By giftshop | July 5, 2017 |
Delta country music legend
By Scott Barretta
Sledge, Mississippi, whose population today lingers around five-hundred, was undoubtedly larger when Charley Pride was born there in 1938. Still, it’s easy to imagine why a young man growing up in a cotton’ pickin’ Delta town like Sledge would aspire to move on and find something to do other than hang around. Then as now, sports and music were common dreams for boys growing up in a country town, and young Pride would ultimately pursue both escape routes. He enjoyed a taste of glory as a professional baseball player, however his budding success was interrupted by what became one of the most remarkable careers in country music.
Earlier this year, Pride received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which acknowledged his over fifty year recording career, marked by over thirty number one country records and multiple awards, including three regular Grammys. That places him in an elite category. But, Pride is of course most famous for his singular achievement—as the first and only African American superstar in the field of modern country music.
Like many African Americans living in the Delta in the first half of the 1900s, Pride’s parents, Mack and Tessie, worked as sharecroppers, raising cotton and living in a modest shotgun shack on a forty acre tract. Charley was one of eleven children, and worked alongside his parents in the cotton fields.
On Saturdays, Mack Pride would tune the family’s Philco radio to Nashville’s powerful WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry. The sounds of country music resonated with Pride, who took to singing country songs, and he later bought a Sears Roebuck guitar on which he could emulate his favorite musicians.
Pride was just eleven years old when Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, effectively integrating professional baseball. Pride recently recalled to NPR, “When I saw Jackie Robinson go to the Major Leagues, I’m picking cotton beside my dad. And I said, ‘Uh-oh, here’s my way out of the cotton field.’” He could return to music, Pride added, after he had broken all the baseball records.
At seventeen Pride left home to try his hand at baseball, and like Robinson, he started off his career in the Negro leagues, playing for teams including the Memphis Red Sox, the Louisville Clippers and the Birmingham Black Barons. His tenure was interrupted by a two-year stint in the military, during which time he married Rozene Cohran from Oxford, with whom he’s now been married to for over sixty years.
Pride’s career took him around the country, including ill-fated try outs with the Mets and the Angels, and it was while playing in the minor leagues in Montana that he got his first real break as a singer. Pride’s team, the East Helena Smelterites, paid him to sing before games, and also provided a day job for him and other players in the dangerous occupation of lead smelting.
During a visit to the area, country stars Red Sovine and Red Foley invited Pride to perform at their show and told Pride to drop by a publishing company’s office if he visited Nashville. In 1963, on the way back from a baseball tryout in Florida, he did. He was signed by Jack Johnson, who arranged a session with Cowboy Jack Clement, who had discovered Jerry Lee Lewis and produced and written early hits for Johnny Cash.
“That first session, word had got out that Cowboy was going to produce a black guy,” Clement told No Depression magazine. “So there were a bunch of people in the control room…I found out then that Charley liked having an audience. After that, his sessions were more open than normally my sessions would be.”
Chet Atkins signed Pride to RCA. As Pride recalled to NPR, Atkins “played it for all the bigwigs there. And he said, ‘How do you like this voice? So they all said, ‘He sounds good.’ When he showed the picture and said he was colored, everybody looked at one another. But unanimously, they said, ‘Well, we’re still going to sign him. We ain’t going to say nothing about it,’ and that’s the way they did it.”
In 1966, RCA sent out what became Pride’s first hit single, “Snakes Crawl at Night,” to deejays with no accompanying press photo. Such anonymity was not possible at live performances, but Pride’s skills as a singer and demeanor won over skeptical audiences.
Pride’s introduction to country fans was also made easier when he was taken out on tour by country star Faron Young, who was initially hesitant to embrace the idea of an African American country singer. Both Young and Pride were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003, an event that Pride has said was “probably the greatest accomplishment of my life.”
His career took off in 1967, when he scored his first top ten hit, the Grammy nominated “Just Between Me and You,” and in 1971 he received two Grammys related to a gospel album. Between 1969 and 1972 he racked up ten number one hits, including “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and “All I Have to Offer You Is Me.” He recorded the Grammy-winning LP Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs, and received back to back Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Awards.
Pride’s meteoric rise to fame as the first African-American country superstar was un-precedented, but the history of African-Americans and country music has a deep history. In the 1800s and into the 1900s rural whites and African Americans both played similar types of music at dances, led by fiddles, but at the advent of the recording industry for rural music in the 1920s string bands were largely relegated to the all-white “hillbilly” category while African-Americans were encouraged to record blues for the “race” category.
A notable exception was the Mississippi Sheiks, an African American string band from the Bolton area, who scored a major hit in 1930 with the fiddle-driven “Sittin’ On Top of the World.” The song soon became a country music standard, a showcase song for Bob Wills and Bill Monroe. Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers, who also received a Grammy lifetime achievement award this year, likewise crossed boundaries, recording with African American blues and jazz artists.
Charley Pride made history in 1967 as the first African singer on the Grand Ole Opry, of which he became a member in 1993. But, one of the earliest stars of the Opry was DeFord Bailey, an African American harmonica player who was a mainstay of the program from 1927 to 1941 and toured with Opry regulars including Monroe and Roy Acuff.
Later, Pride’s success was preceded by artists including Ray Charles, whose 1962 LP Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music yielded the huge hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and in his wake the country music industry began seeking out other African- American country singers, including Senatobia’s O.B. McClinton and Oklahoma’s Stoney Edwards. In his wake also came more recent artists including former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman and Grand Ole Opry member Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton, who recently visited the Grammy Museum Mississippi, and the African American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Now 79, Pride continues to perform—this August he’ll play in Ireland—and he still enjoys meeting with his many fans at events in Nashville. A longtime resident of Dallas, Pride has also had success as an investor, and in 2010 became a minority owner in the Texas Rangers.
In 2008, Pride returned to Mississippi to accept the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. At the ceremony Pride sang a gospel song, and commented lightheartedly about the topic that inevitably gets raised when his name is mentioned.
“‘You don’t look like you’re supposed to sound,’ I do get that a lot,” he said. “My older sister one time said, ‘Why are you singing their music?’ 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.”
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