When Charley Pride, the big, mellow-voiced country music star, who rose to fame in the late '60s passed away at age 86 stories immediately flooded the airwaves about his breaking the color barrier in country music.
Pride was a Black man in an art form that was most popular in the South, a region where Blacks were struggling to break down a wide array of long-standing barriers.
While it’s true Charley was the first of his race to ascend to the top of the country music charts, his wasn’t a Jackie Robinson story. When Robinson trotted on the grass at Ebbets Field in 1947, he was one of many of his color who had the talent to compete with the best Major League Baseball had to offer. With Robinson in the game, rising above the catcalls and abuse he would endure, the floodgates were open for a galaxy of black baseball stars. Within a few years Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were among those launching record breaking careers.
Charley Pride knew a little about baseball. He played multiple seasons in the Negro Leagues in its declining years, following the exodus of their brightest talents to the majors. Pride landed spots on teams in Memphis and Birmingham. He had some talent, but not enough to stick. But he never lost his love for the game. Pride later served on the board of the Negro leagues museum. and would often take a break from his music career to work out with big league teams in the spring.
The difference between the Robinson story and Pride’s is, when Charley cut his first singles in the music business, there wasn’t a stream of Black country singers ready to storm Nashville. Charley was a rarity. He was a Black man who could sing country music with the best of them. Country disc jockeys who got the first Charley Pride records, in many cases didn’t know the sweet sounds were coming from a Black man from the cotton country of Mississippi.
Pride was no flash in the pan. His career at RCA produced about 30 Number One records, putting him near the pace set by Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” was a monster hit that became his calling card. The song helped him win the Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award in 1971.
Pride settled in Dallas and was often spotted by his fans around town, whether it was watching his son play high school football or singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” at the Cotton Bowl. I was at an SMU game for one of those stirring performances.
I remember in the early ‘70s there was a mansion in Mesquite that Pride was rumored to have bought. I don’t know if he ever even considered it, but I always looked for a glimpse of him when I drove by.
During my radio career, I got to interview Charley a couple of times. The first was when disc jockey Russ Martin and I were traveling to various night spots in Dallas to judge talent contests. The overall winner would open for Barbara Mandrell, Ricky Skaggs and Ronnie Milsap at Reunion Arena.
At one of the venues, we spotted Charley Pride at a back table, trying to be inconspicuous. We approached his associates and asked for an interview, which he graciously granted.
He was wearing a pin I had seen him wearing on one his album covers that bore the letters GID. I asked what that stood for.
“Get it done,” He said.
Another time, I walked up to him where he was performing and got another chance to talk to him on the air. At that time, he had just seen a beautiful record “Roll on Mississippi,” fall short of that top spot he’d hit so often. He candidly said, “It’s because the label didn’t promote it enough.”
Soon, Charley was no longer on RCA and without a major label, the hits stopped.
Like so many greats, he had been kicked to the curb by the record company he had scored hits for over a long period of years.
But, through the years he was beloved by his fans. In public, he seemed approachable. I like to think Charley’s philosophy was pretty much as he sang it in the song “I’m Just Me.”
“For I was just born to be exactly what you see.
Nothing more or less I'm not the worst or the best.
I just try to be exactly what you see.
Today and every day I'm just me.”
In 2000, Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was awarded the CMA’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in November. That would be his last public appearance, before he was cut down by COVID-19.
It’s true Charley Pride was the first Black country music superstar. But his body of work stands up to any country singer of his era, And although, these days, superstar is a grossly overworked term, Charley Pride was worthy of that billing in every sense of the word.