy, that would have really been diabolical! He didn’t win, but Rich announced him anyway so he could insult him? Or he was insulting the ACAs, and picking his own winner, but botched it? I like your version better than what happened!

    • I agree with your assessment of Gibbs rules. Rule 6 is one of the most frequently broken; however, by prohibiting cheep apologies, the exceptions tend to be Level 1.

  3. 1. It is unethical to drink, take medication, or otherwise not make sure that you are compos mentis and completely in control when going on stage, performing or speaking to a group, large or small.

    You’ve just provided another rationale for Biden’s handlers to use for keeping him in the basement. I doubt they’ll state it publicly, though.

  4. I can kind of understand why Charlie Rich did it. John Denver gifted with a nice voice but basically a pop singer didn’t really represent country music. Still, there was no excuse for Rich’s rudeness drunk or not. He should have bit the bullet and apologized.

  5. Interesting issue. I didn’t know about Rich’s proverbial snub, which seems unfair to Denver. While he had cross-over hits, he was a proper country musician, if not blue grass musician, and could play with the best.

    This issue makes me wonder about something I think about every time a Rushinatus posts about Rush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. As many know, for many years the RARHOF “snubbed” Rush when it was apparent that lesser acts were being inducted. And by “snub” I mean outright refusal to induct them, especially by the head of the museum who openly declared that they would never get in under his watch. The RARHOF induction committee is kind of controlled by Jan Wenner, who also is the head of Rolling Stone Magazine. It is no secret that Wenner hates Rush – everything about them. We, the Rushinati, took it as a personal slight and a personal badge of honor every year Rush wasn’t inducted, though being on the list numerous times. We, the Rushinati, would get indignant about the slight and celebrate that we knew more than anybody else anyway, so the RARHOF was a pointless entity. Then, something happened.

    In 2013, the RARHOF changed its induction format and allowed fans to vote on the proposed inductees. Rush took a massive number of votes and the RARHOF had to concede induction to a Canadian power trio. The induction ceremony is attended by the nominees and industry insiders, etc. Fans are permitted, too, much to the chagrin of the committee. Here is a YouTube clip of Rush’s induction (please ignore the cursing but that is just who Taylor Hawking and Dave Grohl are):

    While the entire clip is worth watching, especially seeing Neil Peart make a public statement (he was a terribly shy fellow who avoided center stage), and Geddy Lee was ever gracious, I turn your attention to Alex Lifeson’s speech, which begins at 4:38.

    Neil Peart (sadly, having left us on January 7, 2020), talked about the family that supported Rush through the years (his reference to “those who left us behind” is to his wife and daughter who died within 8 months of each other, resulting in a 5 year hiatus from the band); Geddy Lee thanked his musical partners and the Rushinati, whom he recognized as the driving force behind their induction. Alex Lifeson, though, gives a performance that is equally comical and sneering at the RARHOF, starting with three words, “Blah, blah, blah” and proceeds to act out 39 years of slight, insult, and redemption, all with “blah”.

    Now, I am of two minds about Lifeson’s performance. First, it’s the RARHOF, and not the Congressional Medial of Honor or a Nobel Peace Prize (for whatever that’s worth), and it is acceptable, if not required, to be a bit irreverent. But, it is an induction into the Hall that supposedly houses the biggest influences on western music so it should be given its due respect. “Blah” may not have been entirely appropriate.

    Second, is that we, the Rushinati, interpreted what he did as a classic Three Stooges’ double finger stick in the eyes of the glitterati and the self-important cynics who derided them, and by extension us, over 39 years, slights that were highly unjustified. They, along with most musical press – especially Rolling Stone, dismissed Rush as irrelevant, juvenile, and redundant, trashing them at every chance they had. Legions of fans didn’t care what the press said, though, and we soldiered on. Radio stations ignored them, though they sold millions of records, each studio release going gold, if not platinum many times over; concert halls filled to the rafters by dedicated Rushinati bathed in prog-metal/hard rock splendor. We knew what Rush was about, that they were the proverbial outsiders and that’s why we followed them. We liked them because they stayed true to their musical paths and never compromised. They were tuned into musical trends but not made by the trends. Additionally, other musicians considered the best in their fields sited Rush as influences and giants in their respective instruments. So, from that perspective, especially to that idiot Wenner, it was not only ethical but mandatory for Lifeson to mock the RARHOF.

    So, I am curious what Ethics Alarmists think about Lifeson’s performance from an ethical perspective: Was Lifeson’s performance ethical? .

    jvb

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