Charley Pride - Sixty Years Young

First Published in Country Music International, April 1998

Over 30 years in the music business, Charley Pride has scored more than 50 Top Ten country hits, contributed considerable time and money to helping other black Americans, and built up his Cecca empire with his wife Rozene. Now approaching his 60th birthday he tells Alan Cackett, “I just cannot sit still.”

“We’ve been trying for the past 20 years to have a country that can pride itself on all of us being equal. One day it will happen,” says Charley Pride, country music’s most famous black star.

First and foremost an American, then a member of the black community, Pride believes that eventually racial prejudice will disappear. And over the years, he has played his part in promoting social equality, albeit in an unobtrusive manner. He has given countless hours to the United Negro College Fund and personally underwritten the education of a number of black students throughout the South.

For much of his career, however, Pride has stood aside from the black music community, which shunned him for his failure to publicly stand up for black people’s rights. But in 1991, he finally received long-overdue recognition from the black entertainment community when he was presented with a Celebrate The Soul of American Music Award in a ceremony in Los Angeles. It was a star-studded evening that saw similar accolades go to James Brown, Little Richard, BB King, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Etta James. 

Though Pride may not have always been particularly vocal about his views on equality, through his own ambition to succeed in country music, he flung open the doors for many black performers, such as Dobie Gray, Big Al Downing, Linda Martell, Stoney Edwards, and more recently, Cleve Francis.

The importance of that breakthrough was also recognised with the recent release of FROM WHERE I STAND: THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN COUNTRY MUSICa CD set produced by the Country Music Foundation and released through Warner Brothers. Pride was involved in the project from the outset and has four of his most pivotal recordings included.

I haven’t had a chance to hear all that’s on it,” he says, “but I think they have done a real good job. It shows the way things have happened with all those guys – Stoney Edwards, Cleve Francis and Dobie Gray.”

Approaching his 60th birthday, Pride could easily have taken an early retirement long before now, having earned himself a substantial fortune through both his musical interests and his other business concerns. But not Charley Pride. When not on the road, he can most often be found in the Dallas offices of his management company Cecca, over which he presides along with his wife Rozene.

“I do sometimes feel that it is time for me to start slowing down a bit,” he says. “My mother-in-law told me the other day: ‘Let me tell you something, iron wears out.’ But I'm just one of those who cannot sit still, cannot take it easy.”

Pride is chatting to CMI from his hotel in Florida, where he is visiting for his annual baseball pre-season spring training. And although it’s only 7.30am, he has already completed an early morning workout. Hardly stopping for breath and with one eye on the clock he explains: “I just arrived yesterday and I'm gonna be here, hopefully off and on, for the next two weeks.”

Pride, who speaks with a cultured southern drawl, displays none of the pushy nature so common in successful entertainers. Yet, over the past three decades, he has achieved phenomenal success—from 1967’s Just Between You And Me to 1987’s Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This, Pride amassed more than 50 top ten country hits.

It is clear from speaking to the singer that this success has been the result of good old-fashioned graft. “My schedule calls for the spring training from the 10th through the 24th,” he explains, “I’ll be in for four days, and then I'll head for Myrtle Beach for my first concert of the year—although I have done the Grand Ole Opry three times already.”

Baseball is Pride’s big passion outside of music. Born in Sledge, Mississippi, he grew up in the state’s cottonfields. Despite the hardships of the 1940s, he has always enjoyed a sense of self-worth and self-assurance and he decided early in life that the right direction for him was any direction that would carry him off the farm.

“When I was about 12 I started getting real interested in baseball,” he recalls. “People would say to me I'd never make it in baseball, and when you are growing up and people keep telling you these things, you start believing them. But you come to a point in your life when you stop for a minute and really think—is this true or not? I decided it was not going to be true for me. I wasn’t the best, but I wasn’t the worst. If I could really work at it, maybe I could make it in baseball. It was a –my way out of the cottonfields.”

His baseball aspirations were real, not just dreams. By 1955, still in his teens, Pride was playing in the Negro American Leagues for teams in Detroit, Memphis and Birmingham. He met his wife of 41 years, Rozene, in Memphis and they married in Hernando, Mississippi on December 28, 1956. At this time, Rozene worked as a beautician, while Pride played ball for the Memphis Red Sox.

The couple raised three children, Kraig, Dion and Angela, as Pride worked out his military service, before being signed by a class C baseball team in Great Falls, Montana. He got a major league tryout with the Los Angeles Angels, but was unsuccessful, so returned to Great Falls. Between baseball seasons, he worked by day as a smelter and earned extra cash as an entertainer in local night clubs. Occasionally, at the ballpark, he would perform between innings.

In 1963 country star Red Sovine saw Pride perform and was impressed. He urged Pride to go to Nashville and try a different career, but so long as his baseball hopes remained alive, Pride wouldn’t give up that dream. However, following a fruitless and frustrating tryout with the New York Mets in 1964, he finally decided to retire the glove, and at the age of 26, Pride set his sights on Music City.

“Country music made an impression on me when I was five or six years old,” Pride remembers. “My family, and that included all the kids, would pick cotton all week, then on Saturday nights we would gather round an old Philco radio and tune into the Grand Ole Opry. I heard the music and got hung up on it. As I got older, I'd join the rest of the family in singing along with the radio.”

“I just thought it was natural that everybody could sing,” he recalls. “But after I left home I discovered that some people can run faster than others, and some cane sing better too.”

Blessed with a rich and emotive voice, Pride managed to forge a career in a previously all-white domain. “I’m not the only black man who loves country music,” he says. “There are thousands, like my father, who’ve listened to the Grand Old Opry regularly for years.”

According to Pride, he had no particular intention of breaking down the colour barrier in country music because he had never really been aware of it. “It wasn’t until I got to Nashville that it was pointed out to me that I was the first,” he says. “Before that it had eluded me. I had been singing country for so long, just for the love of it ...”

One of the reasons Pride achieved such success reflected the versatility of his voice. His pitch is perfect and can lull the listener seductively or whip them into a frenzy at the drop of a guitar pick. He even yodels a bit too. Not very well, perhaps, but enough to get by with most listeners. Even in the days of lush strings and countrypolitan arrangements, Pride always maintained a traditional country sound. Even today, while most country acts rely on blazing electric guitars and screaming fiddles, his six-piece band, The Pridesmen, play the same pure Nashville sound, with restrained steel and fiddle; effortlessly and faultlessly complementing his rich, deep voice.

A fascinating, at times enigmatic character, Pride is a true superstar in the field of simple, beautiful, basic country music. In the early days, the songs he recorded had to be chosen with particular care. He was a black man singing to southern white women, so his love songs stuck to themes of mother and family, he rarely sang about drinking and slipping around.

Pride grew up listening to the masters—Ernest Tubbs, Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, BB King, Sam Cooke and Brook Benton—and having learned his craft, he struck out on his own. The album he is most proud of is THERE’S A LITTLE BIT OF HANK IN ME, a memorable tribute to Hank Williams.

“I’d like to do some more albums like that,” he says. “My salute to people like Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins. Some people thought I did a pretty good job on the tribute to Hank Williams and think I could do just as much justice to those two.”

In time, Pride probably will make those tribute albums. He's that kind of man—he’s always set his own goals. One of those goals was to become an internationally known artist. He made his first trip to Europe back in 1968, right at the beginning of his career, and has maintained a large and loyal European fan base ever since. This is a lesson from which many of the new breed of country stars could learn.

Pride has performed regularly in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Fiji. He topped the Australian charts a couple of years ago with a revival of Clarence Frogman Henry’s r&b hit But I Do and also scored last year on the New Zealand pop charts with a specially compiled 30th anniversary album. Jetting around the world can take its toll, but Pride takes it all in his stride, never once allowing tiredness to infiltrate his music or performances. “I’ve never let that kind of attitude slip into my thinking,” he says, “because I've always felt that if I start to think that way, it would filter right up on the stage and right out to my audience.”

The strain did take its toll on his main asset, his voice. “I had surgery on my vocal chords back in November,” he says. “So I’m just getting to where I can sound like myself again. The way I've been used to all my life.” 

For more than 30 years Pride has been in the big league of music. He has been lucky enough to take his love of music into the hearts and homes of millions of people around the world. But like so many veteran country stars, he doesn’t have a current record label. Though he isn’t looking for a major record deal, he’s keeping his options open and is certainly not anticipating retirement.

“It frustrates me that I've got no new records out myself, but I have done some recordings with a young black fellow, Trini Triggs, on Curb Records. He asked me to come and sing on his album. The thing is, I just love what I do. It’s competitive and it’s hard, but I love it.”