Charley Pride

Charley Pride’s most obvious singularity—that he is the only true country superstar who is also black—tends to obscure the fact that he has been one of the most successful country singers ever. He would be a country legend even without the racial anomaly.

Birth: March 18, 1934
Birthplace: Sledge, Mississippi

With a gritty, southern-accented baritone voice, Pride was able during his remarkably long-lived hitmaking heyday (1966–1989) to drive even entirely forgettable songs into the Top Ten, if not the #1 position. Given a great song, he typically spent multiple weeks atop the charts.

Pride’s background sounds like a classic blues singer’s story. The son of a straight-laced sharecropper father, Charley Frank Pride (named “Charl” by his father but spelled “Charley” on his birth certificate) was born on a forty-acre Mississippi cotton farm fifty miles due south of Memphis. Pride picked cotton to buy his first guitar, a ten-dollar Sears, Roebuck model, when he was fourteen. Pride’s father was morally opposed to the culture and lyrics of blues music, and was a big fan of the Grand Ole Opry. So instead of drawing influences from B. B. King’s Memphis radio show, Charley Pride was musically schooled on the likes of Ernest Tubb, Pee Wee King, Hank Williams, and Roy Acuff.

At age sixteen, Pride left home to play professional baseball in the Negro American League. After two years with teams in Memphis and elsewhere he entered the army for a two-year stint, married Rozene Cohran, an ambitious and highly motivated Memphis woman who still oversees the business end of his career, and mustered out of the service in 1958 with every intention of having a big league baseball career. Pride played briefly in the Pioneer League and then worked at a smelting plant in Helena, where he played for the plant ball team. He had tryouts with the California Angels in the early sixties, but by then had injured his throwing arm.

In 1962 country stars Red Sovine and Red Foley discovered Pride in Helena and eventually helped him come to Nashville, where he hooked up with producer Jack Clement. In 1965 Clements’s initial demo recordings of Pride caught Chet Atkins’s ear at RCA Records. Atkins flew to Los Angeles to play the sides to top label executives and had their agreement to sign the remarkable voice before he revealed Pride’s color; his first RCA recording session took place in August 1965 and his first single, “Snakes Crawl at Night,” was released in January 1966. Pride’s race was likewise shielded from country radio through three single releases until the third, “Just Between You and Me,” climbed into the country Top Ten. His gold-selling first album, Country Charley Pride, was the first indication many fans had that he was black.

Pride handled the curiosity of fans in dancehalls by allowing twenty minutes of stage-side gawking before clearing the floor to allow people to dance. As with Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in big-league baseball, he suffered whatever discrimination he was exposed to in silence, determined that talent was what counted. His work spoke volumes: between his chart debut in 1966 and 1989, he had twenty-nine #1 country hits, including such enduring classics as “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” (1970), “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” (1971), and “All I Have to Offer You Is Me” (1969).

He was not, however, the Jackie Robinson of country music, as he has been portrayed. Robinson opened the doors to black players and the most talented among them rushed in behind him. While Pride established himself once and for all, no other black country singers came anywhere near equaling his commercial achievements during his hitmaking years. Pride’s track record remains unmatched.

In addition to being a talented singer and entertainer, Pride is an astute, conservative businessman. Pride made his home in North Dallas, Texas, becoming an important real estate and banking investor in that community, as well as setting up a booking and management company, Chardon, which helped introduce Janie Fricke, Dave & Sugar, and Neal McCoy to stardom. Pride was a partner in Pi-Gem song publishing with producer Tom Collins, all the while cranking out hit after hit and running hard as a nonstop touring artist. He was named the Country Music Association (CMA) Entertainer of the Year in 1971, and twice Male Vocalist of the Year (1971, 1972). Although invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in 1968, he initially declined; he became a cast member in 1993. –Bob Millard

– Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.

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