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Charley Pride: Stories Of A Barrier-Breaking Country Music Star

Entertainment | December 20, 2020

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Charley Pride Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Charley Pride was a country music legend, not only because he was the first black superstar of the genre, but also because of the booming voice he brought to honky-tonk music. Pride’s life took many turns from baseball to construction to eventual country-music dominance. Pride was more than a barrier-breaker -- he ranks among the all-time greats, with 30 #1 country hits, in addition to being one of the first black artists to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. He enjoyed his accomplishments all the way up until he passed away December 12th of 2020 from COVID-19-related complications. 

Charley Pride Liked Music, But He Loved Baseball

Charley Pride was raised as the son of a sharecropper on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi. The Prides loved country music and Charley was drawn to the genre as they frequently listened to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. At age 14, these country acts inspired Pride to teach himself guitar with his Silvertone from a Sears Roebuck catalog. However, music was simply a hobby for Pride who felt destined to make a name for himself in baseball. 

Charley Pride Initially Wanted To Be A Professional Baseball Player

A mocked-up baseball card for Charley Pride. Source: eBay

Pride’s athletic abilities led him to play professionally in the Negro American League during the 1950s when the sport was segregated. As a pitcher and outfielder, Pride hopped around teams in the Negro Leagues, incluing the Memphis Red Sox, Louisville Clippers, Birmingham Black Barons, El Paso Kings, and eventually he led the Negro American League All-Star Team. During his time in Memphis, he married his wife Rozene with whom he happily stayed for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury slowed Pride’s speedy pitch and ultimately hindered his career.

Baseball Helped Pride Get Noticed As A Singer

Source: CMT

In 1960, Pride moved to Montana to play for the Missoula Timberjacks in the Pioneer League, but was let go soon after joining. Pride then pitched for the local semipro team The East Helena Smelteries of the local Asarco Smelter. The smelter left jobs open for baseball players so their manager helped Pride get a job in construction here. As Pride would quietly sing on the regular to help pass time, their manager also noticed his incredible musical talent and paid him to sing prior to the games. Attendance to these baseball games skyrocketed as more people came to hear Pride’s strong voice than to actually watch the sport. Pride began singing at churches, clubs, and honky-tonks around the area which caught the attention of local radio DJ Tiny Stokes. Stokes introduced Pride to country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley who were awestruck by Pride’s talents and invited him to perform at one of their shows. Both of these country stars encouraged Pride to pursue a career in music, but his heart was still drawn to athletics.

Source: The New Yorker

Pride tried out for the New York Mets team in 1963, but failed miserably that day and realized in that moment his future did not lie in baseball. Pride decided to take the advice of Red Sovine and visit Cedarwood Publishing in Nashville to take a shot in the arts. This is where he met the manager/agent who had been on the desperate prowl for a black country singer because at the time there were absolutely none. Johnson recorded some songs with Pride and signed him, but warned it might be a slow launch. During this waiting period, Pride continued performing around Montana either as a solo act or with bands including his regular gig with progressive country group The Night Hawks. Finally, Pride gained some traction when he recorded "The Snakes Crawl At Night" and "Atlantic Coastal Line" with famous producer Cowboy Jack.

Source: Pinterest

Pride and his team were still facing some trouble promoting his new songs to labels, but all that changed when he met legendary guitarist Chet Atkins in 1966 who was now growing as an RCA Records executive. Atkins was so captivated by Pride that he immediately signed him and launched him into a whirlwind of successful promotion. With Atkins’ help, Pride’s single "Just Between You And Me" broke into the top 10 country chart in 1966 and earned him a Grammy nomination. Pride was now officially a country star -- but he was just getting started. Listeners were mesmerized by Pride’s powerfully deep and rich voice that was so rare in this genre. 

A turning point occurred with Pride's 1966 appearance at Detroit's Olympia Stadium. It was the biggest venue Pride had yet played, and while the concertgoers were familiar with his music from the radio, few knew he was black. When he took the stage, a hush fell over the crowd, and Pride broke the tension with a legendary line: 

Friends, I realize it's a little unique, me coming out here — with a permanent suntan — to sing country and western to you. But that's the way it is.

 In 1967, Pride sang on the show that inspired him from the beginning, The Grand Ole Opry, making him the first black artist to perform in the weekly country concert since co-founder DeFord Bailey appeared in 1941. 

In 1969, Pride had his first country #1 with "All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)." Between 1967 and 1987, Pride released 52 top-10 country hits, among them "Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone" (1970) and "Kiss An Angel Good Morning" (1971), which proved to be his biggest single of all time and won him CMA’s Entertainer Of The Year and Top Male Vocalist in both 1971 and 1972. Pride sold tens of millions of records worldwide during these decades and won two Grammys in 1971 with Best Sacred Performance, Musical (Non-Classical) for his gospel album Did You Think To Pray and Best Gospel Performance Other Than Soul for the single "Let Me Live."

Charley Pride Said Race Was Not A Factor In His Career

Source: Pinterest

As the first black superstar in a white-dominated genre, it would be expected Pride would have experienced intense racism during a quite discriminating era. Surprisingly, Pride has insisted his skin color never set him back or caused hardships throughout his career, except for promoters being worried others’ racism would make his records hard to sell. Pride faced slight racism in the conservative state of Montana as he stood out like a sore thumb, but he actually spoke very highly of his life there and after some time he was very accepted and loved by his community. Pride has said, “People often say to me, ‘You must have had it hard,’ and when I say, ‘No, I didn’t,’ they give me that you-gotta-be-lying look. But there was never one iota hoot-call at any of my shows. The big problem early on was that [concert] promoters were reluctant or scared to book me. But they finally came around.” According to Pride, people were actually more excited than repulsed by an unexpected black country singer.

Charley Pride Is Considered A Hero In Ireland

Source: Pinterest

In addition to his Grammy awards and chart topping singles, Pride also accomplished another great feat of uniting Ireland. During the conflict known as “The Troubles” Northern Ireland was experiencing intense political turmoil and violence which deterred most international artists from playing there. However, concert promoter Jim Aiken was a huge fan of Pride and flew out to a show in Ohio where he convinced the singer to stop in Belfast during his upcoming European tour. Thus, in November 1976 Pride performed at Belfast’s Ritz Cinema for a concert that ended up uniting the entire community and led to his title of a hero to these citizens. His appearance terminated the ban of other international acts from playing there including The Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart. Still today, Pride’s "Crystal Chandeliers" is considered a unity song in Ireland and The UK for a remembrance of the show that brought the country together.

Tags: 1970s Country Music | Charley Pride | Country Music

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.