“I perform in places where I’m the only African-American and I’ve never had a bad experience. The problem is not with the fans, it’s with the executives – they’re trying to go with what’s worked before, and they’re trying to keep their job.” — Carl Ray
For over a century of its existence, country music has been reputed for its exceptional quality as a genre of music — its ability to tell a story and exude emotion. However, with all its beauty, sentiment and honesty, country music, is also renowned as “white people music.” Sad but true, it is an unfortunate idea and labels that only results in the division of fans and keeps the genre stuck in banal stereotypes and cliches.
Not only are the fans concerned in this argument but in most parts, label executives and record producers also take part in this trite. In fact, African-American singer Carl Ray attested to this and said it best when he had an interview with The Guardian (his statement as mentioned earlier).
One of the most popular country music stars who have African-American roots is the great Charley Frank Pride who hails from the state of Mississippi. Charley Pride is known for being a singer-songwriter, musician, recording artist, performer, businessman, and a former baseball player. But, it was being one of the voices in country music that he is most passionate about.
Pride’s professional career started as early as the mid-60’s while the limelight shone on him in the early 70’s. By then, he became a popular black country music performer and has influenced many other artists of African origin all over the country. In addition, he became the best-selling performer for RCA Records since Elvis Presley in the 70’s.
During the peak of his career, Pride earned a total of 52 Top Ten Hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Forty of these songs made it to number-one. Since then, he has traveled across the country promoting his music, albums, and concerts. Also, he appeared with other country music stars alike, most notably with Brad Paisley.
As a matter of fact, Pride is one of only three singers of African-American descent along with DeFord Bailey and Darius Rucker to have been inducted at the Grand Ole Opry.
Charley Pride’s Humble Beginnings
Born on March 18, 1934, Charley Pride was one of the 11 children of poor farmers and sharecroppers. He had seven brothers and three sisters. Originally, his father intended to name him Charl Frank Pride. However, his name became legally Charley Frank Pride because of a clerical error. He grew up in a small town in Sledge, Mississippi.
As early as childhood, Charley showed interest in music. He was primarily exposed to Gospel, Blues, and Country Music. He notes his father as a big influence and the one who fostered his love for country music. At age 14, Charley bought his very first guitar and taught himself how to play it by listening to the songs that he heard on that radio.
At 16, he became a promising and talented baseball player. He played amateur baseball for the Iowa State League and professional games in the Negro American League as a pitcher and outfielder for the Memphis Red Sox. In 1953, he signed a contract with the Boise Yankees, the Class C farm team of the New York Yankees. However, an unprecedented incident happened. During that season, he had an injury severing his pitching.
Three years later, in 1956, Charley married Rozene Cohran. He had met her earlier in the year while playing baseball in Memphis.
A Career That Spanned for Decades
In 1994, Charley Pride mused in his autobiography that though he loved music, one of his life dreams was to become a professional baseball player. In his 20’s through 30’s, he played in baseball tournaments. Unfortunately, because of an injury he had while pitching the ball, he was forced to put his baseball career to hiatus. This led him to pursue and continue the long time overdue love for music.
Soon, Charley’s singing talent got the attention of his team manager. He paid Charley to sing for 15 minutes before each game. This increased attendance and earned Pride another $10 on top of the $10 he earned for each game. Also, he worked at a smelting factory. His job there was difficult and dangerous. In fact, he broke his ankle one time while he was working. His job also required him to unload coal from railroad cars and shovel it into a 2,400 °F furnace. This task frequently gave him burns. In an interview in 2014, Charley explained:
“I would work at the smelter, work the swing shift and then play music. I’d work 11-7. Drive. Play Friday. Punch in. Drive. Polson. Philipsburg.”
Between his smelter job and his music, he made a good living in the Helena area. He and his family moved and joined him in Helena until 1967. They then moved to Great Falls, Montana by the end of the year. By that time, Charley’s music career started to take off.
In 1969, they ultimately left Montana and moved to Texas. Two years before, his wife, Rozene Pride admitted Helena Independent Record that they have encountered minor racism in Montana. She cited an incident where they were refused service in a restaurant and another time when a realtor refused to show them a home. However, she felt that the family endured less racism than she saw leveled against local Native American people, whose treatment she compared to that given to black people in the South.
On the other hand, Charley spoke with fondness and said:
“Montana is a very conservative state…I stood out like a neon. But once they let you in, you become a Montanan. When the rumor was that I was leaving. They kept saying, ‘we will let you in, you can’t leave.’”
10 Greatest Hits of Charley Pride
This is the quintessential Charley Pride song and belongs in the top slot on any 10 best songs list. It hit the national charts in 1971 and slid right up to the number one slot. The song is only 2 minutes and 2 seconds long. It was his eighth song to make that position in his career. A fan favorite and biggest hit of his career was the 1971 release of “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.” It became his eighth no. 1 song on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, where it stayed for five weeks. The song also crossed over as a Top 40 Pop hit reaching no. 21, and made it to the top of the Adult Contemporary charts by 1972.
Notable lyrics: “I’ve always got a smiling face. Anytime and anyplace. And every time they ask me why, I just smile and say you’ve got to kiss an angel good morning.”
On August 9, 1969, Charley Pride received his first Billboard # 1 hit with “All I Have to Offer You Is Me.” It would turn out to be the first of a coinciding three-year string of eight #1 songs in a row on the US Country Hit Parade. Others that charted in the Billboard Hot 100 included: “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again,” “I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me,” “I’d Rather Love You,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore?,” “I’m Just Me,” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin.” RCA released The Best of Charley Pride, a compilation album that earned him a gold disc after reaching sales of over one million. The album also boosted his prior less known songs single sales.
Notable lyrics: “Before you take another step there’s something you should know. About the years ahead and how they’ll be. You’ll be living in a world where roses hardly ever grow, cause all I have to offer you is me.”
This is one of the many signature Charley Pride tunes. The line in the song “But I’d rather fight the wind and rain than what I’ve been fighting at home” pretty much sums up the helplessness that the singer is feeling.
Notable lyrics: “Rain dripping off the brim of my hat. It sure is cold today. And here I am’a walking down sixty-six. Wish she hadn’t done me that way”
4. “Crystal Chandeliers“
While country music dancers enjoyed “Crystal Chandeliers” at every western dance hall in the United States, little did they know that the song became sort of a uniting anthem overseas. During the 1976 violence within Northern Ireland, Pride bravely decided to do what other performers wouldn’t. He traveled into the Belfast in November and performed at the Ritz Cinema. This coincided with the UK release of “Crystal Chandeliers” as single. Pride consequently became a champion to all sides of the battles.
Notable Lyrics: “I never did fit in too well with the folks you knew, and it’s plain to see that the likes of me don’t fit with you.”
5. “Just Between You and Me”
“This will always be a favorite of mine,” Pride said. “It was my first ever record to hit the Billboard (Hot Country Singles) Chart and gave me the shot in the arm I needed to go forward.” His first single, “Snake Crawl at Night” debuted in January 1966. He released another, “Before I Met You” in June. Neither made the charts. But the December release of “Just Between You and Me” hit the airwaves big and by Spring of 1967, it peaked at #9. The song continues to be a most requested during his concerts.
Notable lyrics: “So I feel so blue sometimes I wanna die and so I’ve got a broken heart so what.”
The opening line “I want to share your life, every minute every day and night” lets the listeners know that he is willing to do whatever he can to hang on to his woman.
Notable lyrics: “Someone loves you, honey. No matter what, just be my guy. Someone loves you, honey. More than anything in the world.”
In 1968, the album Charlie Pride in Person was released featuring the Hank Williams classic, “Kaw-Liga.” The Williams and Fred Rose penned song reached #4 in the Country charts for Pride. It became a crowd favorite at concerts and dance halls throughout the US.
This song was written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose and become a staple of Charley’s live shows. It is a song about a stone-faced cigar store Indian figure. Fans often waited to see how long he would hold the notes. The song is a must have for any of his fans and is on every 10 best songs list.
Notable Lyrics: “Poor ol’ Kaw-Liga well he never got a kiss. Poor ol’ Kaw-Liga he don’t know what he missed”
8. “Mountain of Love”
This was produced by country mega-producer Norro Wilson and quickly reached the number one position. It has been recorded by many artists. An interesting sidenote is that the writer who released the song in 1959 came from Charley’s home state of Mississippi. This 1981 release reached #1 in the Country charts and tells the story of a heartbroken man peering down from a mountainside to the city below knowing that his former lover was getting married. It was released on the album Everybody’s Choice, which included “I Don’t Think She’s In Love Anymore” and “You’re So Good When You’re Bad.”
Notable lyrics: “Teardrops are fallin’ down the mountainside. Many times I’ve been here and many times I cried. We used to be so happy, when we were in love, high on a mountain of love.”
9. “The Snakes Crawl At Night”
RCA Victor released this song in January 1966 as Charley Pride’s first single after Chet Atkins signed him to the label the prior year. It received moderate airplay but did not move far up the charts. Because Pride was African-American, producers chose not to place his picture or likeness on any advertising or media, including record or album covers. He was introduced to the Country Music world as “Country Charley Pride.”
Notable lyrics: “So I waited in the shadows until morning and the gun I held was trembling in my hand. No I did not plan to give them any warning, ’cause the devil on my shoulder had command.”
10. “(I Am So) Afraid Of Losing You Again”
This 1969 song went to #1 in the Country Charts and crossed into the Pop charts peaking at #74. It was the highest selling single from his Just Plain Charley album.
Notable lyrics: “Sometimes I want to throw my arms around you, then I tremble at the thought of giving in because I know how much it cost to love you and I’m so afraid of losing you again.”
Country music, without its trite stereotypes and cliches, will always remain to be a music for all people. Like Charley Pride, he is one of those who has bridged the gap between the whites and blacks through country music. Indeed, there is no such thing as the music of just a certain people. What is more important is that music encompasses all; it is a celebration of the gift from God no matter one’s color, background, status, and gender. Let country music be a music of love, for everyone and for all.
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