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.
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.