Charley Pride, one of the pioneers of country music, passes away at 86 from COVID-19 complications. The legendary singer is known to be the first commercially successful Black country singer and is greatly influential within the country music genre altogether.
Over the course of his music career, Charley Pride has had 30 number one hits, 52 Top 10 billboard singles and has sold 70 million records. Pride’s smooth southern singing voice and charming song lyrics has won him countless awards including, 3 Grammy’s, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 2 AMA’s and a CMA Lifetime Achievement Award. While many country music fans revere and love Pride’s work, others may be surprised to learn that one of the most prominent figures in country music is a Black man.
Many of us automatically imagine country music to be solely representative of the white southern working class, unrelatable to any of us who don’t embody the aforementioned demographic. Although country music has many elements that are derived from blues and gospel, music genres created by Black Americans, country music is seldom associated with Blackness. Charley Pride proved that you don’t have to look like the majority of country music listeners in order to make good country music.
Pride never let racial stigmas or stereotypes about what country music is keep him from singing country.
During his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Mississippi Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts, Pride said, “My older sister one time said, ‘Why are you singing THEIR music?.” Pride continued, “But we all understand what the y’all-and-us-syndrome has been. See, I never as an individual accepted that, and I truly believe that’s why I am where I am today.”
From a young age Pride had a love for country music, gaining his passion for country music from his father who often tuned into Nashville’s WSM-AM in order to catch Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. Teaching himself to play guitar at 14, Pride was influenced by the voices of Ernest Tubb, Pee Wee King, Hank Williams, and Roy Acuff.
Pride’s music interest took a backseat after he emerged as a talented baseball player at age 16, leading him to become a pro baseball player in 1953 at the age of 19. After a few years of playing professional baseball for teams like the Boise Yankees, Memphis Red Sox, and the El Paso Kings, Pride was drafted into the Army in late 1956. Upon his discharge from the Army in early 1958, Pride began to pursue his music career, cutting his first song and unsuccessful demo called “There’s My Baby (Walkin’).”
During the 1960s Pride continued with his singing career while simultaneously playing semi- pro baseball in Helena, Montana for a team called the East Helena Smelterites. Pride gained notoriety as a singer in Helena, and neighboring locations from singing the national anthem at baseball games, in addition to performing at churches and nightclubs.
It wasn’t until 1963 that Pride hung up his baseball career and transitioned to strictly focusing on his music. While on his way to Cedarwood Publishing in Nashville, TN, Pride met his future manager Jack Johnson who helped spearhead his music career. Johnson linked him with producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement who produced “The Snakes Crawl At Night” and “Atlantic Coastal Line,” two songs that got the attention of Chet Atkins.
Pride got his big break in 1966 after country legend Chet Atkins, a rising executive at RCA Records at the time, signed Charley Pride. Charley Pride’s run at RCA Records led to the creation of chart topping songs like, “Just Between Me and You,” “All I Have To Offer You Is Me,” “Amazing Love,” and the award winning number one crossover hit “Kiss An Angel Good Morning.”
From the 1960s-1980s Pride had a highly successful career, solidifying his space in country music history. Pride’s father’s listening of the Grand Ole Opry almost was prophetic since in 1993 Pride became the second Black member of the Grand Ole Opry after the very first Black country singer, DeFord Bailey. Pride also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999.
Pride has also paved the way for Black country stars like Darius Rucker of Hootie & The Blowfish, Cowboy Troy, Kane Brown and Lil Nas X.