Charley Pride, CEW’s only major black star, bucks the odds again

IF IT’S WEDNESDAY, this must be Dallas. Last Monday, country singer Charley Pride flew to England, where he spent Tuesday at Lloyds of London and Wednesday with another broker trying to straighten out an insurance snafu on his three planes. Wednesday night he flew home, repacking in Dallas at 2 a.m. Thursday and catching a flight to Toronto, where he stayed Thursday night before singing Friday. Saturday and Sunday in the Ontario outback. Monday he returned to Toronto, spent the night, then hopped a plane to Dallas for a full Tuesday of business meetings. Today he’d like to do something about the piles of fan mail and business papers on his desk, but tomorrow he’s off to Nashville for the nationally televised Country Music Association awards ceremonies.

Business is largely very good these days for Charley Pride-against all odds. Late last summer, after a year of negotiations, he was able to break his contract with RCA Records, his sole label since entering the record biz in 1965. Pride claims that RCA’s ’”youth movement” is stifling the careers of traditional country singers like himself. That, he says. is why his American sales have fallen way below his overseas figures and also don’t reflect the kind of crowds he’s still drawing in concert.

Still, dumping RCA was a gutsy move on his part. At a time when talented singers seek fruitlessly to sell themselves to major labels, Pride is walking away from one of the biggest. He may learn the hard way that even an ineffectual record company is better than , none at all.

But this isn’t the first time he’s bucked the odds. Charley Pride-sharecropper’s son from Sledge, Mississippi, failed baseball player, Dallas resident and businessman since 1969-is, after all. the first black star in modern country music. But forget those glib analogies between Pride and Jackie Robinson. Pride was The First-and so far, he’s The Only. Drop the rhetoric about how Pride’s acceptance indicated more humane and liberal standards in what had always been a conservative, redneck music for conservative, redneck fans. Charley Pride is still the only major black star modern country-music has produced, and that says as much about him personally as it does about country music, race relations or anything else.

Pride’s North Dallas headquarters are done in browns and beiges; Muzak, not country, fills the rooms. But back in his private office, a royal blue high-backed chair behind the desk and royal blue curtains running around most of the room offer sharp contrast to all those muted earth colors. The color scheme mirrors the unlikely combinations of deference and stubbornness, down-home simplicity and formal imperiousness that make up Pride’s personal style.

He was born in 1938, the fourth of 11 kids; his father picked cotton for $6 a day, and Charley worked alongside him for half that much. At 17, he joined the Memphis Red Sox in the old American Negro League; he was a good-hitting pitcher and outfielder (“’still am, and that’s no brag, just facts”), and he still takes spring training each year with the Rangers. He came close to making the major leagues in a 1961 tryout with the Los Angeles Angels, but an arm injury dashed his hopes. By then Pride was living in Helena, Montana, working the zinc smelters by day and playing semi-pro ball at night. After singing between innings one night and getting a big ovation from the fens, he began playing the local bars, where he presented audiences with something few had ever seen: a black man singing country music. Though Mississippi is a blues state, Pride had sung country since he was a child.

That’s not as unusual as it might sound, he insists. Country music was all over the radio, inescapable, and just as there were lots of prejudiced white people who swore by blues music, there were blacks like Charley Pride who preferred country in the privacy of their homes.

“That’s always been true, along with the mixing of the races. Like with me, I’mCaucasian, Indian and African. So I’ve never had this overall hangup most Americans have had, what I call skin hangups,” he explains. “I take the belief that I’m Charley Pride first, the man, the American, and then all that other stuff subsides.”

You bet there was early resistance from the country music establishment in Nashville, Pride says, though he himself didn’t hear about it until later, and never first-hand. It’s a subject he tries to downplay these days, old news he’s a little irritated to have to discuss at all. “I’m a businessman now instead of picking cotton and shining shoes, so of course it’s changed,” he says.

In 1964 Pride gave baseball one last try at the New York Mets training camp, but manager Casey Stengel sent him packing. Encouraged by country stars Red Sovine and Red Foley, who’d heard him sing in Helena, he went to Nashville, where talent agent Jack Johnson became his manager and paired him with maverick producer Jack Clement. Pride and Clement cut “Snakes Crawl at Night” in August 1965, and used the song to win a contract from Chet Atkins of RCA.

ATKINS HAD NO qualms about breaking this musical color barrier. Pride’s warm, flexible baritone was perfect for the times-smooth enough to fit into slick, modern Nashville arrangements, not too nasal, but still unmistakably country. But Pride’s first singles were released without promo pictures, so when he reached the Top 40 on his third try with “Just Between You and Me” (1966), country deejays and fans still didn’t know he was black. The next year, after three straight hits, his debut album was released with his picture on the cover. Pride was ready to go public, louring way down the bill in a package that featured Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson and Bob Wills.

“You stand there waiting and you realize those people out there have put your voice with a white skin and you get ready to come on and the announcer says, ’Ladies and gentlemen, make welcome now Charley Pride,’ and there’s this great applause and then I come out of the shadows and up into the lights and it goes silent. Complete silence,” he chuckles. “So my manager and I thought about it and came up with a line: ’Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it’s really unique me coming out here on this show wearing a permanent tan.’ And it just loosened a spring up and hit ’em and there was big applause. You’re saying exactly what they’re thinking, so that cuts the tension of them thinking it.”

Ibid that he would go farther if he changed his stage name to George Washington Carver III and developed a novelty act, Pride stuck to his guns. Despite his color, he knew he was a country singer, and his album titles- Pride of America, I’m Just Me, Just Plain Charley, Make Mine Country- sought to reassure country fans that he was just like them-patriotic, hard-working, steeped in the virtues of the common man. The novelty of a black country singer spoke for itself, but so did the talent, and Pride’s business-as-usual approach did little to rock the whites-only boat of country music. The accolades began rolling in. “Just Between You and Me” was nominated for a Grammy. He was the CM As Male Vocalist of the Year in 1971 and 1972, and Entertainer of the Year in 1971. Today he’s had some 25 No. 1 country singles and sold more than 10 million albums worldwide; until recently, RCA routinely pressed 250,000 copies of each new release (this in a field where sales of 50,000 were enough to make a song a hit).

In 1969, Pride and his wife Rozene (whom he met and married in Memphis nearly 25 years ago, and who today oversees his businesses) moved to Dallas. Texas had always been a good state for Pride (“mighta been the best”), and Dallas “fitted everything we needed. You could get in and out from anywhere in the world even at that time. And the schools were good for the kids. Our kids were all born in the Rocky Mountains, so we checked to see what city back towards home in the South would have the least exposure to prejudice.”

Though not a joiner, Pride has, in his quietly aggressive way, established strong ties here. In addition to his 22,000-square-foot office building (which also houses a recording studio), he owns 247 acres of land near McKinney and several duplexes around Dallas. He has music publishing companies here and commercial real estate in Nashville. The sharecropper’s son has learned a thing or two about business.

AS FOR HIS own music, Pride is doing as well as ever in other countries, but he’s slipping in America. In Canada, a country of 24 million people, he recently sold 500,000 copies of one album; in Australia, a country of 15 million, he sells about 250,000 each time out. He dreams about selling to that percentage of the American population. But he hasn’t had a No. 1 single here since “Why Baby Why” in 1982, and his album sales have slipped steadily. Pride attributes this solely to RCA’s failure to distribute and promote his records properly: “To some extent I believe they took me for granted even when I was selling real good. Took for granted I was gonna do so much, and there wasn’t any need to do any push for me.”

By virtue of his color, Charley Pride is a trailblazer, even if few of his people have followed his trail. Musically, however, he clings to the past. “I am a traditionalist,” he says. He descends musically from Hank Williams and George Jones, not Kenny Rogers, and while he doesn’t mind a little “sweetening” on his records sometimes, the fiddle and steel guitar must dominate. In Nashville, where pop crossover is the name of the game, demand for traditionalists continues to shrink. If there were criticisms of Pride as a singer up till now, they were that he was loo smooth and that he made country music sound easier than it should, so there’s real irony in the fact that alongside (he new breed of singer like Rogers, he’s not smooth enough. Oddly, he doesn’t see that irony at all-swears it’s not even true, in fact-for this is a man who knows more about irony than the rest of us. It was only a little more than a decade ago, you see, that the sharecropper’s son from Mississippi bought the farm on which he grew up.


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