One doesn’t usually think of African-Americans when it comes to country music, yet one of its greatest artists is Charley Pride, who happens to be African-American.
Charley Pride, the son of a poor Sledge, Mississippi sharecropper, was born in 1938. He was one of eleven children and found tremendous comfort as a boy by listening to country music on the radio. He, in fact, went out and bought himself a guitar and taught himself to play many of the country songs he had grown to love. His ambitions, at the time, however, were not related to music, but to a career in baseball.
Charley joined the Negro American League, playing for the Memphis Red Sox, as well as meeting and wedding wife Rozene. His love for music was not diminished, though, and he continued to play guitar and sing, though he had not plans, at the time, to perform professionally. After two years as a baseball player, he made the decision to join the Army, intending to continue with his baseball career after being discharged. Unfortunately, his throwing arm was injured and his dreams of pursing the major leagues were abandoned.
It was then that Charley determined to try a career in country music. After performing a song backstage for country legends Red Sovine and Red Foley, he was persuaded by both men to hit Nashville to seek a recording contract. Competition was stiff enough in the country music industry, but it was even harder for an African-American to break down doors, so his first attempts at succeeding in Nashville were a huge struggle, although he was able to secure a management contract with Jack Johnson, who was clearly impressed by Charley’s talent. When Johnson sent RCA record producer Chet Atkins a demo of Charley singing,Charley was signed by RCA in 1966.
His first single Snakes Crawl at Night got considerable airplay from country music stations, but RCA purposely did not include any photographs of Charley Pride, so that disc jockeys and listeners would not know that he was an African-American. Two more popular singles propelled his career forward and his third single was #9 on the U.S. country charts and garnered him a Grammy.
While this might have put any other country singer on top, the climb was a lot harder for Charley Pride. As expected, there were segments of the country music fan base who had a problem accepting an African-American country music singer. His consistent artistry, however, could not be overlooked for long and he received the honor, in 1967, of being only the second African-American to sing on the stage of the grand Ole Opry, the first one being Deford Bailey forty-two years earlier.
From that point, he came out with a succession of hits, including Kiss An Angel Good Morning, I’d Rather Love You, All I Have to Offer You Is Me and others. He went on to win a number of awards and had 36 hit singles over the course of his career. His success continued way into the 1980’s.
Like many more older, traditional country artists, Charley Pride doesn’t get the same promotion that younger country artists do, but he remains popular with faithful fans around the world. He still performs and records and continues to win awards and honors for his accomplishments, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
African-American audiences have not been so embracing, since many feel remote from the country music industry, but respect for Charley Pride is growing and there is a rumor that a film based on his life, starring actor Terrence Howard, has been proposed by Paramount Pictures.