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The Pride of Country Music

How Charley Pride pushed through racial barriers to become one of the most iconic voices in country music

Charley Pride performing at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, October 1969. Source: Bill Preston/The Tennessean

“No one had ever told me that whites were supposed to sing one kind of music and Blacks another — I sang what I liked in the only voice I had.” ~ Charley Pride

Charley Pride was always a dreamer. In his later years, when he was known as one of the more iconic voices in country music, he admitted his childhood dreams were so resplendent that, “people thought I was a little strange.” No matter how far-fetched those dreams appeared to the outside world, Pride had the willpower to make them into a reality.

It was that vision for a better future that took him out of the cotton fields in Sledge, Mississippi and brought him to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. His journey was far from easy, but if there was anyone who had the talent and the determination to break through the racial barriers that stood in his way, it was Charley Pride.

Born Charley Frank Pride in Sledge on March 18, 1934, he was the fourth of eleven children born to sharecroppers. The Pride children spent their days doing arduous work in the cotton fields and there was little time for fun, but every Saturday night, the family gathered around Mack Pride’s Philco radio and tuned in to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Young Charley Pride loved singing the songs of Opry greats like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb, and he even earned the nickname “Mockingbird” from a neighbor who heard him sing while doing his chores.

When he was 14, Pride began saving the money he made from picking cotton to buy a guitar from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. Once that guitar was in his hands, he spent countless hours listening to the radio mimicking the musicians until he himself mastered the instrument. Although music played a key role in Pride’s early life, it was not his first love; baseball was.

Pride (second from left) when he played for the Memphis Red Sox, mid 1950s. Source: Society for American Baseball Research

When Jackie Robinson broke through the color line in baseball and was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Pride dreamed of himself following in Robinson’s footsteps. Baseball was going to be his way out of the cotton fields. At the age 16, he was drafted as a pitcher by the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues. Shortly after arriving in Memphis, he met Rozene Cochran, and they married in 1956. The couple would go on to raise three children and form a formidable partnership that only ended with Pride’s death in 2020.

A few years into his career, Pride realized that baseball was not a reliable occupation for a man with a growing family. Searching for a new endeavor, Pride turned to his other childhood love: singing. Living in Montana, he began singing the national anthem before games in Helena. He then landed his first major gig at a club called The Main Tavern, and soon got booked at other local joints, making around $20 a night and always drawing a crowd. Word of Pride’s soulful, baritone voice spread across the Northwest, and he knew he had potential for a future in country music when Merle Haggard, one of the hottest singers in the genre, asked him to open his show.

One-night while playing a bar in Helena, Red Sovine and Red Foley, both prominent country music singers, dropped in to hear Pride sing. Noticing the raw talent on stage, Sovine and Foley told Pride that he belonged in Nashville. After an unsuccessful tryout with the New York Mets, Pride decided to take Sovine and Foley’s advice and give Nashville a shot.

While there, he crossed paths with one of the more popular honky-tonk singers of the era, Webb Pierce. It was Pierce who suggested Pride meet with an up-and-coming agent in Nashville named Jack Johnson. Johnson too took note of the Pride’s rare voice and agreed to manage the ambitious singer. This marked the beginning of a steadfast partnership and friendship that lasted over four decades.

Pride pictured in Nashville in the late 1960s with fellow country artists. From left to right: Jack Greene, Buck Owens, Faron Young, Merle Haggard, and Pride. Source: Reddit

In 1965, a year after signing on with Johnson, Pride was introduced to a giant in the music industry, the esteemed songwriter and record producer, Cowboy Jack Clement. Clement produced some of Pride’s early songs, including his debut hit “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” and paired him with Nashville’s top musicians. But Pride was still waiting for that big break. There was one factor preventing this from happening: the color of his skin.

Four decades prior, DeFord Bailey made history as the first African American performer on the Opry, but by the time Pride arrived, the stage had yet to host a Black singer. With no Black artist on any major record label, the music industry was still very much segregated. Finally, in 1966, Chet Atkins, the head of RCA in Nashville, persuaded top executives to look beyond the color of Pride’s skin and focus on his talent.

Signing Pride in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement was a gamble for RCA, but they were quick to realize how right they were to roll the dice. As soon as they began releasing Pride’s albums, the sales took off. From 1966 to 1987, he released an impressive 52 records that made it in the country Top 10 charts and 29 №1 singles. Pride became RCA’s second top-selling artist, only falling behind Elvis Presley. But at the beginning, RCA was unsure of how to handle his race, especially since country music’s audience was overwhelmingly white.

Striving to illustrate his dedication to country music, RCA mailed promo copies of Pride’s records to disc jockeys across the nation, selling him as “Country Charley Pride,” but without the usual publicity photos that accompanied the promos. It was not until his third single, “Just Between You and Me,” hit the Top 10 on the country charts that disc jockeys were made aware of the fact that Pride was Black.

Pride and Willie Nelson performing at the Soap Creek Saloon in Austin, 1976. Source: Twitter

Some fellow artists in Nashville were slow to embrace Pride, but others like Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn did not hold back in showing their respect. Nelson even went as far as to give Pride a kiss on the lips at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, his way of welcoming him into the brotherhood. When Loretta Lynn handed Pride his 1973 Grammy for Best Country Male Vocal Performance, she ignored the executives who told her to step away from Pride and instead gave him a hug.

On January 1, 1967, another of Pride’s dreams came true when he was invited to perform on the historic Grand Ole Opry stage. He was introduced by none other than the Texas Troubadour himself, Ernest Tubb, one of his childhood heroes. Twenty-six years later, Pride became the second African American to become an Opry member.

In 1993, 26 years after he made his debut appearance on the stage, Pride became the second African American to be named a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He remained an active and faithful member until his death at the age of 86. Source: Nashville.com

Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, Pride released hit songs such as, “All I Have to Offer You Is Me,” “I’m So Afraid of Losing You Again,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “I’m Just Me,” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin.” Pride was at the peak of his career, winning three Grammy and CMA Awards, and making more money than he ever dreamed of. But the endless days on the road and the fame came with a cost. After being hospitalized with insomnia, paranoia, and confusion, he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis turned Pride and his wife Rozene into outspoken mental health advocates.

Watch Charley Pride perform his hit song “Kiss Angel Good Mornin’” on The Marty Stuart Show.

Pride was also a maverick in business. Shortly after he arrived in Nashville, Cowboy Jack Clement asked him what his dreams for his career were. Pride responded that first he wanted to record good songs, perform those songs even better for the audience, and start his own publishing company. Clement found the latter dream to be lofty for a newcomer, but within a few years, Pride and Jack Johnson partnered together and formed a publishing company called PiGem. After he and his family moved to Dallas, Pride purchased a massive office with a recording studio and began investing in land and real estate in Nashville and the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Charley Pride’s career in country music spanned nearly six decades. He had an unfailing love for the music and genre and continued to tour and perform well into his 80s. His last public appearance was on the 2020 CMA Awards, where he performed “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” with Jimmie Allen, who has called Pride one of his heroes. That night, Pride received a standing ovation when he became the sixth recipient of the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. His death one month later due to complications from COVID-19 devastated his family, fans, and fellow friends in country music.

Charley Pride posing with Jimmie Allen after receiving the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in November 2020. Pride passed away one month later from complications due to COVID-19. Source: The Dallas Morning News

DeFord Bailey pushed through doors in country music decades before Charley Pride as the first African American to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, but it was Pride who shattered those racial barriers. The son of sharecroppers from Sledge, Mississippi who unabashedly pursued his dreams in baseball and music became the first Black artist in country music to have a №1 record, and the first artist ever to win the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year Award back-to-back.

When asked in 1985 what he wished his legacy to be, Pride responded in his simple, matter-of-fact way, “I’d like to be remembered as a good person who tried to be a good entertainer and made people happy. I tried to do my best and contribute my part.” His contributions surpassed even his wildest dreams, and he will remain the Pride of Country Music.

References

Charley Pride Biography | Songs, Life & Death | PBS | Country Music

About | Charley Pride

Biography and Music of Charley Pride, Country Music Singer from Sledge, MS (mswritersandmusicians.com)

Charley Pride, Country Music’s First Black Superstar, Dies at 86 — The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Charley Pride | Artist Bio | Country Music Hall of Fame

Charley Pride — Grand Ole Opry

Charley Pride biography | American Masters | PBS

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