John Denver has his first #1 hit with “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

John Denver has his first #1 hit with “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

Of his many enormous hits in the 1970s, none captured the essence of John Denver better than his first #1 song, “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” which reached the top of the pop charts on March 30, 1974.

“Sunshine On My Shoulders” was John Denver’s attempt to write a sad song, which is really all one needs to know in order to understand what made Denver so appealing to so many. “I was so down I wanted to write a feeling-blue song,” he told Seventeen magazine in 1974, “[but] this is what came out.” Originally released on his 1971 album Poems, Prayers and Promises, Denver’s lovely ode to the restorative powers of sunlight only became a smash hit when re-released on his John Denvers Greatest Hits album in late 1973—an album that went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide.

It should come as no surprise that an artist who played such an enormous role in the softening of mainstream pop music in the 1970s would find little support from rock critics. “Television music” marked by “repellent narcissism” was Rolling Stone‘s take on Denver. “I find that sunshine makes me happy, too,” wrote Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, “[but] there’s more originality and spirit in Engelbert Humperdinck.”

Such critical response did little to dampen public enthusiasm for Denver’s records during his heyday, however. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, John Denver has sold 32.5 million records—4.5 million more than Michael Bolton, and only 4.5 million fewer than Bob Dylan.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. on December 31, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico, John Denver died in California on October 12, 1997, when his aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay.

John Denver discography

This page is a comprehensive discography of American folk musician John Denver. His studio albums categories list separately his early albums with the Mitchell Trio, and then his own studio albums by decade, live albums, Christmas albums, and compilation albums. These charts also include their certifications for sales data.

John Denver discography
Studio albums30
Live albums8
Compilation albums17
#1 singles11

Denver's singles are again arranged by decade and include several specialty categories — among them his Christmas singles, his single from his collaboration album with Plácido Domingo, and his single from his collaboration as a guest performer with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The charts are inclusive of their peak positions by country of sale.

10. Calypso

One of John Denver’s songs that was almost abandoned, “Calypso” appeared on his 1975 album, Windsong. The song is about the ship Calypso. Jacques-Yves Cousteau bought this ship and turned it into an oceanographic vessel, using it to research the effects of climate change and pollution on the ocean.

Whilst aboard the ship, John Denver began writing the chorus for the song. As an artist that cared deeply about the environment, the song was a compliment to the ship and its captain’s important research.

9. Starwood In Aspen

The opening track to his fifth studio album Aerie, “Starwood in Aspen” is about his home in Colorado. Denver grew up in a military family and moved around a lot from a young age. Because of this, he always struggled to find a place to call home. However, he eventually found that feeling in Colorado, and after meeting the love of his life, the pair moved to Starwood in Aspen, inspiring this sentimental song.

8. Fly Away

One of the famous John Denver songs to feature a female vocalist, Olivia Newton-John’s harmonies on “Fly Away” create a pleasantly nostalgic track. The song, about loneliness and craving a simpler way of life, rose up the charts quickly, peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

7. Sunshine On My Shoulders

“Sunshine On My Shoulders” was the first John Denver song to reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song was written while Denver was in Minnesota, it was late winter and he was excited about the thought of spending more time in the outdoors. He recalls, “On one level it was about the virtues of love. On another, more deeply felt level, it reached for something the whole world could embrace.”

6. Thank God I’m a Country Boy

Not actually written by John Denver, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” was written by Denver’s guitarist and fiddle player, John Martin Sommers. Originally featured on his 1974 album, Back Home Again, the song was outshined by the album’s hit “Annie’s Song.”

It wasn’t until a live version of the song was recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles and released as a single that the song reached No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts.

5. Rocky Mountain High

Another one of the John Denver songs about his love for the state of Colorado, “Rocky Mountain High” took around nine months to complete. In his autobiography, he remembers the moment whilst camping which initiated the writing of the song.

“I remember, almost to the moment, when that song started to take shape in my head. In mid-August, Annie and I and some friends went up to Williams Lake to watch the first Perseid meteor showers. Imagine a moonless night in the Rockies in the dead of summer and you have it. I had insisted to everybody that it was going to be a glorious display. Spectacular, in fact.”

4. Annie’s Song

Denver wrote this song for his first wife Annie Martell Denver after returning from their first period separated from each other. It became one of his biggest selling hits, also becoming his only hit single to top the charts in the United Kingdom. Annie remembers the day it was written.

“It was written after John and I had gone through a pretty intense time together and things were pretty good for us. He left to go skiing and he got on the Ajax chair on Aspen mountain and the song just came to him. He skied down and came home and wrote it down… Initially, it was a love song and it was given to me through him, and yet for him, it became a bit like a prayer.”

3. Leaving on a Jet Plane

Originally titled “Babe, I Hate to Go,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was written by John Denver in 1966. He later recorded a version of the track for Rhymes & Reasons, his debut solo album. The song was famously covered by American folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. The group’s version was much more successful than Denver’s, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

2. Back Home Again

Released as a single from his 1974 album of the same name, this lyrical gem earned him the “Song of the Year” award from the Country Music Association in the fall of 1975.

1. Take Me Home, Country Roads

Initially written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, Denver helped them finish the song after performing at a gig with the Danoffs in Washington DC. After the show, the trio went back to the couple’s house and played Denver the track.

The next evening, they were singing it together on stage. After realizing he had a hit song, he brought the Danoffs to New York and recorded it. The Danoffs had initially wanted Johnny Cash to record it.

John Denver has his first #1 hit with “Sunshine On My Shoulders” - HISTORY

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

John Denver has a strong and tuneful tenor, a smilingly ingenuous persona both vocally and visually and a sense of purpose to his writing and singing. These characteristics undercut his efforts to be a Tom Paxton-style protest-singer, but in the last few years he's transformed into a competent and, in retrospect, rather original pop-record maker.

But Denver still has a message that gives his singing conviction, though it is rarely so provocative as to intrude on the sound of his music. And the sound of his music separates Denver from dozens of other bland, sweet-voiced writer/singers.

Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
John and his long-time producer Milt Okun have devised a studio style that uses minimal but well-delineated instrumentation (most often ringing acoustic guitars and time-keeping bass) to surround the bell-clear vocals. The tracks are often given added breadth by a string section or backing chorus, but they never steal the emphasis from Denver's instantly identifiable charming voice.

"Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Rocky Mountain High" are neither brilliant songs nor performances, but as pop records their inherent catchiness makes them inevitable. With the late Jim Croce, John Denver is a different breed of formula-record artist. Don't let the acoustic guitars and country roads fool you. This is the new Tin Pan Alley.

- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 4/11/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Of the 11 cuts dating back to 1965, four have become super hits: "Leaving On A Jet Plane," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Follow Me" and "Rocky Mountain High." The gentleness of his voice is always matched by the flowing lines of his melodies and the sweetness of the strings. The music marries folk with pop.

Television music, done lowest-common-denominator style, for those who like their entertainment free of annoying tensions, or even a few rough edges. And more than a few do: Greatest Hits has sold close to two million copies and John Denver has replaced the infinitely more talented Jim Croce as the leading purveyor of light folk-rock-pop. By the time I finished with an album's worth of his sweetness, innocence and good intentions, I craved something violent -- a Kung Fu movie, perhaps. Musically, John Denver sings flat, most noticeably on his current hit, "Sunshine on My Shoulders." He and producer Milt Okun know that and don't much care. Denver's fans prefer a "soulful" take to a properly performed one, and his inattention to such trivia as pitch may even make him sound more sincere. Lyrically, his cheery optimism is so one-dimensional, stiff, and repetitive that I find it as oppressive as the excessive rantings of any monolithic heavy-metal band. To give credit where credit is due: As singles, "Rocky Mountain High" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" have fine melodies and give complete and entertaining statements of Denver's myopic point of view. He's fortunate that Ray Charles recorded the latter: His version is so good that 20 years from now Denver may yet be remembered -- for having cowritten the song.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 6/6/74.

I still don't like Denver, who purveys privacy in hockey rinks and who never wonders how we are to "maintain our society" by contact with wilderness without destroying said wilderness. But except for the odious "Follow Me" -- so that's why he loves Annie so much -- I find this stuff inoffensive when it's not likable. Twice it's brilliant: "Leaving On a Jet Plane" and "Goodbye Again" are the essence of domesticus interruptus. Not that he's as talented as many of his supposed rivals. But he aims lower. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

A good collection of his early (and best) era, 1969-1973. Note that Denver rerecorded some of his hits for this collection. * * * *

- Dan Heilman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The album everyone loves from the artist everyone mocked -- no matter how cool you think you are. Who can resist belting out the late singer-songwriter's hits like "Take Me Home, Country Roads" along with the jukebox? Reassuringly familiar, this warm, fuzzy collection of corny, but uplifting country-folk tunes leaves many high on nostalgia -- you may not love the mountains, but his tunes make you think you do. * * * *

Rhymes & Reasons

So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter,
The fear that is within you now that seems to never end,
and the dreams that have escaped you and the hope that you’ve forgotten,
and you tell me that you need me now and you want to be my friend,
and you wonder where we’re going, where’s the rhyme and where’s the reason?
And it’s you who cannot accept it is here we must begin

to seek the wisdom of the children
and the graceful way of flowers in the wind.

For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers,
their laughter and their loveliness would clear a cloudy day.
Like the music of the mountains and the colors of the rainbow,
they’re a promise of the future and a blessing for today.

Though the cities start to crumble and the towers fall around us,

the sun is slowly fading and it’s colder than the sea.
It is written: From the desert to the mountains they shall lead us,
by the hand and by the heart, they will comfort you and me.
In their innocence and trusting they will teach us to be free.

For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers,
their laughter and their loveliness would clear a cloudy day.
And the song that I am singing is a prayer to non-believers,
come and stand beside us we can find a better way.

Sweet Surrender

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway, traveled by many, remembered by few.
Looking for something that I can believe in,
looking for something that I’d like to do with my life.
There’s nothing behind me and nothing that ties me to
something that might have been true yesterday.
Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more than enough
To just be here today, and I don’t know what the future is holding in store,
I don’t know where I’m going, I’m not sure where I’ve been.
There’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me,
my life is worth the living, I don’t need to see the end.

Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care,
like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.
Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care,
like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway, traveled by many, remembered by few.
Looking for something that I can believe in,
looking for something that I’d like to do with my life.
There’s nothing behind me and nothing that ties me to
something that might have been true yesterday.
Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more than enough
To just be here today, and I don’t know what the future is holding in store,
I don’t know where I’m going, I’m not sure where I’ve been.
There’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me,
my life is worth the living, I don’t need to see the end.

Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care,
like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.
Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care,
like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.
Sweet, sweet surrender, live, live without care,
like a fish in the water, like a bird in the air.

John Denver has his first #1 hit with “Sunshine On My Shoulders” - HISTORY

Sunshine On My Shoulders


This song got a big boost when it was used in a November 1973 made-for-TV movie called Sunshine, a weeper about a woman dying of cancer who recorded messages for her family in her final days. The concept was used in a spin-off series the next year, also called Sunshine.

Denver said of the original TV movie: "It was the true story of Lyn Helton, an incredibly courageous lady who chose to live her short life to the fullest even though she knew she would die of a rare bone cancer in a matter of months. It seems that in the last year of her life she found some happiness in my music. I was most honored to have my songs used as part of that television show."

Comments: 15

  • John from Middleburg Florida I think John was one of the people who came into my life , that gave me a complete understanding of what a great singer is all about. I do a lot of camping in upstate N.Y. In Seneca County. And I always have my Songs of John Denner playing when I'm relaxing in a campground. He was and still one of the best singers I ever got to see in concert and his albums. Thank You Mr. in peace.
  • Susan from Atlanta, Georgia According to a biography show I saw about John, he and his first wife Annie had adopted two children because John was believed to be sterile, but with second wife Cassandra Delaney, he fathered (the biological way) Jesse Belle.
  • Rob from Seattle, Wa Yep, the fact that John was sterile is well known, although the comment he made about "somehow knowing that" at 13 is laughable. I believe the explanation I read in his autobiography re: his "natural born daughter" was that he and his then wife visited some Australian witch doctor that somehow magically made him fertile- and I'm sure he WANTED to believe that. I've heard about how his daughter "looks just like" her father. In reality, she looks just like her mother. So believe whatever story makes you feel better. "Biological father" is the easy part anyway the fact that John loved her and raised her as his own is all that really matters.
  • Charles from Bronxville, Ny So Carlyle Williams - perhaps you hould check YOUR facts before posting them on this website.
  • Charles from Bronxville, Ny Perhaps he was mistaken when he said it in the interview:
    PLAYBOY: He's an adopted Indian boy, isn't he?

DENVER: Yes, a quarter Cherokee. When Annie and I adopted him, we talked about wanting to educate him to his heritage, his culture, where he comes from. But my desire for that is now deeper than I ever dreamed. His heritage is a beautiful one, strong and solid and totally in touch with the universe. I really want him to be able to express that and experience it. I want to take him to the reservation. I want him to spend time with those people who are his.

PLAYBOY: You have two children, both adopted. Why did you adopt children?

DENVER: Annie and I wanted children very much, but I'm sterile.

PLAYBOY: Has that been difficult for you to handle?

-This is an archived story from May, 1999, which originally ran on the World Family of John Denver. It is written by Donna Pinto.

Lots of folks think the World Family of John Denver is a concept that
came out of web pages. Fact is, the WFOJD existed 20 years before
the computer revolution of the 90's.

Just what is this World Family of John Denver?
. A few years ago, I took on the task of explaining this history and the concept for ""Hearts In Harmony"" fan club members. The following is an extensively embellished version of that six page article and a brief update.

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PAGE ONE -- Singer's Last Moments -- No Warning / John Denver talked calmly to tower

This is a Saturday, Oct. 11, 1997 photo of a Long Ez plane in Salisbury, Md., similar to the plane that crashed in California's Monterey Bay on Sunday, Oct. 12, 1997, killing singer John Denver. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman George Peterson said Denver had just bought the plane and had performed three practice touch-and-go landings at the Monterey Peninsula Airport. (AP Photo/Canard Aviators) WAYNE WRIGHT

1997-10-14 04:00:00 PDT Pacific Grove -- John Denver apparently had no warning of trouble before the small experimental plane he was piloting nose-dived into Monterey Bay on Sunday, instantly killing the country-rock singer, investigators con-

A representative of the National Transportation Safety Board said the 53-year-old singer gave no indication of an emergency when he radioed the Monterey airport control tower with a routine transmission just seconds before the crash.

Denver had just acquired the single-seat, Long-EZ airplane Saturday from a man in Santa Maria and had been practicing touch- and-go landings Sunday afternoon before taking the plane for a spin over the bay.

Less than half an hour into the flight, Denver radioed the tower and said he was adjusting his transponder, a device that sends a signal to the tower so air traffic controllers can see an aircraft on their screens.

"He was sending the transponder signal," said George Petterson, a safety board investigator, "and then his last words were, 'Do you have it now?' They saw it on the screen and tried to call him back, but his signal vanished off the screen at 1728 hours (5:28 p.m.). There had been no indication of any trouble."

Witnesses said Denver's plane was flying about 500 feet over the water when it suddenly plummeted to the sea. It disintegrated on impact about 200 yards off Point Pinos.

Veteran pilots of the same kind of plane say the crash could have been caused by any number of factors because the plane is so fast, so light and so unusual.

Pilots said that if the front wing -- called a canard -- broke away from struts holding it to the plane, the small aircraft would lose its stability and fall out of the sky. One veteran Long-EZ pilot also said Denver, an aviation buff who was renting a home on the Monterey Peninsula, could have been distracted by trying to get his radar systems properly set and not have noticed that the plane was heading toward the sea.

According to Canard Aviators, a group of home-built aircraft enthusiasts, Long-EZ aircraft such as Denver's suffered 61 accidents reported to the safety board between 1983 and 1996. Of those accidents, 19 involved fatalities.

A safety board official who arrived in Monterey yesterday to investigate the Denver crash said, however, that the Long-EZ has "a very good safety record."

Investigators are attempting to reassemble the plane in a hangar at the airport. So far, about a fourth of the plane has been put back together. The safety board said the engine has been located underwater and will be recovered today.

Denver told others at the airport before taking the fatal flight that he had enough fuel for about an hour in the air. He had left his Porsche in the airport parking lot with the top down, apparently expecting to return after a brief time in the air.

It was not clear yesterday who built Denver's unusual-looking plane, but experts on the Long-EZ said the plane is not made by any single manufacturer. Instead, owners buy plans and build the plane out of Styrofoam, fiberglass and metal. The plane has a rear propeller, a wing in front and can cruise at nearly 200 mph. Denver probably bought his plane on the used- plane market, experts said.

Investigators estimated the plane to be 10 years old. Because of the federal holiday, records were unavailable yesterday.

Denver's body, described by Coast Guard officials as "badly mangled," was identified through fingerprints on file in his home state of Colorado. A memorial service has been set for later this week, probably in Aspen, Colo., where he lived, according to a spokesman for the singer.

Around the world, fans of the country-rock singer, known best for his paean to Colorado, "Rocky Mountain High," as well as such hits as "Take Me Home, Country Road" and "Sunshine on My Shoulders," wept at the news of his death.

"His soaring music evoked the grandeur of our landscape and the simple warmth of human love," President Clinton said in a statement.

In Colorado, managing director Jeanie Tomlinson of the Windstar Foundation, an organization created by Denver to promote peace and "a sustainable environment," said Denver "spoke for the environment before it was popular."

Cheryl Charles, chairwoman of the foundation's board of trustees, said, "With John Denver's death, we've lost a poet for the planet. I look for his voice to live through us all. He's been persistent and authentic in his commitment to children, the environment and peace in the world."

Denver was known chiefly for his wholesome, clean image -- marred only slightly by a drunken driving incident three years ago -- and had used his vast wealth from gold records in the 1960s and '70s to pay for his social programs in the '80s and '90s.

The house as John left it

According to House Crazy, the Starwood property comprises two lots covering 7.6 acres and offering spectacular views of the Pyramid Peak, and Mt. Daly. The main house measuring 6,849 square feet is on its own lot. When John built it, it had five bedrooms, 5.5 baths, and a two-car garage that could be accessed privately, not from the main entrance. With John’s obvious love for mountains, it made sense that he built decks around the house where he would sit as he strummed his guitar, soaking in the view.

John’s master bedroom was a work of art instead of using wood paneling or anything of the sort for walling to separate the bedroom and master bathroom, John utilized custom stained glass. He made the master bedroom more intimate with a fireplace, two-person Jacuzzi, and a sauna. He and his wife each had their own dressing rooms and his and her bathrooms. When they wanted a romantic night under the starry skies, they could access the outside deck from their bedroom. The house only underwent a major remodel in 1985 before his death in 1997.

Country History X: Charlie Rich BURNS John Denver

Welcome to Episode #3 of Country History X, which looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time.

In 1975 when Charlie Rich whipped out his lighter, and burned the card announcing John Denver as the 1975 CMA Entertainer of the Year, it was considered to be one of the greatest moments of protest in country music history, if not the greatest. But was it truly his intent to protest John Denver’s win, or something else? This is a deep dive into this momentous moment in country music history.

Editor’s notes:

Country History X primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor. All current episodes will also be available everywhere else soon.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.


Almost from the very beginning of the country genre, vehemently and forcefully protesting the incursion of pop and commercial interests into country music has been a critical and common occurrence throughout the music’s history. Country protest songs are so prevalent, they virtually comprise their own subgenre.

Waylon Jennings had a #1 hit with a protest song called “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” in 1975. Country artists such as Dale Watson and Hank Williams III had their careers launched in part due to songs critical of modern country music. Hundreds of protest songs from obscure independent artists to mainstream superstars can be found throughout the country music catalog. Hell, George Strait and Alan Jackson’s rendition of the song “Murder On Music Row” won two CMA Awards, including Song of the Year in 2001—the year after the duo performed the song during primetime television on the CMA Awards stage.

And all of that speaks nothing about the actions some artists have taken in protest, like Alan Jackson stopping his performance of the song “Pop A Top” half way through to launch into the song “Choices” by George Jones after producers shunned George from performing the song himself on the 1999 CMA Awards. With the importance of keeping the roots of country music preserved, protesting the powers that be is a country music pastime.

But no song, no moment of protesting against the wayward track of country music might loom as large in country history as when reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich walked out on the CMA Awards stage in 1975 to announce the new Entertainer of the Year as John Denver, and in the process, whipped out his Zippo lighter, and burned the card that contained John Denver’s name right there on live national television. That moment of protest by the Silver Fox Charlie Rich is one of country music infamy, and is regularly cited in music lore as the richest moment of country protest ever.

But was that really Charlie Rich’s intent, to protest pop-leaning folky John Denver for being selected for country music’s most prestigious award? That’s how country music history has rendered the story. But in truth, the answer may be a bit more complicated than that. This is the full story of Charlie Rich’s burn of John Denver.

Country music was not Charlie Rich’s native genre or original calling. Born in Colt, Arkansas on a cotton farm, he was a jazz, blues, and R&B guy from the beginning, learning blues piano from a black sharecropper who worked on his family’s land named C. J. Allen. When Rich hit high school, he played saxophone in the school band. After going to the University of Arkansas on a football scholarship, an injury had Rich dropping out the next year and enlisting in the Air Force. While stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, Charlie formed a band called The Velvetones that specialized in jazz and blues. With a satin voice and an ear for soulful arrangements from the black influence on his music early on, the lounge was a better fit for Charlie Rich than the honky tonk.

When Charlie Rich left the Air Force in 1956, he moved to West Memphis with his wife and purchased a 500 acre farm. But Charlie Rich just couldn’t leave the music bug behind him. He would write songs when he could, and after the chores were done, take the short ride over the Mississippi River bridge into Memphis, playing jazz and R&B songs in the clubs around town. Similar to most any aspiring musician in Memphis during the 50’s, this eventually led Charlie Rich to darken the door of Sun Records, and the legendary Sam Phillips. But Phillips was unimpressed, and labeled Rich’s work centered around his piano playing and singing as “too jazzy.” Rich was slick and polished. The Sun Records vibe was dirty and sweaty. Legend states that after hearing Charlie Rich, Sam Phillips handed him a stack of Jerry Lee Lewis records and told Rich quote, “Come back when you get that bad.”

But eventually Sam Phillips saw the utility of keeping a piano player like Charlie Rich around since he could hit all the right notes on the first take, and by 1958, Rich was a regular session musician at Sun Studios, appearing on recordings from Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a host of other Sun artists like rockabilly guys Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, and Carl Mann. Hanging around the studio, Charlie Rich also landed songwriting cuts with both Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

All of a sudden, Charlie Rich was a full-time musician, though Sam Phillips still refused to put him on the Sun Records A-Team as a performer, and instead relegated Rich to the Sun Records sub label, the short-lived Phillips International Records. That is where Charlie released his first legitimate single called “Lonely Weekends” in 1960, and lo and behold, the thing became a smash. Sounding eerily similar to Elvis on the recording, the song swelled to #22 on the pop charts, and was eventually Certified Gold.

But Charlie Rich struggled mightily from there, and so did Sun Records, and eventually Charlie left the label in 1963 without scoring another hit, which started a period of Charlie Rich’s career where he would pinball from one label to another, with everyone recognizing his talent, but nobody really understanding what to do with it.

While signed to Smash Records in 1965, Rich landed another successful single called “Mohair Sam” written by country artist Dallas Frazier, but styled with a more rock and R&B attitude. This was the period when Charlie Rich really started to sound like the Charlie Rich we know. But again, the success was short-lived. He released a succession of generally failed singles for Smash Records and then Hi Records. He tried singing blue-eyed soul, and even straightforward country songs, but nothing seemed to fit perfectly. Charlie Rich was an artist without a genre.

That all changed though in 1967 when Rich signed to Epic Records at the behest of producer Billy Sherrill who had been an understudy of Sam Phillips in Memphis. Billy Sherrill is known for being one of the architects of The Nashville Sound, which took a more genteel approach to country music to appeal to middle America and older listeners in the midst of the cultural revolution of the era. Where some more hard country artists struggled to perfect this more Countrypolitan sound, Charlie Rich’s balladeer style and smoothness fit the era perfectly, and Music Row in Nashville saw promise in converting Rich to a Countrypolitan star after doing the same with his old Sun Records compadre Jerry Lee Lewis.

They called Charlie Rich The Silver Fox. Looking at even some of the very earliest promo photos of him during his Sun Records days, silver streaks emanated from Charlie’s sideburns and widow’s peak. By the time he’d converted to a country artist, Rich was pretty much full on grey. But it wasn’t just the premature pigment loss Rich suffered from that resulted in the nickname, it was his ability to charm ladies with his delivery. This was part of the calculus when he stepped into the studio in 1973 to record the song “Behind Closed Doors” with producer Billy Sherrill.

“Behind Closed Doors” wasn’t just Charlie Rich’s big breakout single. Everything about the song had been meticulously planned out to custom fit it to Charlie and the persona they wanted to present to the listening public. Songwriter Kenny O’Dell wrote the song specifically for Rich, with Sherrill tinkering with a few lines to get it dialed in perfectly. Even in 1973, the lyric was a little racy, and some radio stations refused to play it initially, or outright banned it from playlists. But all that mild controversy did was boost the song’s popularity. “Behind Closed Doors” was pure sex, and Billy Sherrill played the public perfectly, while Rich turned in the performance of his career in the piano-driven song.

“Behind Closed Doors” didn’t just hit #1 in country and #15 in pop, the song eventually won both Single of the Year and Song of the Year from both the CMA and ACM Awards. It won the Grammy for Best Country Song, and Best Country Vocal Performance for a Male. Rich also won Best Male Vocalist from the CMAs in 1973, and the album Behind Closed Doors won for Album of the Year.

The song’s success also sparked off a succession of seven #1 singles from the Silver Fox leading into 1974. The songs “The Most Beautiful Girl,” “There Won’t Be Anymore,” “A Very Special Love Song,” and “I Love My Friend,” all fed into Charlie Rich’s massive popularity and persona. He was the biggest star in all of country music, and in 1974, along with winning Album of the Year again, the CMA’s dutifully awarded Charlie Rich with the most important award that exists in country music, the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy.

But trouble was brewing behind-the-scenes, not as much for Charlie Rich, but for the CMA Awards, and country music at large as the confluence of multiple cultural ripples and movements was about to commence with the not even even 10-year-old Country Music Association becoming the centerpiece, and the battleground.

Though The Nashville Sound had become quite lucrative for Music Row’s major labels in Nashville, there was concern that making music mostly for blue hairs was not a sustainable business model moving forward. If country music was going to stay relevant in the changing culture, it was going to need to attract at least some younger audiences, and listeners outside of it’s traditional and increasingly antiquated demographic, a.k.a. Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” if you will. Meanwhile folk-oriented pop stars whose music mostly fit the country radio format were starting to find more favor with the radio DJs who at the time were country’s primary gatekeepers.

When the British-born, and Australian-raised pop-style singer Olivia Newton-John won the 1974 CMA for Female Vocalist of the Year, it sent shockwaves of worry throughout country music’s more traditional-styled artists. Over the seven years previous, only three women had won the Female Vocalist award—Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette three times respectively, and Lynn Anderson in 1971. Now the pop incursion into country had gone too far.

In response, a meeting was convened at the home of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, who were married at the time, and were country music’s major power couple. At that meeting with George and Tammy were Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, Conway Twitty, Jim Ed Brown, Dottie West, Brenda Lee, Faron Young, Cal Smith, Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, and others. This was a major cross section of some of country music’s biggest stars at the time, and they were all concerned about the direction of country music. Just imagine a meeting commencing like this in present-day country music, and how much conversation it would stir.

The performers decided to form their own organization called ACE, or the Association of Country Entertainers, whose stated goal was to lobby for the representation of traditional country artists on the CMA Board of Directors and for more balance on country radio’s playlists. Sound like a grievance some country music performers could bring today?

And at the same time, and entirely different storm was brewing in country music. Bobby Bare was the first to break away from Music Row’s Nashville Sound conveyor belt system of music making, which put producers like Billy Sherrill mostly in charge of how the music was recorded, choosing what songs major label artists would sing, and made them work with with session musicians so albums could be cut efficiently. Seeing the freedom Bobby Bare had earned, and the creative freedom afforded to rock artists who wrote their own songs and recorded with their own bands, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others were instigating their own rebellion against the country music oligarchy, soon to be coined the Outlaw movement.

Meanwhile here were the CMA Awards, which had been first established from the fear of rock and pop music eating into country music’s cultural market share, and they were trying to represent everyone’s interests. After all, the CMA’s also had to contend with the ACM Awards, which had been commissioned due to West Coast country artists feeling like they weren’t receiving their fair share of attention by the country music establishment in Nashville. Country music was at the dead center of the crossroads of the culture war, kind of like it’s always been, but it especially was in 1975.

All of this was the setup for the 1975 CMA Awards held on October 13th of that year. With a folky that had come up on pop radio in John Denver up for most of the major awards, and Waylon Jennings with hair on his shoulders looming out in the audience in an untucked tuxedo looking like he was ready to fight everybody, and everyone talking about what had happened in the aftermath of the previous year’s ceremony at George and Tammy’s house, it felt like a tinderbox that only needed a spark to blow. Glen Campbell hosted the show, and since this was 1975, half the time a cigarette was dangling between his fingers during the broadcast. Then the awards started to get handed out.

Dolly Parton won her first of what ended up being two consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year Awards, which few could complain about. Ronnie Millsap won Album of the Year for A Legend in My Time—an award few would quibble with either. But when John Denver won Song of the Year for “Back Home Again,” the tension got ratcheted up yet another notch. Not in attendance, John accepted the award via satellite—a technological marvel for television at that time.

Then came Male Vocalist of the Year, which Waylon Jennings was up for. Take it away Glen Campbell.

Now just appreciate, even though Waylon Jennings had commenced his country music career as a mild-mannered quote unquote “folk country” artist under-the-thumb of famous producer Chet Atkins, in 1975, Waylon Jennings was in full rebellion against The Nashville Sound and the entire Music Row system of music making. Waylon’s protest song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” was one of the hottest songs on radio at that moment.

That meant there was legitimate concern as Waylon Jennings sauntered up to the podium that he may say or do anything. The stories swirling around town about the debauchery and troublemaking Waylon and the other Outlaws partook in at the renegade recording studio called Hillbilly Central owned by Tompall Glaser, they were already legendary, and Waylon’s stomach for pleasantries was minimal. After all, this was a dude who would eventually skip his own Hall of Fame induction. But in the end, Waylon Jennings was polite in his CMA victory. Curt, and a little sarcastic, but polite.

And then came the most important moment of the evening, the handing out of the Entertainer of the Year award. As was often the custom, the reigning Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich was to be the one to hand the award out. Hanging out backstage before the award and reportedly drinking heavily, The Silver Fox sauntered up to the podium, clearly sauced. After somewhat clumsily unsheathing the card announcing the winner from the envelope, and dealing with the paper refuse with icky fingers like one might handle a dirty diaper, Rich surprised everyone by whipping out the lighter from his pocket, and lighting the card on fire as he announced the winner.

To fully appreciate how history judged this moment in both the short and long term, you have to contemplate where everybody’s mind was heading into the 1975 CMA Awards. The whole insurrection at the George Jones and Tammy Wynette house that some two dozen artists attended—and the thought that artists such as John Denver had no business even being considered for the awards, let alone winning them—is what led to the conclusion that Charlie Rich was protesting John Denver’s win. And this is how the moment has been written down in many of country music’s historical accounts.

In the definitive country history book from the Hall of Fame in Nashville called Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the moment is recounted as quote, “Rich held the burning card up for the cameras on the nationally televised live show and smiled a big smile of triumph. The message to anyone watching seemed clear: in Rich’s eyes, a West Coast neo-folkie like John Denver, who had built his career on pop radio, was not welcome in country music.” Unquote.

And for years, that’s how the story stood. Some pointed out that Charlie Rich wasn’t exactly a country traditionalist himself. Hell, he’d started in jazz, blues, and R&B, and spent much of his early career resisting record labels and producers trying to push him in a more country direction. Others pointed out that perhaps Charlie was just drunk, and didn’t really have a point in mind at all when he lit the card on fire. It’s also important to point out that Charlie Rich was not in attendance at the infamous meeting at the George Jones and Tammy Wynette house the previous year with all the traditional country entertainers angry at the CMAs. Charlie Rich had come up in different genres himself, so how could he have any grievance with John Denver winning an award?

But there was another gathering that Charlie Rich had attended previous to the 1975 CMAs. It was one of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnics held down in Texas where all of Willie Nelson’s emerging Outlaw buddies, including Waylon Jennings, had held court. In Waylon’s biography when he recalls the 1975 CMA Awards, he makes specific reference to Charlie Rich’s card burning, and recalls hanging out with Charlie at Willie’s picnic in the golf cart of University of Texas football coach Darryl Royal, with Charlie Rich drunk and quote, “Just wailing” unquote. Perhaps Charlie Rich was radicalized while down in Texas hanging with the Outlaws.

But the main reason few really questioned the account of why Charlie Rich burned the John Denver envelope is because there’s no record of Charlie Rich himself ever disputing it. What we do know is the incident marked the apex of Charlie Rich’s popularity in country. Though many folks back then and today hail Charlie Rich as a hero for his antics, not everyone saw it that way in real time. Being so clearly inebriated on live television revolted others, and it made a sympathetic character out of John Denver.

Charlie Rich’s current single at the time called “Since I Feel For You” stalled at #10 on the charts after previously Rich had scored eight consecutive Top 5’s. The next year his label issued a Greatest Hits album, which is often the sign of a career entering its final stages. Though the short version of the card burning story loves to state that Rich never recovered afterwards, this isn’t entirely true. In 1977, Charlie Rich earned his eighth #1 song with the track “Rollin’ With The Flow,” and then in 1978, had another #1 with the promotional single “On My Knees” with Janie Fricke. Rich’s career did trail off pretty significantly after 1980, but that may have just as much been the natural career arc for a Countrypolitan performer as it was any trouble Charlie made for himself at the 1975 CMAs.

One things for sure though, Charlie Rich never received any more CMA Awards after the incident. That door was shut. And so was the door for artists that were decidedly outside of the country music fold like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John. You might point to some future winners as being more pop than country, especially when you get to the 90’s and 2000’s with Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Maren Morris, but for some two or three decades afterwards depending on your perspective, decidedly pop artists were shut out of the CMAs entirely, especially ones whose home was not a country record label. No matter the purpose behind Charlie Rich’s envelope burning, the moment appeared to hit home, resonate, and influence voting and nominations at the CMAs for the decades to come.

Charlie Rich would pass away in 1995 at the age of 62, with the official account of why he burned the John Denver Entertainer of the Year card going unchallenged, except in the minds of a few skeptics. But years later, Charlie Rich’s son, Charlie Rich Jr. would publicly challenge the official telling of the story.

On Rich Jr.’s website, he states quote:

“For those of you that assume Charlie thought John wasn’t country enough, I’m sorry but I disagree. If you feel that way fine, but that wasn’t my father’s general point of view. Anybody that knows much about the history of my father will know that it wasn’t in his mind set to judge someone for not being ‘country enough,’ ‘blues enough,’ or ‘anything enough.’ It went against his philosophy. He started out as a rockabilly, then did R&B for several years, then he migrated to jazz, and finally to country. For years people said my father wasn’t country enough. In fact, a few well known country artists at the time tried to start their own awards show, primarily because they thought ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and Charlie Rich just weren’t traditional country. So, let me make it clear, I don’t believe my father burned that envelope because of that.” Unquote.

For the record, it’s unclear if the 1974 traditional country insurrection at the George Jones and Tammy Wynette house after the CMA Awards also included concern for Charlie Rich’s wins, but perhaps that was the case. Charlie Rich Jr. then goes on to explain his hypotheses about what did happen with the card burning, saying that his father did it simply to be funny.

He also divulges specific details about his father’s state of mind and intoxication at the time, saying quote:

“He had recently broken his foot in a freak accident at his home in Memphis. It sounds funny, but he got his foot caught in an awkward position while getting out of a reclining chair. He cracked several bones in his foot. So… Due to the pain, he took pain medication the night of the show: Bad idea! Secondly, he and another country star got to drinking Gin and Tonics while waiting in the dressing room. The show was long, so by the time Dad was supposed to go on, the drinks on top of the medication got him buzzed. So, there ya’ go. That’s why I think he did it. Primarily he thought it would be funny.” Unquote.

Charlie Rich Jr. also says that months after the incident when his father and mother were in Aspen, Colorado on vacation, they tried to look up John Denver so they could explain the situation. Unfortunately, John Denver wasn’t in town at the time. Charlie’s son says he doesn’t know if Charlie ever spoke to John Denver about the incident, but says that he tried on at least that one occasion. “I think my father’s gotten a bad rap on this one,” Charlie Rich Jr. says.

Perhaps this is a little bit of campaigning by Charlie Rich’s son in an effort to rehabilitate his father’s legacy. But to some, the envelope burning is seen as Charlie Rich’s crowning achievement.

Knowing what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were when he whipped out his lighter might be like knowing the amount of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop. The world may never know. Hell, he may not have even known, or even remembered the incident at all since he was so schnockered at the time. Charlie Rich could have very well been the central character in one of country music’s most notorious moments while in the midst of a full-on blackout. Maybe that’s why he never made an effort to dispute the story. Or maybe he was just too embarrassed to broach it again. And remember, this all was much before the time of journalists interviewing performers every other day, or performers using social media to set records straight or apologize.

But regardless of his motivations or intentions, Charlie Rich was the author of a rich and momentous event in country music that undoubtedly resonated deeply and influenced the music in significant ways. After all, we’re sitting here still discussing the moment decades later, enthralled as ever by it. Was it a protest? Was it just a joke? Maybe it was both. But undoubtedly, it was one of the most entertaining and arresting moments in country music history, and how lame would it be if it never happened?

The Silver Fox left an indelible mark on country, with his music, and his lighter.

Watch the video: John Denver - Sunshine On My Shoulders Audio (January 2022).

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