Pride, Charley (1938—)

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Pride, Charley (1938—)

Singer Charley Pride has the distinction of being the only African-American musician to make his career entirely in the field of country music, a musical genre dominated by white performers. His string of hits that began in the mid-1960s and continued for more than 18 years broke the color line in country music, even if no other black performers have followed Pride's lead. Pride's smooth voice and country-pop sound carried him to success despite his record company's initial fears that he would not be accepted by the country music establishment, or its fans, because of his race.

Born in 1938 to a sharecropping family on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi, Pride crossed racial lines early in life, preferring to listen to white country music rather than delta blues or other black musical forms. He bought his first guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalog at the age of 14, with money he earned picking cotton, and began to teach himself country songs he heard on the radio. Although he did not want a life as a cotton farmer, Pride did not turn to music at first as a way out. Instead, he left home at age 17 to play baseball with the Negro American League where he played with the Detroit Eagles and later the Memphis Red Sox. He served for two years in the Army and returned to baseball after his discharge, joining the Los Angeles Angels. He tried to break into the major leagues with both the California Angels and the New York Mets, but he missed the cut both times.

His short career in baseball over, Pride returned to his love of country music. While working part-time as a semi-pro baseball player and as a smelter for the Anaconda zinc works in Helena, Montana, Pride also sang in a local nightclub where he was overheard one night by country singer Red Sovine. Sovine, impressed by Pride's voice and singing style, encouraged him to go to Nashville. Unsuccessful at first, Pride was eventually heard by country guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, who was also in charge of RCA Records' Nashville division. Atkins signed Pride to a record deal in 1966. Pride's first single was "The Snakes Crawl at Night." RCA issued the record without any publicity photos, fearing that southern disk jockeys would not play a country record by a black artist. That song, and a follow-up, "Before I Met You," were modest successes. Pride had his first major hit, "Just Between You and Me," at the end of 1966. That success, and the long string of hits that followed, established Pride as a major star in mainstream country music. His acceptance by country music fans soon broke down any initial fears that a black artist could not succeed in country music. In early 1967, Pride became the first black artist to appear on the Grand Ole Opry since Deford Bailey in 1925.

Between 1969 and 1971, Pride released five straight number one singles, including "All I Have to Offer You Is Me," "I'd Rather Love You," "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone," "Wonder Could I Live There Anymore," and "I'm So Afraid of Losing You Again." His biggest chart successes came in 1971 with "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin"' and "I'm Just Me." These songs topped the country charts and, significantly, also crossed over into the pop charts, providing compelling evidence of Pride's wide appeal among a variety of audiences. Next to Elvis Presley, Charley Pride was RCA's bestselling artist.

Pride maintained his consistent country-pop style throughout the 1970s and 1980s, refusing to follow newer trends in country music. His adherence to his trademark sound encouraged him to break with RCA in 1986 when he felt they were not promoting younger artists at the expense of longtime successes like himself. In the 1990s, Pride continued to record, occasionally forming duets with younger performers such as Travis Tritt, and he maintained an active concert schedule. In 1994, in recognition of his groundbreaking achievements in country music, he was awarded the Academy of Country Music's Pioneer award.

—Timothy Berg

Further Reading:

The Country Music Foundation, editors. Country: The Music and the Musicians. New York, Abbeville Press, 1994.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History. Revised Edition. Austin, American Folklore Society, University of Texas Press, 1985.

Pride, Charley, and Jim Henderson. Pride: The Charley Pride Story. New York, Quill, 1995.

Pride, Charley. The Essential Charley Pride. BMG/RCA Records, 1997.

Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon. Country Music: The Encyclopedia. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.