Charley Pride (born 1938) was country music's first African American star. For the past 25 years, Pride has been ranked among the top 15 best-selling recording artists of all time. During his career, he has had 36 number-one hit singles, and he has sold over 25 million albums. He has had 31 gold albums, 4 platinum albums, and 1 quadruple platinum album. Pride was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000, the highest honor a country musician can receive. As an RCA Records recording artist, Pride is second in sales only to Elvis Presley.
Mississippi Delta Childhood
Charl (mistakenly changed to "Charley" on his birth certificate) Frank Pride was born on March 18, 1938, in Sledge, Mississippi. Like many other Mississippi Delta towns, Sledge consisted only of little more than a "grocery store, a barber shop, a hardware and farm supply store, a general merchandise store, a café, and a gas station." In the pre-civil rights era that coincided with Pride's childhood, life for African Americans in the Mississippi Delta was strictly regulated by enforced codes of segregation that governed who could use rest rooms, attend schools, and purchase housing.
The fourth of eleven children—eight boys and three girls—Pride grew up in a family headed by Mack and Tessie B. Stewart Pride. Pride's parents worked as sharecroppers and picked cotton. The family shared a three-room tin and cracked-wood "shotgun" house, so named because a person could "fire a shotgun through the front door and out the back without hitting anything."
Although the Pride family was poor, Pride's mother insisted there were people with a lot more money who would give millions for what her son had. She pointed out to him, as an example, that he had all of his fingers and both eyes.
Pride and his siblings suffered frequent beatings at the hands of their father, a stern disciplinarian. Said Pride, "He showed concern for his children by using the strap to keep us on a straight and narrow path and he showed tenderness by protecting us and caring for us. We all survived the hardships of our youth and turned out to be reasonably solid citizens."
Charley's father, Mack Pride, was a deacon in the Baptist church, but Pride later said that it was his mother who seemed the more spiritual of his parents. In his autobiography, Pride: The Charley Pride Story, Pride said that he grew up not liking his father very much. "I loved him and there was a lot about him that I admired but I didn't like him," he wrote. Elsewhere in the book, Pride added, "Over time, I have come to realize that Daddy was not unfeeling; he was just unable to express his emotions in the normal way." But he went still further, saying, "However I account for him in my own mind, it doesn't change one thing—how much I regret that there was no warmth or tenderness between us."
As a young boy, Pride had little choice in how he spent his time and was made to pick cotton. In his autobiography, Pride recalled telling his father. "I just don't want to be a cotton picker, Daddy." His father reportedly replied, "You don't want to pick cotton? Well. What do you think you're going to do?"
Pride grew up listening to country music on the radio and learning the songs of Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. From the age of six, Pride became a devotee of the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. A neighbor began calling Charley "Mocking Bird" when the boy showed a reluctance to do much besides sing and play baseball. Although Pride dreamed of being a country music star, he was actually planning on becoming a baseball player.
At the age of 14, Pride bought a guitar from the Sears, Roebuck catalog after saving for most of year to buy it. He then began teaching himself to play a few chords. He eventually began mimicking songs on the radio, using his index finger as a capo and playing open bar chords. After he accidentally left his guitar outside one night in a heavy rain, he was forced to tinker with make-shift instruments, including a comb, for a while.
Between Baseball and Country Music
Pride's mother died in 1956. After her death, Pride's ties to Sledge, Mississippi, were largely severed. By his late teens, Pride had left home and traveled to Memphis. At 17, one day after entering a talent contest at Lave's Grand Theater in Memphis, Pride left for baseball training camp. He recalls having to walk seven miles to pitch nine innings, and then having to walk the seven miles back home again.
About this time, one of Pride's teammates asked him why he was not pursuing a career as a singer, and Pride told him, "I want to go to the major leagues. Years from now, when they ask who hit the most home runs, I don't want the answer to be Babe Ruth, I want it to be Charley Pride." Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in the major leagues in 1947, and by the mid-1950s every major league team had two or three black players on its roster.
In 1955, Pride joined the American Negro League, playing for Detroit, Michigan; Memphis, Tennessee; and Birmingham, Alabama. Pride met his wife Rozene, a cosmetologist from Oxford, Mississippi, while playing baseball in Memphis. The couple later had three children, Kraig, Dion, and Angela. Meanwhile, Pride's baseball career was interrupted by a two-year hitch in the service.
The Mighty Casey
In 1958, Pride resumed his career with the American Negro League, now playing for the Birmingham Black Barons. After Pride was cut from the Memphis team in 1959, he decided to go to Montana where he ended up taking a job at the Zinc Smelting Manning Company and playing semi-professional baseball at night. He also sang in a nightclub two nights a week.
Pride later said of his time in Montana, "Montana wasn't just geographically far removed from the South, but the thinking was pretty isolated too. When the sit-ins and boycotts and protest marches began in the south, guys I worked with would ask things like, 'What's going on with y'all down there.' "
By 1960, Pride had abandoned semi-professional baseball and the American Negro League for a Major League C-team. After rejections from the Angels, Pride tried the Mets, whose coach, the legendary Casey Stengel, told him, "We ain't running no damn tryout camp down here." Stengel went on to suggest that Pride go out in a cow pasture where someone else could look at him. Pride decided to give up a baseball career following that episode.
RCA Recording Contract
Returning home from the debacle with Casey Stengel, Pride auditioned for songwriter and record producer Jack Clement in Memphis. Chet Atkins, then vice-president of RCA recording in Nashville, was sufficiently impressed with Pride that he offered him an RCA recording contract.
In 1966, Pride was named best country and western male vocalist after having recorded 13 songs. By 1975, he released 22 records, and had 12 gold singles. Among his most popular recordings were "Snakes Crawl at Night" and "Just Between You and Me."
In 1968, Pride was hospitalized following a USO tour with symptoms of manic depression that included an inability to sleep, delusions, and hyper-activity. Told that he would need to take medication for the rest of his life, Pride refused. After the symptoms recurred in 1982 though, Pride began taking lithium carbonate to control his manic swings. He then stopped taking the medication after he developed a skin rash that he thought was a lithium side-effect, but after another episode in 1989, he finally came to terms with his need to take the medication. Pride explained in his autobiography, "I've taken lithium regularly for the past few years and have had no further bouts with manic depression. I've always been a hyper person, one who needed to be doing something physical all the time. I had difficulty sitting through business meetings or any other sedentary activity. I'm still that way, but I run on an even keel—no wild highs, no migraines, and no imagining things that aren't there. And I sleep very well."
In 1969, Pride scored his first number one single with the release of "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)." Over the next 15 years, he would go on to top the charts with more than 36 number one country singles, bringing him within close range of becoming Billboard magazine's all-time record holder in that category.
Some of Pride's songs, like "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," are now considered classics. Other big hits have included "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone?," "I'm So Afraid of Losing You Again," "Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta Town," "Someone Loves You Honey," "When I Stop Leaving I'll Be Gone," "Burgers and Fries," "Mountain of Love," and "You're So Good When You're Bad." "Kiss An Angel Good Morning" helped Pride capture Country Music Association's awards as Entertainer of the Year (1971) and Top Male Vocalist (1971, 1972).
By the 1980s, Pride was dividing his time between his careers as musician and businessman. His business activities then included banking, broadcasting, and real estate. He holds the most shares in Texas's largest minority owned bank and has real estate holdings across the country. He also owns a music publishing company and a production company.
On May 1, 1993, Pride was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, where he had first performed 26 years earlier. Pride received the Academy of Country Music's Pioneer Award in 1994, the same year he released his autobiography, Pride: The Charley Pride Story. Pride opened the 2000-seat Charley Pride Theatre in Branson, Missouri, in June 1994. He performed there for four years, doing approximately 200 shows a year.
Pride received the Trumpet Award from Turner Broadcasting in January 1996 in recognition of his outstanding achievement as an African American. The state of Mississippi adopted his "Roll On Mississippi" as its official song and named a stretch of highway in the state for him. Also that year, he performed in a special Christmas program at the White House for President and Mrs. Clinton. In 2000, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Pride still works out each year with the Texas Rangers baseball team, fulfilling a boyhood aspiration. He also enjoys playing golf when he is not on tour or recording.
Besides the U.S., Pride has performed in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Fiji, and Canada. He frequently appears on USO tours, entertaining military personnel stationed overseas. Once during a USO tour, after being heckled by black soldiers for singing country music, Pride told the mixed race audience, "I'm singing for my brothers on this side of the room, and for my brothers on this side. I told you in the beginning. I'm not James Browne. I'm not Sam Cooke. I'm Charley Pride, country singer. I'm just me and that's what you get."
Pride currently splits his time between his homes in Dallas, Texas, and Branson, Missouri.
Pride, Charley, (with Jim Henderson), Pride: The Charley Pride Story, William Morrow and Company, 1994.
"Charley Pride," http://www.charleypride.com/ (January 2003).
"Charley Pride," http://www.topblacks.com/entertainment/charlie-pride.htm (January 2003).