Charley Pride (March 18, 1934 – December 12, 2020) was an American singer, guitarist, and professional baseball player. His greatest musical success came in the early to mid-1970s, when he was the best-selling performer for RCA Records since Elvis Presley. During the peak years of his recording career (1966–1987), he had 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, including 30 which went to number one.
Charley Pride won the Entertainer of the Year award at the Country Music Association Awards in 1971, was one of three African-American members of the Grand Ole Opry and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
Charley Frank Pride was born on March 18, 1934, in Sledge, Mississippi, the fourth of eleven children, eight boys and three girls, of poor sharecroppers. His father intended to name him Charl Frank Pride, but a clerical error on his birth certificate, meant his legal name was Charley Frank Pride.
When Charley Pride was 14, his mother got him his first guitar and he taught himself to play.
Though he loved music, one of his lifelong dreams was to become a professional baseball player and in 1952, he pitched for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. In 1953, he signed a contract with the Boise Yankees, the Class C farm team of the New York Yankees, but during that season, an injury caused him to lose the “mustard” on his fastball, and he was sent to the Yankees’ Class D team in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Later that season, while in the Negro leagues with the Louisville Clippers, Charley Pride and another player called Jesse Mitchell were traded to the Birmingham Black Barons for a team bus. “Jesse and I may have the distinction of being the only players in history to be traded for a used motor vehicle,” Pride said in his 1994 autobiography.
Pride pitched for several other minor league teams, before being drafted into the United States Army in 1956. When discharged in 1958, he rejoined the Memphis Red Sox and tried to return to baseball, though hindered by an injury to his throwing arm.
When he could not continue with professional baseball, he moved to work in construction in Helena, Montana, in 1960. He was recruited to pitch for the local semipro baseball team, the East Helena Smelterites, and the team manager helped him get a job at the local Asarco lead smelter.
Charley Pride’s singing ability soon came to the attention of the team manager, who also paid him to sing for 15 minutes before each game, which increased crowd attendance and earned Charley another $10 on top of the $10 he earned for each game. He also played gigs in the local area, both solo and with a band called the Night Hawks, and sand at company picnics.
While he was still active in baseball, Charley Pride had been encouraged to join the music business by country stars such as Red Sovine and Red Foley, and was working towards this career. In 1958, while in Memphis, Charley visited Sun Studio and recorded some songs.
His break came when the legendary Chet Atkins at RCA Victor heard a demo tape and got Pride a contract in 1965.
In 1966, he released his first RCA Victor single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night” which did not chart. On the records of this song submitted to radio stations for airplay, the singer was listed as “Country Charley Pride”. Pride disputed that the omission of a photo was deliberate, stating that getting promoters to bring in a black country singer was a bigger problem, he said “People didn’t care if I was pink. RCA signed me … they knew I was colored … They decided to put the record out and let it speak for itself.”
While living in Montana, he continued to sing at local clubs, and in Great Falls had an additional boost to his career when he befriended a local businessman called Louis Allen “Al” Donohue, who owned radio stations, including KMON, the first stations to play Charley Pride’s records in Montana.
Soon after the release of “The Snakes Crawl at Night”, another single called “Before I Met You”, was released and also did not chart. Not long afterwards, his third single, “Just Between You and Me”, was released and finally brought Charley Pride success on the country charts reaching number nine on Hot Country Songs on February 25, 1967.
The success of “Just Between You and Me” was enormous and Charley was nominated for a Grammy Award for the song the next year.
In the summer of 1966, on the strength of his early releases, Charley Pride was booked for his first large show, in Detroit’s Olympia Stadium. Since no information about the singer had been included with those singles, few of the 10,000 country fans who came to the show knew Pride was black, and only discovered the fact when he walked onto the stage, at which point the applause trickled off to silence. “I knew I’d have to get it over with sooner or later,” Pride later remembered. “I told the audience: ‘Friends, I realize it’s a little unique, me coming out here, with a permanent suntan, to sing country and western to you. But that’s the way it is.’ ”
The show became the first of a long and active career playing to large audiences, with Charley’s race soon becoming a minor detail compared to his success. In 1967, he became the first black performer to appear at the Grand Ole Opry since founding member DeFord Bailey, who had last appeared in 1941. Between 1969 and 1971, Charley Pride had eight singles that reached number one on the US Country Hit Parade and also charted on the Billboard Hot 100. The pop success of these songs reflected the country/pop crossover sound that was reaching country music in the 1960s and early 1970s, known as “Countrypolitan”. In 1969, his compilation album, “The Best of Charley Pride”, sold more than one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Only Elvis Presley sold more records for RCA Victor than Charley Pride.
In 1971, Charley Pride released what would become his biggest hit, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'”, a million-selling crossover single, and won the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award, as well as its top male vocalist award in 1971 and 1972.
“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'” became Charley Pride’s signature tune. Besides being a five-week country number one in late 1971 and early 1972, the song was also his only pop top-40 hit, hitting number 21, and reaching the top 10 of the Adult Contemporary charts, as well.
During the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s, Pride continued to rack up country music hits and sold more than 70 million records (singles, albums, and compilations included).
In 1975, Charley Pride’s agent sold a 40-date tour package to a UK booking agent, who then sold four dates to the Dublin-based Irish music promoter Jim Aiken. At the time, the Troubles were at their height, and few nonresident music and sports teams traveled there. Jim Aiken subsequently traveled to Pride’s winter concert in Ohio, and persuaded Charley to play one of the concerts at Belfast’s Ritz Cinema, which he played in November 1976, with his album song “Crystal Chandeliers” subsequently being released as a single in the UK and Ireland. Charley Pride subsequently became a hero to both sides of the conflict for breaking the effective touring concert ban and his song “Crystal Chandeliers” was seen as a unity song.
Charley Pride performed the national anthem before game six of the 1980 World Series, at Super Bowl VIII and again at game five of the 2010 World Series.
On May 1, 1993, Charley Pride became a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1994, Charley Pride published his book Pride: The Charley Pride Story.
Charley Pride had a tumor removed from his right vocal cord in 1997 at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He returned in February 2009 for a routine checkup and surprised the Arkansas Senate with an unplanned performance of five songs.
On June 5, 2008, Charley Pride, his brother Mack “The Knife” Pride and 28 other living former Negro league players were “drafted” by each of the 30 Major League Baseball teams in a recognition of the on-field achievements and historical relevance of 30 mostly forgotten, Negro league stars. Charley was picked by the Texas Rangers, with whom he has had a long affiliation, and the Colorado Rockies took his brother Mack.
In 2016, Charley Pride was selected as one of 30 country artists to perform on “Forever Country”, a mash-up track of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “On the Road Again”, and “I Will Always Love You”, which celebrated 50 years of the Country Music Association Awards.
In 2020, the CMA announced that Pride would receive the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 54th Country Music Association Awards in recognition of his work in the genre. The CEO of the CMA explained that “Charley Pride is the epitome of a trailblazer. Few other artists have grown country music’s rich heritage and led to the advancement of country music around the world like Charley. His distinctive voice has created a timeless legacy that continues to echo through the country community today. We could not be more excited to honor Charley with one of CMA’s highest accolades.”
Charley Pride died in Dallas on December 12, 2020, of complications which were related to COVID-19, aged 86 years old.
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