The Pride of country for 35 years – September 2000
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The Pride of country for 35 years  Print

By Brian Baker, September 2000

Charley Pride's accomplishments over the past three and a half decades are astonishing by any yardstick you care to use. His humble beginnings as a sharecropper's son, his decision to play baseball and music simultaneously, his meteoric rise up the country charts at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect in some parts of the South, his incredible success as a businessman as well as an entertainer and his current sustained sales even as he searches for a new label are all tangible proof of Pride's incredible will to succeed, and ultimately his popularity and staying power.

Consider this: Pride has not recorded any new material since a half an album's worth of songs back in 1994, and yet RCA has packaged no less than five Pride greatest hits collections in the past five years.

Most amazingly, among all of the gold and platinum artists that have been signed to RCA, across all genres, the label's two biggest sellers of all time are Elvis Presley and Charley Pride.

This fact alone is probably reason enough to warrant Pride's October induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame (alongside the late, great Faron Young).

Factor in all of the other incredible milestones that Pride has notched since his phenomenal debut in 1966, including worldwide sales of over 25 million, including 31 gold and 4 platinum records, CMA Male Vocalist of the Year twice (1971-72) and Entertainer of the Year (1971), three Grammys, two of his Number 1 hits, "All I Have to Offer You Is Me" and "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'," winning Song of the Year (in 1969 and 1972 respectively), strong pop crossover success, and a string of 29 number 1 hits, and it's a wonder that this incredible honor has been withheld until now.

Typically, Pride himself doesn't wonder, and he never plays the race card, although he acknowledges his accomplishment as the first (and, strangely enough, only) black country music superstar. His spin on it is vintage Pride.

"Reporters have always asked me, 'What was it like to be the first?,'" says Pride from his Dallas office. "When I first started it was 'the first colored,' then Negro, then black, now African-American. The answer's always been the same. I was always told I was different, some said I was crazy. I was just trying to be the individual American I've always tried to be."

Charley Pride started out as 1 of 11 children born to sharecropping parents in Sledge, Mississippi, a town 50 miles south of Memphis, March 18, 1938.

He got his first guitar from a Sears catalog, but a night in the rain just after it arrived made it difficult to play and tune. He managed to teach himself guitar by listening to country music on the radio. As he moved into his teenage years, his thoughts centered on two activities: baseball and music. His plan was to find a way to do both.

After a two-year stint in the Army and playing semi-pro ball in Memphis and Detroit, Pride heard about two Montana teams that needed players, and he left his wife and son in Memphis to scout the situation. Pride eventually took a position with the team that offered a job in the local smelting plant to its players.

Around this time, Pride began playing guitar and singing in small clubs around Helena. He wound up backstage one night at a Red Sovine concert, picked up a stray guitar and began singing.

Sovine was so impressed that he strongly urged Pride to move to Nashville and pursue music full time. With a nagging elbow injury hampering his baseball career, Pride decided to take Sovine's advice.

Once in Nashville, Pride made a couple of demos with esteemed producer Jack Clement, who got the tapes into RCA and in front of Chet Atkins, who signed Pride in 1965.

Atkins' initial dilemma was Pride's ethnicity, as he knew beyond a doubt that a fair number of radio programmers would hesitate at playlisting a black country artist. The decision was made to send out Pride's first single, "Snakes Crawl at Night," with no publicity photo. The single was almost universally added and was a huge hit.

The strategy almost backfired when Pride went out on the road to promote his first three singles. One night in Detroit, on a package tour with Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Red Foley and Flatt & Scruggs, Pride was introduced by Ralph Emery, and out he strolled with his guitar to the wild applause of 10,000 fans which quickly gave way to confused silence.

Anticipating this, Pride and his manager worked out a quick fix ahead of time.

"My manager and I came up with a little thing because we had seen what was happening in the clubs, where they would do the same thing," Pride says with a laugh. "So I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it's a little unique me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan.' So it went right back into big applause. I didn't have time to discuss pigment, I had 10 minutes to do my show. I finished up - there was a 3 p.m. and an 8 p.m. show - and I went out front and signed autographs all the way to the second show."

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