Charley Pride turned 70 on March 18. You should know this. Everyone should know this. When Johnny Cash hit that milestone in 2002, his record labels past and present staged a yearlong celebration. Virtually every album Cash had recorded up until that point was reissued, with previously unreleased songs included on the discs and glowing essays tucked into the CD booklets. Willie Nelson got the same treatment as he approached his 70th the next year. It was the proper way to celebrate the lives and legacies of two country music icons.
Charley Pride should have been treated to a similar celebration. He’s a country music icon, too. But RCA Records, his home for two decades, let March 18 pass without comment. No bonus tracks were unearthed. No appreciative treatises about his long and illustrious career were written. Nothing.
Maybe there was some confusion on RCA’s part regarding Pride’s status as an icon in the genre. Let’s clear it up. With somewhere around 70 million albums and singles sold, Pride is second in all-time sales on RCA, behind only Elvis Presley. Between his first in 1969 (“All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)”) and his last in 1984 (“Every Heart Should Have One”), he had more than two dozen No. 1 hits on the Billboard country singles chart. He’s the only black singer in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Those are merely the highlights.
I know all this because I’m a fan. My parents introduced me to his music when I was a kid. I also know Pride’s accomplishments because I’m standing next to him on a practice field at the Texas Rangers’ spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona, and Pride, outfitted in a full Rangers uniform, is telling it to me—again. He gave me the same speech two weeks ago on the phone, while he was at the airport waiting to board a flight to Ireland. At this point in his life, Pride is his own biographer, telling his story because no one else will.
But on this glorious February morning, he’s just a ballplayer, same as he was when he left the cotton fields of Sledge, Mississippi, as a teenager, bound for the Negro Leagues and later, he imagined, history.
It didn’t work out that way. The pitcher and switch-hitting outfielder made it as far as spring training with the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961. “But at least I got there,” he says. “I didn’t stay, but galdurnit, I had something.”
These days, he contents himself with yearly stops at spring training. Pride began doing this in the early 1970s with the Milwaukee Brewers, on the recommendation of singer Roy Clark, who used to train with the Baltimore Orioles. A couple of years later, the Rangers invited him to start working out with their squad instead, and three decades later, he still makes the trip every February. This is his vacation, but he says, “I work my can off.” He’ll spend the next week or two mostly on his own, then a couple of weeks mixing it up with the team. For a long time, Pride could have passed for a player. Now, though he’s tall and fit, albeit a bit thicker in the middle than he used to be, someone’s more likely to mistake him for manager Ron Washington.
And in Surprise, the players are still respectful to a fault, but his presence isn’t as big of a deal as it once was. A couple of the black players have gravitated to Pride, trading shoulder bumps with him to and from the clubhouse. Kevin Mench stops to talk to him, but he’s been around forever. Michael Young, the dutiful face of the franchise, slows down for a moment to ask Pride about his morning workout. That’s about it. Pride is older than most of their fathers. He’s older than many of their grandfathers.
He runs for 15 or 20 minutes, before stopping to stretch. A group of players in shorts and long-sleeved t-shirts walks by. They notice Pride working, watching him strangely, eyebrows raised, heads cocked. He’s twisting his torso at the waist, arms outstretched. It does look a little odd. “That’s my golf swing,” he says when he notices them noticing. They laugh and keep walking.
Pride starts running again, really running now, wrapping up his morning on a high. This is what Pride has been doing for the past 20 years, on this field and everywhere else. Running as fast as he can to show them all—the players who seem to stay the same age, the music business that would prefer it if everyone stayed the same age—that, galdurnit, he’s still got something.
His workout over, Pride collects his things and heads back to the clubhouse. Suddenly, the ballplayer leaves, and the singer returns. The Charley Pride everyone knows is singing “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” his biggest hit and his signature song.
But the voice isn’t coming from the man in the Texas Rangers uniform. It’s his cell phone. “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” is his ring tone.
You know, just to remind everyone within earshot.
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It’s impossible to squeeze the entirety of Charley Pride’s four decades (and counting) in the music business into a brief magazine profile. If you want that, read the book he wrote in 1994 with Jim Henderson, Pride: The Charley Pride Story. But we can talk about how he got here, the moments that illuminate the path.
Baseball was through with Pride before he was through with baseball. He tried to hook on with the New York Mets in 1963 but couldn’t even get a tryout. That was fine. By then Pride had already made inroads on a country music career. After a two-year hitch in the Army ended in 1958, he and his wife, Rozene, settled in Helena, Montana, where Pride worked in a zinc smelter and played semi-pro baseball, occasionally singing for fans between innings. He began singing a couple of nights a week at clubs in Helena. Pride, who learned to play guitar by mimicking the songs he heard on Grand Ole Opry broadcasts as a teenager, had always performed for his teammates on long bus trips. But this was something different. This was stepping away from one world and into another.
The club gigs brought Pride to the attention of country DJ Tiny Stokes. Stokes got him on the bill for a 1962 concert in Helena featuring Grand Ole Opry stars Red Foley and Red Sovine. Pride performed two songs that night, “Heartaches by the Number” and the Hank Williams classic “Lovesick Blues.” They might have been the two most important songs he ever sang.
Those two songs led to an invitation (from Sovine) to look him up in Nashville whenever he decided to get serious about a singing career. Those two songs led him to Cedarwood, Webb Pierce’s powerful Nashville publishing concern, where he found Jack Johnson, his longtime manager. That led him to producer Jack Clement, who just so happened to be looking for a black singer, and Clement led him to RCA Records. So, yeah, they were important.
But it wasn’t that easy. At first, Clement wanted to dress Pride in gimmicky stage wear and change his name to George Washington III. Pride wouldn’t have it. He would go along up to a point; that was too far. After that was settled, there were other, more substantial obstacles. Chet Atkins, the hugely successful guitarist and head man at RCA Victor, initially refused Clement’s entreaties to sign Pride to the label, though he liked what he heard. An album by a black country singer was (and mostly still is) unheard of. He wasn’t sure what to do with it. Neither did the other labels Clement contacted.
“Then I ran into Chet one day by the Coke machine at RCA,” Clement says. “He asked me what I had done with that colored boy, and I said I haven’t done anything yet, that I’m thinking about pressing it out myself. And he said, well, uh, I’ve been thinking about this, and we might be passing up another Elvis Presley.”
Atkins was more right than he knew. After his first two singles failed to chart, RCA issued Pride’s “Just Between You and Me” in 1967. It landed in the Top Ten. His next single, “I Know One,” scored Pride another Top Ten hit. Those two singles kicked off an almost unprecedented run of success. It ramped up in 1969 with Pride’s first No. 1 single, “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me).” It reached its zenith in 1971, when “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” led him to the top of the country music world; he was named Entertainer of the Year and Top Male Vocalist at the Country Music Association awards. He stayed there for the rest of the decade. Within a few years after his first release, Pride had eight No. 1 records (including “I’d Rather Love You,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” and “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again”), ranking him in the top 10 of country acts with the most No. 1s.
His race was irrelevant. His talent wasn’t.
As Atkins told Esquire’s Melvin Shestack in 1971, “Put Charley Pride on the worst P.A. system in the country, and it doesn’t matter. He’ll penetrate. That’s greatness. Few have it. Charley does.”
My parents can attest to that. They saw Pride open for Merle Haggard in Wichita Falls somewhere around 1967 or ’68. They were blown away both by his performance and what happened after it was over. Haggard took the stage late and clearly drunk. He made it through maybe half of one song before cursing at his band and the crowd—and then walking off the stage. Pride came back out and did another set, saving the day and making everyone’s night. The story should be about the time they saw Merle Haggard drunkenly storm off a stage. That’s the way I would tell it. But to them, it’s always about the night they saw Charley Pride.
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