Charlie Daniels, the Grammy-winning country singer and fiddler who scored crossover pop hits with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Uneasy Rider” and “In America,” died today after a hemorrhagic stroke. He was 83. His publicist Don Murry Grubbs confirmed the news.
Daniels had a mild stroke in 2010 and was fitted with a pacemaker in 2013. He also beat prostate cancer in 2001.
Daniels, an iconic Country Music Hall of Famer who had nine gold or platinum albums, also played on Bob Dylan’s 1969 classic Nashville Skyline, and his group the Charlie Daniels Band appeared in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy.
Daniels also co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” which Elvis Presley recorded for the 1964 movie Kissin’ Cousins and performed on his legendary NBC “comeback special” in 1968.
Born on October 26, 1936, in Wilmington, NC, Daniels fronted 1960s group the Jaguars before going solo in 1968 and working as a session player in Nashville for the likes of Ringo Starr, Hank Williams Jr., Leonard Cohen and the Marshall Tucker Band. His breakthrough came in the summer of 1973 with the story song “Uneasy Rider,” about a longhaired traveler’s harrowing encounter with some locals in a “redneck-lookin'” Mississippi bar on a Saturday night.
The single hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and pushed Daniel’s solo LP Honey in the Rock into the lower end of the charts.
His next album, 1974’s Fire on the Mountain, was credited to the Charlie Daniels Band and made the pop Top 40, helped by the name-checking top 30 single “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” which later became an FM rock semi-staple. The album, which also featured “Long Haired Country Boy,” was his first to go platinum, and the group became a popular live draw, fueled by Daniels’ fiddle wizardry.
The Charlie Daniels Band released four more LPs from 1975-77 but hit the pop big time with 1979’s Million Mile Reflections. The triple-platinum disc hit No. 5 on the Billboard 2000 fueled by “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which spent two weeks at No. 3 on the Hot 100 that summer.
Driven by Daniels’ wild fiddle work and spoke-sung vocals, with a rollicking performance by his group, the song — which was featured in Urban Cowboy and on its triple-platinum soundtrack — remains popular on the radio. It tells the story of Johnny, a local-boy fiddle master who is visited by Satan himself and challenged to a fiddle duel. The stakes: a golden fiddle or Johnny’s soul. Backed by a band of demons, the devil gets his hot licks in before Johnny tells him to sit down and shuts him up.
Co-written by Daniels and his bandmates and covered by Primus in 1998, the song earned Daniels a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance and a Country Music Award for Best Song. It’s a stone rock, pop and country classic.
Watch a live version of Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” from a 1979 show here:
That song and album’s success helped drive his group’s next two albums — 1980’s Full Moon and 1982’s Windows — into the pop top 30, with the former going platinum on the back of singles “In America” and “The Legend of Wooley Swamp.” Both hit the national pop Top 30. Windows, which went gold, featured the PTSD-themed single “Still in Saigon.”
The ensuing 1983 compilation disc A Decade of Hits has sold more than 4 million copies to date.
In 1980, Daniels broke his right arm in three places and fractured two fingers in an accident on his farm. After surgery, his career was derailed for four months.
While continuing to be a popular concert act, the Charlie Daniels Band saw its last major sales success with the platinum 1989 disc Simple Man. Daniels put out a sequel song, “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia” in 1993 with Johnny Cash narrating a new battle between Marty Stuart as Johnny and Travis Tritt as Satan. Daniels then began recording Christian music in 1994.
Along with Urban Cowboy, Daniels’ music was featured in dozens of film and TV projects from TV’s Freaks and Geeks, Murder, She Wrote and The Muppet Show to features including Rush, Coyote Ugly and The Dukes of Hazzard.
Daniels performed a tweaked take on Lieber & Stoller’s “Yakety Yak” for Sesame Street in 1969, and the Charlie Daniels Band played “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Still in Saigon” in a 1982 episode of Saturday Night Live. Daniels also appeared on such shows as Hee Haw and The New Hollywood Squares and once tried to school David Letterman on the fundamentals of chewing tobacco on an early episode of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman.
Daniels is survived by his wife of 55 yearrs, Hazel, and their son Charlie Daniels Jr.
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