On this day in 1975, the man voted Entertainer of the Year for by the Country Music Association of America one year earlier stood onstage at the CMA awards show to announce that year’s winner of the Association’s biggest award. But a funny thing happened when he opened the envelope and saw what was written inside. Instead of merely reading the name “John Denver” and stepping back from the podium, Charlie Rich reached into his pocket for a cigarette lighter and set the envelope on fire, right there onstage. Though the display shocked the live audience in attendance, John Denver himself was present only via satellite linkup, and he offered a gracious acceptance speech with no idea what had occurred.
In the aftermath of the incident, Charlie Rich was blacklisted from the CMA awards show for the rest of his career. But what point was he trying to make, exactly? It was widely assumed at the time that Rich was taking a stand on the side of country traditionalists upset at a notable incursion of pop dabblers into country music at the time (Olivia Newton-John, for instance, had won the Most Promising Female Vocalist award in 1973, for instance). But Rich himself was often accused of being “not country enough,” so that may not have been his intent. While it made better newspaper copy to suggest that he specifically resented John Denver’s win, Rich was also, by his own admission, on a combination of prescription pain medication and gin-and-tonics that night.
As his son, Charlie Rich, Jr., has written of the incident, “He used bad judgment. He was human after all. I know the last thing my father would have wanted to do was set himself up as judge of another musician.”
So Kanye West wasn’t the first to implode on stage during an awards show.