Who is Charley Pride?
“I am who I am, and I do what I do,” said Pride, who proudly notes his legacy as one of 11 children born to poor sharecroppers who lived on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi.
Despite his humble beginnings, Pride has evolved into a trailblazer, starting out as a ballplayer with the Negro American League’s Memphis Red Sox and later becoming country music’s first African-American superstar. With the latter, he has amassed him more than 50 Top 10 Country hits (41 No. 1s) and earned countless music awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Pride will be recognized on Saturday, Aug. 25 by his home state as a member of The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience 2018 Hall of Fame class.
“I appreciate the recognition; it feels good,” Pride said in a telephone interview from his office in Dallas, Texas, where he now resides.
While he has slowed down some, Pride, now 84, is not resting on his laurels. He is currently selecting songs for a planned album of duets scheduled for release in 2019.
“I’m getting my songs together and putting them in order so I can record them at a given time,” he said.
Country music artists Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker and Vince Gill are among those Pride will share vocals with on the recording.
A solo artist throughout his career, Pride said he first began singing with his siblings.
“I’ve been singing all my life, ever since I could learn a lyric,” he said. “All of us (siblings) sang — it’s eight boys and three girls — but I’m the only one who succeeded with the stature that I have over the others. My younger brother probably has the best voice of all of us.”
Growing up, Pride said he listened to every type of music he could hear, but was primarily exposed to country, gospel and the blues. However, it was his father who contributed to his love for country music.
“We had a Philco radio and nobody handled the knobs on it but him,” he said. “Everything he put it on, that’s what we heard and we’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts.”
At age 14, Pride purchased his first guitar, a Silverstone, from a Sears Roebuck catalog. He inadvertently left it out the rain and had to constantly tune it, but managed to teach himself to play by listening to songs he heard on the radio. His first gig was a party.
“A guy up the road from where we lived in Sledge was putting on a party at his house and he asked if my dad would let me play,” Pride said, proudly adding. “I got $3 for it.”
A talent for baseball
At age 16, Pride began emerging as a talented baseball player, first playing organized games in the Iowa State League and then professional games in the Negro American Leagues as a pitcher and outfielder for the Memphis Red Sox, according to his biography. 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 hampered his pitching. He was first sent to the Yankees' Class D team in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and then released. Over the next several years, Pride rejoined the Memphis Red Sox, moved to the Louisville Clippers and then was traded, along with another player, to the Birmingham Black Barons for a used bus. He also played for the El Paso Kings and a team in Nogales, Mexico.
“I wanted to be the greatest baseball player who ever lived,” Pride said. “I was picking cotton alongside my dad in Sledge and when Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues, I said, ‘Oh, boy! Here’s my chance out of the cotton fields!”
The following artists will be added to the Hall of Fame at the Mississippi Arts + Entertain…
During a brief stint in the US Army, Pride continued to play ball with the Fort Carson baseball team in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was stationed at the time. After his discharge in early 1958, he rejoined the Memphis Red Sox, then moved to Montana to play for the Missoula Timberjacks in the Pioneer League, but ended up working at a smelter operated by the Anaconda Mining Company and playing for its semi-pro baseball team, the East Helena Smelterites. In 1961, he was invited to try out for the Los Angeles Angels during spring training, but eventually returned to Helena after two weeks.
Pride continued to work at the smelter and play baseball for its semi-pro team during the first half of the 1960s. At the same time, he began to make a name for himself as a music performer, singing at local bars and nightclubs in Montana. In 1962, Pride was introduced to country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley and invited to perform “Heartaches By The Numbers” and “Lovesick Blues” during one of their shows. This encounter would be the initial beginnings of Pride’s future music career. According to Pride’s biography, after a disastrous tryout in 1963 with the New York Mets in Clearwater, Florida, Pride shelved his dreams of a major league baseball career and decided to pursue a serious singing career.
Turning to music
His first singles barely charted. However, in 1967 the song “Just Between You and Me” broke into the Top 10 country music chart. It also earned Pride his first Grammy nomination.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
While his baseball career posed many challenges for him, Pride said being an African-American male singing country music was not difficult for him — even though his career took off during the height of the civil rights movement.
“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘My, you must have had it hard,’ and I say, ‘No, I didn’t,’” he said. “Over the years, a lot of reporters would ask, ‘Charley, how does it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music?’ or ‘How does it feel to be the first colored country music singer … the first Negro country singer … the first Black country music singer … the first Afro-American country music singer?’ I say, ‘I feel the same way I did when I was colored; I don’t feel any different. But the thing is I’m a staunch American, but I understand why you ask the question.’”
Pride said while he was called “the N-word” growing up in Sledge, about 60 miles south of Memphis, it has not occurred during his singing career — a factor he attributes to his craft.
“I just think when they heard this voice they said, and I’ve had many people to say this to me, ‘I didn’t care if you were green; I just love your singing,’” Pride said. “I was just talking to Charlie Monk (who is known throughout Nashville as the Mayor of Music Row) and I said, ‘You know, I truly believe that all of my peers — that’s what I call them because I wish they were here now, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Ernest Tubb who brought me on the Grand Ol’ Opry in 1967 — were all in my corner to make it. I have no answers other than ‘I am who I am, and I do what I do.’”
Film in the works
Being who he is and doing what he does has fueled Pride throughout his illustrious career, a career that has spanned more than five decades and earned him numerous hits — “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” and “You’re So Good When You’re Bad” to name a few — as well as numerous awards. In 2017, he released “Music In My Heart,” which at the time was his first release in five years.
In 1994, Pride (along with Jim Henderson) wrote his autobiography “Pride: The Charley Pride Story,” which details his childhood, as well as his baseball and music careers. A biopic about Pride has been in development for several years and in 2006 it was announced Terrence Howard (“Empire,” “Hustle & Flow”) would star, then several years later action and comedy star Dwayne Johnson was announced as the lead. Although he expressed disappointment about the movie’s delay, Pride is still hopeful.
“It was all ready to go, but then they had the writer’s strike and everything stopped,” he said. “But now we’re back in talks about it and hopefully in a year we’ll know something. I’d really like Terrence Howard to portray me; we’re born under the same (astrological) sign, our birthdays are eight days apart and he sings. I think The Rock is too big; I’m not that bulky.”