Charley Pride – Singer
As a black artist operating within what has historically been a predominantly white genre, Pride’s talents came to the fore during an era of institutionalised racism, and his early records were issued without a picture of him. He was only the second artist of colour to become a member of the home of Country royalty, the Grand Ole Opry.
Pride wore such pioneering as gently as his records. Having played for every American president who reached office during his career other than the last one, Pride was also a pillar of understated diplomacy. In the run up to the 1984 election, he performed for the sitting president, Ronald Reagan, and his Democrat rival, Walter Mondale.
Closer to home, Pride became a hero in Northern Ireland when he played Belfast in 1976. With the city torn by the Troubles, visits by touring artists were unofficially off limits. Playing to an audience from both sides of the political divide, Pride’s own brand of unity opened the door for other artists to play there. It also resulted in the UK release of Crystal Chandelier as a single. Recorded by Pride in 1967, Ted Harris’ song became a bar-room staple for all-comers.
Charley Frank Pride was born in Sledge, Mississippi, USA, fourth of eleven children to Tessie (nee Stewart) and Mack Pride Snr, who worked as sharecroppers. They had intended to name their son Charl, but a clerical error on the birth certificate picked it up wrong.
Under the influence of his father, who saw the blues as unsavoury, Pride turned to the music of Hank Williams and other country stars, and aged fourteen bought a $10 guitar from money earned picking cotton.
Despite his love of music, Pride had ambitions to become a baseball player. Under the auspices of the Negro American League, Pride pitched for the Memphis Red Sox, and signed with the Boise Yankees, before injury saw him play with increasingly minor teams. He continued playing after being drafted into the army in 1956, and pursued a professional career before moving into construction work in Montana in 1960.
While pitching for the semi-professional East Helena Smelterites, Pride’s singing ability was spotted by the team manager, who paid him extra to sing for fifteen minutes before each game. Pride also played local gigs, both solo and with a band called The Night Hawks. A demo by Pride was heard by Chet Atkins, who signed him to what was then RCA Victor.
Initially billed as Country Charley Pride, his first single, Snakes Crawl at Night (1966) did okay, but it wasn’t until his third release, Just Between You and Me (1966) that he made a breakthrough into the Country chart for the first time. The same year, Pride played his first big show in Detroit to an audience of 10,000, and Just Between Me and You was nominated for a Grammy award.
By now resident in Dallas, between 1969 and 1971, Pride had eight Country number 1’s. His 1971 hit, Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’, crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100, and became one of his defining numbers as he helped take Country into the mainstream. A succession of hits and awards followed over the next three decades, with Pride’s easy-going professionalism accompanying what by now was regarded as one of the greatest voices in Country.
Outside music, Pride invested in real estate, music publishing and a talent agency. He channelled his love of baseball into becoming part owner of the Texas Rangers. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2003, a thirty-three mile stretch of Mississippi Highway 3, running from Pride’s hometown of Sledge to Tutwiler in Tallahatchie County, was named Charley Pride Highway. The honour was symbolic of just how big a road Pride had travelled beyond his sharecropper roots.
This was epitomised even more in 2008, when Pride, his brother Mack and twenty-eight other surviving veterans of the Negro American League became honorary draftees of the thirty current teams in Major League Baseball.
In 2017, Pride received a Grammy lifetime achievement award. His final public appearance came in November at a Country Music Association awards ceremony, where he sang Kiss an Angel with contemporary country singer Jimmie Allen. The same night, he was honoured with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I’m in the business of selling lyrics, feelings and emotions,” Pride said in a BBC radio interview in 2019. “I bring all those three together. When I go in a studio I wanna’ do the best job I can, and then, when I go out on stage, I want to do it even better.”
Pride is survived by his wife, Rozene; their two sons, Carlton and Dion; their daughter, Angela; two brothers, Stephen and Harmon; two sisters, Catherine and Maxine; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
The Herald, December 30th 2020