Songwriter Richard “Rich” Fagan, who penned John Michael Montgomery’s Number One hits “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” and “Be My Baby Tonight,” as well as Top Five hits for Clay Walker and others, died Friday in hospice care after a battle with liver cancer. He was 69.
Fagan was raised in Philadelphia, where he sang in doo-wop groups before being drafted into the U.S. Army and serving in Vietnam. Returning after one year of service, he became friends with music publisher Tom Oteri, father of former Saturday Night Live cast member Cheri Oteri. In 1976, through his association with Oteri, Fagan recorded several songs which were sent to various producers and labels. One of the recipients, acclaimed producer Bob Gaudio (the Four Seasons, Neil Diamond), enlisted a private detective to track down Fagan because the package he received had no phone number or return address. After doing so, Gaudio produced the 1980 Neil Diamond track penned by Fagan, “The Good Lord Loves You,” which became a minor pop hit.
Relocating from Los Angeles to Nashville in 1986, Fagan scored his first Top Ten hit two years later when Moe Bandy recorded “Americana,” a song George H.W. Bush would use on the presidential campaign trail. Fagan’s greatest success would come with the 1995 John Michael Montgomery chart-topper “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident),” penned with Robb Royer. Distinguished by its rapid-fire vocals, “Sold” would go on to be the top-selling country hit of the year. Others who recorded his songs included Shenandoah, Mel McDaniel and George Strait. Fagan’s most recent chart single was the 2004 Hank Williams Jr. track “Why Can’t We All Just Get a Long Neck.” In 1979, Fagan released a solo LP for Mercury Records, recording a follow-up album that remained unissued.
In a tragic postscript to his songwriting career, in April 2008, Fagan and Oteri were involved in a fight in the home they shared in Nashville. During the altercation, Fagan, who had mixed alcohol with antidepressants, stabbed Oteri in the wrist with a pocket knife. Fagan was jailed on a drunk-driving charge and when he was released the following morning, learned that Oteri had died. Charged with reckless homicide, Fagan served seven months in rehab instead of jail time after Oteri’s family members came to his defense in court. The murder charge was officially dropped in January 2009 when it was discovered that Oteri’s death was the result of a heart attack.
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“[He] was one of the most original and innovative songwriters to ever walk the streets of Nashville,” Fagan’s longtime friend and fellow songwriter Kacey Jones tells Rolling Stone Country. “A word-master, a melodic genius, and a natural comedian whose intelligent humorous songs would make you beg for mercy, he could also reach deep into your soul with his beautiful ballads. He was a spiritual man who meditated daily and treasured his wife and friends above all.”
In 1995, the year Fagan had a hit with “Sold,” he appeared in a trio called Phillybilly with Jones and singer Joe Collins on TNN’s Ralph Emery Show, performing their version of “Be My Baby Tonight.”
Fagan is survived by his wife, Rose Fagan. Funeral arrangements are pending.