Charley Pride gave country music something it never had before: An African American country superstar. The black singer was one of the first artists to cross over into what was (and still is) a predominately white genre. Pride now has the honor of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award to celebrate his sound. Here, we take a look at his life and his legacy.
As Pride’s website tells it, he was born to a sharecropping father on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.
As Charley grew up, his father inadvertently turned his ear to country music by playing Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on the family’s Philco radio. Other early influences included blues and gospel music. At 14, Pride purchased a Silvertone guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalog. He taught himself to play the songs he heard on the radio.
Despite his affinity for music and his talent for learning to play what he’d heard, it seemed Pride was actually destined for a baseball career. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he was playing organized games in the Iowa State League. He then went on to play professionally in the Negro American League for the Memphis Red Sox. The talented athlete pitched and played outfield.
He had stints with a number of teams before rejoining the Memphis Red Sox in 1956. That same year, he won 14 games as a pitcher and earned a spot on the Negro American League All-Star Team. He pitched against famous major league stars such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Al Smith.
When he wasn’t on the field, he sang and played guitar on the bus with the team. He also performed onstage when the opportunity arose. Still, his first aspiration was to be a major league pitcher.
“Every kid has a dream and mine was to be a Major Leaguer,” Pride said. “When I saw Jackie Robinson go to the big leagues, I knew that was my way of getting out of the cotton fields.”
After a serving time in the Army (during which he married his wife, Rozene), Pride went back to baseball. However, he wasn’t met with the success he hoped for. In 1963, he had a terrible tryout with the New York Mets In Clearwater, Florida. It became clear that baseball was no longer his destiny.
A new vision had begun to take root in the early 1960s and he now had a chance to reconsider his life.
Early Music Career
During the first half of the 1960s, Pride had begun making a name for himself in music. He sang the opening national anthem at games or performed in nightclubs and honky-tonks in Montana. Sometimes he was solo and other times he was part of a duet or a group. He was starting to get noticed.
In 1962, the year before his baseball dreams were laid to rest, a local disc jockey, Tiny Stokes, made a historic introduction. He set up a meet between Pride and country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley. They invited him to perform “Heartaches By The Number” and “Lovesick Blues” on one of their shows. The introduction to Red Sovine would prove to be an invaluable encounter for Pride.
Sovine told Charley that if he ever became serious about a singing career, he should go to Nashville and visit Cedarwood Publishing. Charley went and ran into Jack Johnson. This was another huge moment in his life. Johnson just happened to be looking for a promising African American country singer.
Johnson made a recording of Pride and then drove him back to the bus station with the promise of a contract. He quickly fulfilled his promise, and began a working relationship that proved immensely successful over the coming decade.
It took until 1965 for Johnson to get Pride recorded. Jack Clement was the producer who finally recorded him. Clement presented him with seven songs to learn, and within a week, two of them were cut during an afternoon recording session. The first two recorded songs were “The Snakes Crawl at Night” and “Atlantic Coastal Line.” Other songs from Clement were “The Wabash Cannonball,” “Night Train to Memphis,” and “Just Between You and Me.”
Despite the professionally produced tracks, the two men continued to face resistance in signing Charley to a Nashville label. Finally, in 1966, Chet Akins listened to him and signed him to RCA Records. Atkins also worked to help promote Pride as they dealt with the racial tensions and challenges of the 1960s.
His first few singles didn’t do too well, but then “Just Between You and Me” took off. In 1967, it took a top 10 spot on the country chart and won Charley his first Grammy nomination. That same year, Pride became the first African American to sing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. You can only imagine the feeling he must’ve had standing on that stage, having grown up in rural Mississippi listening to the broadcasts. He was inducted into the Opry as a member in 1993.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Charley Pride became an overnight country superstar. He also became the first African-American country superstar.
1969 saw his first No. 1 hit with “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me).” Between 1967 and 1987, he had 52 Top-10 hit singles and sold tens of millions of records worldwide.
In 1971, Pride won two Grammy Awards for his gospel album, Did You Think to Pray. Later that year, his crossover hit, “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” sold over a million copies. 1971 continued to be a stellar year for him. He also won CMA Awards for Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year (which he won again in 1972).
Other mega-hits included “Is Anybody Going to San Atone,” “Burgers and Fries,” “Roll On Mississippi,” and “Mountain of Love.” After leaving RCA Records in 1986, he continued releasing albums on the 16th Avenue Records label through the 1980s. During the early and mid-2000s, he released hit albums on the Music City Records Label.
In 1979, he and fellow artist Willie Nelson went to the Oval Office to present President Jimmy Carter with a special award for President Carter’s support of country music. In 1993, he returned to the White House to perform during the National Christmas Tree Celebration. Bill Clinton was the incumbent president at the time.
He opened the Charley Pride Theatre in Branson, Missouri in 1994. He performed almost 200 shows there over the course of four years. That same year, he won the Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music.
One of the biggest honors of his career came in 2000. That year, Country Hall of Famer Brenda Lee inducted him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Pride wept when she called his name.
Charley also assisted in a documentary film from HBO, “The Black List: Vol 2.” The 2009 film interviewed prominent African Americans in various professions.
He returned to the White House yet again 2009, where he performed for President Barak Obama and guests as part of the White House Music Series. This event, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, also featured Brad Paisley and Alison Kraus. The purpose of it was to support arts education in America.
Just this year, Pride released a new album. His 2017 project, Music In My Heart, consists of 13 brand-new songs. He said that his goal “was to record the best traditional country album possible.”
He was featured on a Time Life country collection in 2015, Country Music of Your Life. The multi-disc album features 150 songs from some of the most classic and iconic artists of the genre. These include George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, and Glenn Campbell.
Despite his desire to continue to produce a more traditional country sound, Pride doesn’t have any negative feelings toward modern country music. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he described his thoughts about the evolution of the industry.
“I don’t go around kicking what country music is going through today because Carrie Underwood and all those people have had so many great hits,” he insists. “When they started bringing in people they referred to as the ‘hat gang’ — I guess it would be Garth [Brooks] and Alan Jackson — I didn’t go around saying, ‘We were better than them!’ or ‘It was better then!’ And Taylor Swift has had so much success from the vantage point of money. I mean, who’s going to kick $53 million a year?”
He said he understood the move towards contemporary country, and from his view, new artists are striving for the same thing as their predecessors. “We’re in the business of selling lyrics, feelings and emotions. We try our best to do that with the songs we sing.”
Lifetime Achievement Award
There aren’t many awards or honors left for Pride to win. But 2017 definitely put a new feather in his cap.
Lifetime Achievement Award recipients are selected by the Recording Academy’s National Board of Trustees. In December 2016, it was announced that Charley Pride would be one of seven artists to receive the honor in 2017. The other legends honored were Shirley Caesar, Ahmad Jamal, Jimmie Rodgers (known as the “Father of Country Music“), Nina Simone, Sly Stone, and the Velvet Underground.
Rolling Stone reported the Academy’s comments about the award. “These exceptionally inspiring figures are being honored as legendary performers, creative architects and technical visionaries. Their outstanding accomplishments and passion for their respective crafts have created a timeless legacy,” said Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy.
Beyond his smash hits, honors, and inductions, Charley Pride contributed more to country music that just his name and sound. Though recent events have begun to awaken America to the racial tensions many thought were passed, Pride lived them. 1960s America was a fight against Jim Crow laws, segregation, and for civil rights. To make a prominent place for yourself as an American of African descent was no small feat.
On March 18, 2018, Charley Pride will celebrate his 80th birthday. You wonder if the kid from one of the poorest, most racially segregated states in the country could have even imagined this glamorous future.
His life has been both glamorous and stable. He and his wife Rozene celebrated 61 years of marriage this year. Together they have raised three children.
The couple spent their early years in Montana, but moved to Dallas in 1969. This is where they still remain.
Pride continues to be active in his golden years. He has participated in spring training with the Texas Rangers for 40 years. In 2011, he became part owner of the team. He said that he also sings for the team each year because baseball players are “a superstitious kind of people.”
Pride was drafted in 2008 by the Rangers during Major League Baseball’s ceremonial Special Negro League Player Draft.
In addition to his time at the ballpark, he continues to tour. He plays 30 to 40 dates a year throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He also continues to perform several times a year at the Grand Ole Opry and hosts an annual fan breakfast in Nashville every June. In addition, he golfs and spends time with his family.
The marriage of talent and fortune was magical and produced one of the greatest stars country music has ever known.