by Norman Warwick

In the early nineteen sixties that Charley Pride, an aspiring country singer but then still a minor league baseball pitcher his life was far more mundane than his hope. In Helena, Montana, he worked as a smelter for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, whilst spending what little free time he had playing for what was the company´s semi professional baseball team the East Helena Smelterites, which must have been a heck of a name on which to hang a song from the terraces or bleachers.

Any African American working in a genre that seldom welcomed black voices would stand out for all sorts of reasons but Charley turned that to some advantage, turning his ´small but enthusiastic fan base´ developed whilst singing in Montana honky tonks to attract an invitation to open a show performed by country headliners of the time, Red Sovine and Red Foley, in 1962.

Pride sang Heartaches By The Number and Lovesick Blues, and Sovine, already then a veteran performer, instantly recognised the magnetism Charley held over the show´s white audience and suggested he seek out contract opportunities in Nashville.

According to the Washington Post obituary it took Charley Pride nearly two years to acquire that contract. Although record executives loved his demo tapes they had cold feet after viewing his picture. In one audition, he was told to ´now sing in your regular voice.´ One talent scout apparently encouraged Mr. Pride to consider working as a novelty act by dressing in Colonial garb and adopting the stage name of George Washington Carver III.

Chet Atkins

Chet Eventually, it was country guitarist Chet Atkins, who was also an RCA Records executive, saw promise in the singer.

Radio stations received his first singles, credited to Country Charley Pride, without publicity photos, a cautious, but perhaps sensible and sensitive move by Atkins. Disc jockeys latched onto the records, and country fans listened. ´It was RCA’s decision not to play up or down the colour thing, but to just let the voice go, put the record out and let the people decide,´ Mr. Pride later told The Washington Post.

Having grown up in the Mississippi cotton before becoming the first major African American singing star in country music, Charley Pride died on December 12th, aged 86 in Dallas. According to a statement from the Nashville public relations firm 2911 Media, the cause was complications from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Harmonica player DeFord Bailey, who was Black, had been one of the earliest and most popular cast members of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s. A generation later, soul stars Ray Charles and Solomon Burke recorded country songs. But it was  Mr. Pride who shattered a show-business barrier, paving the way for subsequent Black entertainers like Stoney Edwards, Big Al Downing and Darius Rucker, who followed his lead in Nashville.

Country-music historian Rich Kienzle said Charley embraced a traditional sound: recording with fiddles and steel guitar in an era when many country singers were trying to sound like Las Vegas entertainers. On-stage, he also liked to defuse tension with self-deprecating humour.

´He would make jokes to audiences about having a ‘permanent tan,’ Kienzle said. “The music won out over any bigotry.´´

With more than 50 Top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts between 1966 and 1984, Charley Pride was one of the genre’s most popular and durable performers. He sang of hoboing and hitchhiking on The Atlantic Coastal Line and Is Anybody Goin To San Antone , adultery on The Snakes Crawl At Night and heartbreak on Just Between You and Me and brought a pained believability to each.

The biographical song Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta Town (1974), written for him by Harold Dorman and George Wiley Gann, evoked his hard-scrabble youth with lines that spoke of how ´I’ve picked cotton till my fingers hurt/ Draggin’ a sack through the delta dirt´ and the restlessness that compelled him to leave:

´One dusty street to walk up and down,

nothing much to do but hang around

in a Mississippi cotton pickin’ delta town.”

Although Crystal Chandeliers might be the song I most associate with Charley Pride it is without doubt that his most commercially successful songs was  Kiss An Angel Good Morning.  This 1971 title, written by Ben Peters, appeared on the pop charts for four months. In the 1971 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion, Charley sang All His Children, a quasi-country gospel song co-written by Henry Mancini.

He often turned down songs that he believed were too controversial. One such song, Blackjack County Chain, by songwriter Red Lane, recounted a chain gang beating a sadistic sheriff to death. After Mr. Pride rejected it, his frequent touring mate, Willie Nelson, later recorded it.

Pride often endured cruel jokes and taunts from fellow entertainers. George Jones once drunkenly painted “KKK” on Mr. Pride’s car after Charley had passed out at a party while trying to match Jones, an alcoholic, drink for drink!

Early in his recording career, Pride’s manager, Jack Johnson, set up a private jam session with singer Faron Young, of the great hit It´s Four In The Morning, who was also co-owner of a widely read trade journal Music City News. Young, known for badgering colleagues with profanity and provocative insults, praised Mr. Pride’s singing but referred to him with a racial epithet.

Mr. Pride made several instructive comments in his 1994 memoir, Pride, written with Jim Henderson.

´In all honesty, it took longer for the Nashville crowd to become accustomed to me than I thought it would. I was a novelty, but I never allowed myself to feel out of place. Unless someone else brought up the suggestion that I was ´different´ I tried not to think about it much.´

Charley Frank Pride was born in Sledge, Mississippi., on March 18, 1934, and was the fourth of 11 children in a family of sharecroppers. His father named him Charl but, because of a clerical error, the “ey” was added to his birth certificate.

´We lived in what we called a ‘shotgun house’ and there was a bed over on this side and a bed over on this side, and we’d sleep three and four to a bed,´ Mr. Pride told Dan Rather on AXS-TV’s The Big Interview in 2015.

´I remember sometimes I’d wake up,

and my brother’s toes were right in my nose..

Mr. Pride’s fascination with country music began early during his childhood in the Mississippi Delta. Though the region is best known for its blues, his strict and religious father regarded that genre as the devil’s music.

Instead, Charley recalled listening to the Grand Ole Opry and a local country station on the family’s battery-run Philco radio.

´My dad was in charge of the dials on the radio, so that’s what we listened to,´ Mr. Pride once said. ´In my formative years, country music was what I heard. I got to be 10 or 11 years old before I started listening to other music. By the time I experienced the blues, I was in my teens.´

He bought his first guitar at 14, but baseball competed with music as a consuming passion.

´As far as I was concerned, my future was in baseball,´  he stated in his memoir. ´I saw what Jackie Robinson did, that was my goal. Before he reached the major leagues, there were no real role models for kids like us.´

Throughout the 1950s, Charley pitched for Negro leagues teams, minor league affiliates of major league teams and occasionally in exhibition games against barnstorming major league players. At one point while he was playing in the Negro leagues, he and a teammate were traded for a used team bus ! The Army drafted Mr. Pride in 1958. After his discharge two years later, he joined Anaconda.

In his memoir, Pride spoke of struggles with manic depression. He also invested in many failed business ventures. However, his music management company prospered by discovering new talents Ronnie Milsap and Gary Stewart, (left) and bringing both to RCA Records. In 2010, he became a minority owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Mr. Pride was voted entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association in 1971. He received a Grammy for his 1971 album, Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs. He won additional Grammys at the 1971 ceremony for two gospel songs, Did You Think to Pray and Let Me Live.

In 1956, he married Rozene Cohran. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children, reggae musician Carlton Pride; Dion Pride, a country singer; and Angela Pride; four siblings; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Pride credited his early experiences with giving him an unflinching determination to succeed.

´When I used to go to school and pledge allegiance to the flag, all those nice words about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ I just had to look out my window: We had to play basketball outside while the whites had a gym,” he told The Washington Post in 1984. ´But my mother told me to hang in there, that someday it would be different, and that kept me believing.´

photo 5 His feelings about Crystal Chandeliers, as written in the song lyrics, are not perhaps the ones of of envy the world might have expected.

Oh, the crystal chandeliers light up the paintings on your walls
The marble statuettes are standing stately in the hall
But will the timely crowd that has you laughing loud
Help you dry your tears
When the new wears off of your crystal chandeliers?

I never did fit in to well with the folks you knew
And it’s plain to see that the likes of me, don’t fit with you
So you traded me for the gaiety of well to do
And you turned away from the love I offered you

Being honest the country music of Charley Pride was just a little bit main highway for the sidetracks & detours I prefer to follow through Americana, but his sense of humour, lovely voice and obvious ear for a great song always ensured that he was always great value in his occasional guest spots on UK tv light entertainment shows, and that it is quite a few of his albums have wedged their way onto my shelf of records filed under capital P,…..for Pride.

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