Pride, Charles Frank ("Charley")

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PRIDE, Charles Frank ("Charley")

(b. 18 March 1938 in Sledge, Mississippi), the first African American inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2000), who had thirty-six number-one hit singles and sold over twenty-five million albums.

Pride was one of eleven children born to Mack Pride, Sr., and Tessie B. Stewart, who were poor sharecroppers. Pride's hometown was a small cotton town sixty miles south of Memphis, Tennessee, in an area famous for its cultivation of blues music. Pride's father worked a forty-acre farm, where the five-year-old Pride labored in the cotton fields, following the rhythmic routine of chopping and picking cotton. Weekend recreation was frugal and elemental, the high point being near the family radio listening to the Saturday night live broadcasts from the home of country-and-western music, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Pride adored this style of music and eagerly sought to model the melodies and technical skills of stellar country-and-western performers, especially Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, and Eddie Arnold.

By the time he was fourteen Pride had enough money in his savings account to order a $10 Silvertone guitar from the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Years later he recalled the excitement of receiving the package from Sears: "I opened it up, lifted it in my hands and strummed my first chords. That minute, I was the happiest kid in Mississippi."

Pride explored various avenues to escape the drudgery of the cotton field. The year he received his guitar was the same year he determined to launch his career as a high school baseball player. His hero and role model was Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947 by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. The teenager, perhaps unconsciously, may have seen more opportunities in baseball—even if it was only the Negro Leagues—than in music. In the early 1950s the Grand Ole Opry was exclusively white, and entertainers of color, such as the blues harmonica player De Ford Bailey, did not have their contracts renewed.

Pride graduated from Sledge Junior High School. In 1955 he headed for Memphis and the Negro American League, in which African-American entrepreneurs created an informal network of clubs and set them to work within well-organized leagues. The league's urban stadiums drew packed audiences, white and black, and Pride was one of many young African-American men who, during the years of segregation, saw in sports one of the few activities that offered the chance to win fame and riches. Pride played for Detroit, the Birmingham Black Barons, and Memphis, and did well, with ten home runs and a hitting average of .367. His career in baseball was interrupted by military service from 1956 to 1958, and by his marriage to Rozene Cohran on 28 December 1956, but resumed with the Memphis Red Sox. In 1959 Pride resigned over a pay dispute, but a year later signed with a semiprofessional team in Great Falls, Montana. Then, after an unsuccessful tryout for the Los Angeles Angels in February 1961, Pride returned to Montana.

In some respects the early 1960s must have reminded Pride of his hard days in the cotton fields. To survive he worked in a Helena, Montana, zinc smelter, played semi-professional ball in the Pioneer League, and did occasional stand-up one-man musical shows at local bars. Ann Malone comments: "He became very popular with the locals, singing straight country without a back-up band, developing an easy, low-key style, and chatting about baseball with the cowboys between sets."

Pride's breakthrough came at a 1963 show in Helena, when the country-and-western stars Red Savine and Red Foley heard him sing "Heartaches by the Number" and told him to take his act to Nashville. Although Pride still dreamed of a career in baseball, his tryout at a New York Mets training camp in the spring of 1963 was a disaster.

Pride's attempts throughout the 1960s to launch a music career have to be seen against a national backdrop of civil rights demonstrations. Pride did not seek to perform in his home state, which in 1964 saw the murder of three young civil rights workers who were part of a voter-registration drive in the South. That same year Pride signed with the Cedarwood Publishing Company and started to record music tapes, testing the waters to see if his sound and songs could be a commercial success. Racism thwarted Pride's career. Even after a successful recording session with RCA Victor in 1965, and despite astute direction from musical entrepreneurs, Pride received favorable responses only up to the point at which "[his] picture [photograph] was produced." One adviser even suggested that Pride should promote himself as a singer of color, change his name to George Washington Carver III, wear a fancy outfit, and label himself not as country-and-western but as a one-of-a-kind novelty act.

Pride persevered, rejecting such advice. Nevertheless, the manner in which he advanced his career is in no small part due to the astute skills of his manager Jack Johnson and the record producer Jack Clement. In 1965 they persuaded RCA executives to sign Pride to a recording contract by playing down Pride's race. During the early months of his recording career, songs like "Snakes Crawl at Night" and "Atlantic Coastal Lane" were promoted as traditional country songs from a typical, albeit unknown, singer. By the time Pride was revealed to be an African American, music fans had already come to enjoy his rich, smooth baritone.

Pride's acceptance by a vast white audience was facilitated to a greater rather than a lesser extent by the fact that Pride produced a careful, middle-of-the-road form of entertainment. Pride's stage performance threatened no one; he seemed refreshingly all-American; he joked about his "permanent tan" and acted deferentially to his conservative, mostly white audiences.

By 1966 Pride was able to give up his job at the smelter and had a Grammy nomination for "Just Between You and Me." On 7 January 1967 Ernest Tubb, one of the founding fathers of country-and-western music, introduced Pride to an enthusiastic capacity crowd at the Grand Ole Opry, and that same year the Country Music Association voted him the most Promising Male Artist. As the decade ended a national group of disc jockeys voted Pride Number One Male Artist of the Year (1969).

Between 1969 and 1971 Pride had six consecutive chart-toppers. In 1971 at the Country Music Association award show at the Grand Ole Opry, Pride was named Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year. In 1994 Pride opened the Charley Pride Theatre in Branson, Missouri. His performance of "Roll on Mississippi" was considered the official song of his home state, and a stretch of highway there has been named after him.

Social historians of the 1960s have tended to ignore the place, position, and impact of Pride. He seemed divorced from, and uninvolved with, those African Americans who sought a new social order. However, Pride's accomplishments from 1960 to 1970 mark a milestone in the story of people of color. What Pride did is an important piece of a larger cultural canvas, peopled by African Americans such as the activist Rosa Parks, who challenged discrimination in public transportation; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who marched into Montgomery; and the boxer Muhammad Ali, who railed against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. All energized the long march towards racial justice in the United States.

Pride's autobiography, Pride: The Charley Pride Story (1994), written with Jim Henderson, is especially revealing about his early life and his attempts to break into Major League Baseball. A biographical sketch by Ann Malone, "Charley Pride," is in Bill C. Malone and Judith McCulloh, eds., Stars of Country Music (1975). Colin Larkin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, vol. 3 (1992), gives an extensive list of Pride's recorded music albums. Pride is listed in Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds., Negro League Book (1994).

Scott A. G. M. Crawford