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Les Marcott
The Night Charlie Rich Burned the Envelope

September 2013

I enjoy the unscripted utterance, the moment of clarity, the inconvenient truth, and the proverbial skunk at the garden party.  I especially enjoy it when it happens at a prominent awards show. Those moments happen periodically even in the midst of choreographed monotony.

It was on April 2, 1974 that co-host David Niven was surprised as well as millions of Academy Awards viewers by the sight of a streaker.  Niven who was in the process of introducing Elizabeth Taylor made a quick recovery by uttering these well remembered words, "But isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings"?  There is reason to believe that perhaps the entire incident was staged in order to jolt up to that point a staid institution. But whether staged or not, it reminded some of those old blowhards not to take themselves too seriously.

Another well remembered incident in Academy lore was Marlon Brando's non-acceptance of the best actor Oscar in 1973 for his role in The Godfather.  He sent a proxy – Native American Sacheen Littlefeather to turn the award down.  Instead, Littlefeather with the encouragement of Brando used the opportunity to bring much needed attention to the plight of Native Americans.

But it was in 1975, that one of the most notorious incidents in TV awards show history surfaced on that year's Country Music Association awards telecast.  The show was already running long as it often did in those days, when Charlie Rich the ol' Silver Fox, as he was called, stepped up to the podium to announce the entertainer of the year award.  "The award goes to my good friend, John Denver", Rich seemed to say sarcastically.  He then held up the envelope, smiled broadly, pulled out a Zippo lighter and proceeded to set it afire.  It was universally seen as a defiant act.  It was hailed by many traditional country music fans that saw the music they loved being replaced by more pop sounding recordings being sung by artists they couldn't relate to.  After all, Olivia Newton-John had won the best female vocalist award the year before. In response to Newton-John's award, several traditional artists sought to create a rival association to fight the influx of the so called pop stars.   

But on closer examination, maybe what happened that night has another interpretation.  There is little doubt that Rich was flying high that night.  He was full of pain medication prescribed for a foot injury and drinking gin and tonics backstage.  And anyway, Rich wasn't exactly your traditional country music artist.  He started out in the stable of Sam Phillips's Sun Records.  Phillips was the guy who gave Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison their starts.  Early in his career, Rich was heavily influenced by jazz, blues, and rock.  His music was hard to classify.  In the seventies he settled on a countrypolitan sound producing the monster hits The Most Beautiful Girl and Behind Closed Doors.  These songs were at the top of the country charts and…pop charts.  But since its inception, there was always a movement afoot to make the rougher edges of traditional country music sound softer and sweeter and more appealing to a broader audience.  One can look to examples such as Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Ray Price to name a few.  But just like Charlie Rich, these artists were rooted in traditional forms of American music.  Even the smooth voiced Arnold wasn't called the Tennessee Plowboy for nothing.  As for John Denver, he should have been welcomed into the fold.  After beginning his career with the folk group The Chad Mitchell Trio and writing Leaving On A Jet Plane for Peter, Paul, and Mary; Denver began carving out a rural western persona for himself.  Songs like Rocky Mountain High, Take Me Home Country Roads, and Thank God I'm A Country Boy should have solidified his standing as a country artist but even CMA's top award did little to further his career in that genre.

So what was seen as a defiant act could probably be chalked up to an inebriated boneheaded move.  Rich infuriated the powers that be in Nashville and his career unfortunately suffered as a result.  Fans of roots based music fled "country music" a long time ago.  They started a thriving Americana music movement which has a big tent but emphasizes traditional American music forms.  The venerable rocker Tom Petty sums up the attitude of a lot of us by recently stating that country music today is "bad rock with a fiddle".  If Charlie Rich were around to survey the current country music landscape, he would not only burn the envelope, he just might burn the whole building down - pain medication and gin notwithstanding.  But late in his career Rich seemed to reconcile himself to his change in fortune by releasing one of my personal favorites - the appropriately titled Keep On Rolling With The Flow.

And while we are able to relive the aforementioned spectacles via YouTube and other social media sites, the visual record of Charlie Rich's televised stunt has been mysteriously pulled from view by the copyright holder.  It is strange that due to recent events we have access to our nation's deepest darkest secrets but we can't access Charlie Rich burning the envelope.  Hmm...I'll let you figure that one out.     

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Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4. His latest book of monologues, stories and short plays, Character Flaws, is published by AviarPress.
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September 2013

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