Charlie Daniels, one of American music’s most eclectic artists and colorful personalities, died on Monday morning (July 6) at age 83.
He was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. One of the mainstays of Southern rock music, he was also adept at bluegrass, gospel, honky-tonk and folk styles. He was a sideman for Bob Dylan, a songwriter for Elvis Presley, a top bandleader and a noted philanthropist. During his career, he sold more than 13 million albums, wrote giant hit songs and collected Grammy, Dove, CMA, BMI and ACM awards.
His “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was a smash on both pop and country hit parades in 1979. He has also charted more than 35 other titles. Since 1974, he has hosted a series of world-famous, multi-act, multi-genre Volunteer Jam concert marathons in Nashville.
For many, Charlie Daniels personified the South. He was a lifelong iconoclast who marched to nobody’s drummer. He was a rugged individualist who never followed trends. He carved his own way through the music business, beholding to no one and embracing rock, country and blues in equal measure.
Born in 1936, he is the only child of a North Carolina lumberman. Raised on a diet of Pentecostal gospel music, he began playing guitar and writing songs at age 14. By the time he hit high school, he’d picked up mandolin and fiddle and formed his first band, the bluegrass ensemble The Misty Mountain Boys.
But in addition to hearing the Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass radio show on WPFT in Raleigh, he listened to the nighttime blues broadcasts of Nashville’s WLAC radio. At one fiddle convention, he and his band played Lavern Baker’s 1955 r&b hit “Tweedlee Dee” and drove the crowd wild.
Daniels graduated from high school later that year. Nine months later, Elvis Presley turned the music world upside down. Charlie Daniels caught rock & roll fever and bought an electric guitar and an amplifier. That summer, he and his band The Rockets began entertaining in the beer joints that serviced the Camp Lejeune marine base. They played the tunes of Elvis, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and rock’s other founding fathers.
The group graduated to the clubs of Washington, D.C. and landed a guest spot at the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, VA. In 1959, Daniels and his band recorded an instrumental called “Jaguar” that was nationally distributed by Epic Records. Now billed as The Jaguars, the group toured as far afield as Texas and California.
After The Jaguars were kaput, Daniels migrated to El Paso, TX and worked in a group called The Jesters. Meanwhile, one of his marine friends named Bob Johnson had settled in Nashville. Charlie Daniels visited him in Music City in 1962, and the two co-wrote a few tunes together. The Daniels/Johnson song “It Hurts Me” was recorded by Elvis in 1964 and became a top-30 hit.
By now a record producer, Johnson summoned Daniels back to Nashville in 1967 and began using him as a guitarist on recording sessions by Marty Robbins, Claude King, Johnny Cash and other country stars. At the time, Nashville was rapidly diversifying, so Daniels also worked on records by Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Al Kooper and Ringo Starr. Most famously, he played on Bob Dylan’s Nashville LPs Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self Portrait in 1969-70.
Daniels became a record producer, himself, starting with The Youngbloods 1969-70 LPs Elephant Mountain and Ride the Wind. He staged his own album debut with a self-titled collection issued by Capitol Records in 1970. The record went nowhere.
He formed the Charlie Daniels Band and signed with Kama Sutra Records. In 1973, the group scored a top-10 pop hit with the “talking blues” hippie number “Uneasy Rider.” Two years later, the band returned with its Southern-rock anthems “The South’s Gonna Do It” and “Long Haired Country Boy,” the latter noted for its “outlaw” defiance and references to pot smoking.
Those two songs were cornerstones of Fire on the Mountain, the first album to truly express his artistic spirit. In order to capture the band’s sizzling, extended “jamming” style for that album, Daniels booked Municipal Auditorium for a live recording session. The Allman Brothers happened to be in town. That group and The Marshall Tucker Band joined him, and the first Volunteer Jam was born.
“Texas,” a track from the LP Nightrider, became a surprise top-40 country hit in 1976. It helped to identify Daniels with the “outlaw” movement surging in Nashville in the mid-1970s.
But Daniels still identified with rock more than country. He was signed as a pop act by Epic Records in 1976. His reported $3 million contract made history for a Nashville act at the time. At least part of the reason for that was the band’s reputation as a concert attraction. The CDB was playing more than 200 dates a year by then, developing a reputation for two-and-a-half hour performances that drove audiences into a frenzy. Taz DiGregorio’s keyboards, Charlie Hayward’s bass, Tommy Crain’s guitar and the double drumming by Fred Edwards and Don Murray completed Charlie Daniels’ blistering sonic attack as the band rampaged relentlessly across America.
Producer John Boylan joined the band on the road and became convinced that his task was to capture that energy in the studio. In 1978, he convened the CDB at Woodland Sound in East Nashville. Everything came together on the resulting LP Million Mile Reflections and its massive pop and country hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Both the song and the band were featured in the movie blockbuster Urban Cowboy. The CDB LP Full Moon, released in 1980, spawned “In America” as the group’s second major crossover hit. “The Legend of Wooly Swamp” (1980), “Carolina” (1981) and the CDB version of “Sweet Home Alabama” (1981) straddled both rock and country playlists. In 1982, “Still in Saigon” became the band’s final big pop hit.
Meanwhile, the Volunteer Jam had become an annual event that attracted jazz musicians, R&B stars, pop headliners, classical musicians, country kings and queens, gospel performers and rockers. Charlie Daniels is unique as a person who has collaborated at these musical marathons with Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Garth Brooks, Pat Boone, Roy Acuff, Little Richard, Ted Nugent, James Brown, Emmylou Harris, Woody Herman, Billy Joel, Amy Grant, Don Henley, Duane Eddy, The Oak Ridge Boys, Leon Russell, Tanya Tucker, Eugene Fodor, Solomon Burke, The Judds, Bill Monroe, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Vince Gill, Steppenwolf, Kris Kristofferson, Black Oak Arkansas, George Thorogood and Tammy Wynette.
The event has been broadcast worldwide on radio, been viewed as a national TV special, served as a T.J. Martel cancer benefit, become a series of record albums and been part of the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
Daniels took up a long residence on the country charts in the mid-1980s. His biggest country hits included “American Farmer” (1985), “Still Hurtin’ Me” (1986), “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye” (1986), “Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues” (1988), “Simple Man” (1989), “Mister DJ” (1990), “(What This World Needs Is) A Few More Rednecks” (1990), “All Night Long” (with Montgomery Gentry, 2000) and “This Ain’t No Rag It’s the Flag” (2001).
Along the way, Charlie Daniels became an American music icon. His huge bulk, 6’4” frame and wide-brimmed cowboy hat formed an indelible image for millions. The public has also been attracted by his plain-spoken honesty, just-folks humility, no-bull attitude and open-hearted kindness, not to mention that indefinable something known as charisma.
To date, he has earned nine Gold, Platinum or multi-Platinum albums. His album Super Hits went double Platinum, Million Mile Reflection earned triple Platinum status, and A Decade of Hits reached quadruple Platinum.
“The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” earned him a string of honors. The song was named CMA Single of the Year in 1979 and earned the Charlie Daniels Band a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Daniels was also named CMA Instrumentalist of the Year in 1979, while the Charlie Daniels Band won CMA Instrumental Group of the Year Awards in 1979 and 1980.
Daniels was heavily involved in charity work to benefit cancer research, muscular dystrophy research and work to aid farmers as well as those with physical and mental challenges. For more than 20 years, he also led the annual Christmas 4 Kids charity to help provide children in the Middle Tennessee area with toys and gifts for Christmas.
He was a strong supporter of the military and offered his time and talent to causes including The Journey Home Project, which he founded in 2014 with his manager David Corlew, to help veterans of the United States Armed Forces.
Daniels was named a BMI Icon in 2005. He received the Spirit of America Free Speech Award from the Americana Music Association in 2006. He joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in 2008 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.He passed away at Summit Medical Center in Hermitage, Tennessee. Doctors determined the cause of death was a hemorrhagic stroke.
Charlie Daniels is survived by his wife Hazel and his son, Charlie Daniels Jr. Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.
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