Becoming a trailblazing Country Music superstar was an improbable destiny for Charley Pride considering his humble beginnings as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi. His unique journey to the top of the music charts includes a detour through the world of Negro league, minor league and semi-pro baseball as well as hard years of labor alongside the vulcanic fires of a smelter. But in the end, with boldness, perseverance and undeniable musical talent, he managed to parlay a series of fortuitous encounters with Nashville insiders into an amazing legacy of hit singles and tens of millions in record sales.
Growing up, Charley was exposed primarily to Blues, Gospel and Country music. His father inadvertently fostered Charley’s love of Country music by tuning the family’s Philco radio to Nashville’s WSM-AM in order to catch Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. At 14 years of age, Charley purchased his first guitar—a Silvertone from a Sears Roebuck catalog—and taught himself how to play it by listening to the songs that he heard on that radio.
By the age of 16, Charley began emerging as a talented baseball player. He first played organized games in the Iowa State League and then 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. But during that season a shoulder injury hampered his pitching. He was first sent to the Yankees’ Class D team in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and then released. Over the next several years, Charley rejoined the Memphis Red Sox, moved to the Louisville Clippers and then was sold, along with another player, to the Birmingham Black Barons in order to fund a replacement for the Clippers’ broken-down team bus. He also played for the El Paso Kings and the Yaquis in Nogales, Mexico. Upon rejoining the Memphis Red Sox in 1956 he won 14 games as a pitcher and earned himself a position on the Negro American League All-Star Team. It was during the 1956 season that Charley transitioned into a knuckleball pitcher—he had cracked a bone in his elbow early in the season but had managed to recover quickly enough to rejoin the team during the latter half of the season.
As an all-star player in 1956, Charley played against a group of major-league players (the Willie Mays All‑Stars) that included Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. At the end of the season, these teams barnstormed together all over the south playing exhibition games that the major-league all-stars almost always won. However, one October night in Victoria, TX, Charley sealed a rare victory for the negro-league all-stars by closing out a game with 4 innings of shutout ball.
In late 1956 Charley was drafted by Uncle Sam and ordered to report to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas for basic training. During Christmas leave from basic training, he married his wife Rozene, whom he had met earlier in the year while playing baseball in Memphis. After basic training, he was stationed at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was assigned to quartermaster duty and the baseball team. While serving at Ft. Carson, Charley was known to sing in the barracks and occasionally perform at the officer’s club (which was very unusual for a black man at the time).
The fort’s baseball squad was stacked with baseball talent in 1957 and won the “All Army” sports championship at a tournament at Ft. Knox. In addition to Pride, the team included several other players who had been playing or would go on to play professionally, including George Altman (Cubs, Cardinals, Mets), Willie Kirkland (Giants, Indians, Orioles, Senators), Eddie Kopacz and J.C. Hartman.
Upon receiving his discharge from the US Army in early 1958, Charley rejoined the Memphis Red Sox and returned to doggedly pursuing his dream of becoming a major league baseball pitcher. As an all-star player again that year, Charley pitched against major league all-stars including Al Smith, Gene Baker and Ernie Banks.
In 1958, he also made his first attempt to launch his singing career. Charley dropped by 706 Union Avenue in Memphis with his guitar and cut a professionally recorded demo at Sun Studio. Several takes were recorded on a song titled “There’s My Baby (Walkin’)”, a thinly disguised adaption of the 1957 pop hit “The Stroll” by the Diamonds. For better or worse, Charley was still trying to find his voice as a singer and the demo didn’t prove very helpful in furthering his aspirations as a music artist at the time.
In 1960, Charley moved to Montana to play for the Missoula Timberjacks in the Pioneer League, but ended up working at a smelter operated by the Anaconda Mining Company and playing for its semi-pro baseball team, the East Helena Smelterites. In 1961, he was invited to try out for the Los Angeles Angels during spring training but found himself heading back home to Helena, Montana after just two weeks in camp.
During the first half of the 1960’s, Charley continued to work at the smelter and play baseball for its semi-pro team. But he also began making a name for himself as a local performer by singing the national anthem at baseball games and performing at honky-tonks, churches and nightclubs in the Helena, Anaconda and Great Falls areas. In 1962, with the help of Tiny Stokes, a local disc jockey, Charley was introduced to Country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley and invited to perform “Lovesick Blues” and “Heartaches By The Number” during one of their shows. This brief initial encounter with Red Sovine would turn out to be crucial in laying the groundwork for Charley’s future music career.
After a disastrous 1963 tryout with the New York Mets in Clearwater, Florida it became clear that a major league baseball career was not in the cards. Charley chose to return to Montana via Tennessee because Red Sovine had told him that if he ever became serious about a singing career and decided to visit Nashville, he should stop by Cedarwood Publishing, the company that booked Sovine’s shows.
From the Greyhound bus station in Nashville, Charley walked over to Cedarwood’s office and by sheer luck ended up meeting Jack Johnson, who had been actively searching for a promising black Country singer. Johnson made a simply produced recording of Charley performing a couple of songs and then drove him straight back to the bus station with the promise of a management contract. Johnson quickly made good on that promise and it was the beginning of a working relationship that would start off slow, but prove to be very fruitful over the next decade.
While Johnson attempted to stir up interest in Nashville, Charley continued to perform in and around the Montana area. Sometimes he performed as a solo artist and other times as a member of a combo or group. One of these groups, The Night Hawks, was an unusually progressive Country music ensemble for the 1960s. Founded by a young guitarist named Jimmy Owen, the group featured Charley on guitar and vocals, Jimmy’s father George on steel guitar and a 14 year old girl by the name of Monty Cowles on the drums!
In Nashville, Johnson ran into significantly more resistance than he had anticipated as he shopped around the crude demo recording that he had made of Charley to the record labels. It wasn’t until 1965 that forward progress was made. Charley returned to Nashville and Johnson introduced him to producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Clement gave Charley seven songs to learn and within a week they cut two of these songs – “The Snakes Crawl At Night” and “Atlantic Coastal Line” – during a split studio session with top-notch session players.
Even with the professionally produced sides, Johnson and Clement continued to have a difficult time as they shopped Charley around to the Nashville labels. But finally in 1966, Chet Atkins, the legendary guitarist and a rising executive at RCA Records, decided to trust his ears and with his backing RCA signed Charley. Atkins took Charley under his wing, nurtured his talent and spearheaded a shrewd promotional campaign that addressed the racial challenges of mid 1960s America.
Charley’s first two singles, “The Snakes Crawl At Night” and “Before I Met You”, set the groundwork for “Just Between You and Me”, which caught fire in 1967, breaking into the Top-10 Country chart and garnering Charley his first GRAMMY® nomination. What happened next is Country Music history. Charley Pride quickly became Country Music’s first black superstar. Between 1967 and 1987, he amassed no fewer than 52 Top-10 Country hits and went on to sell tens of millions of records worldwide. In 1971, Charley won two GRAMMY® Awards related to his Gospel album DID YOU THINK TO PRAY–“Best Sacred Performance, Musical (Non-Classical)” for the album, as well as “Best Gospel Performance Other Than Soul” for the single “Let Me Live.” Later that year, his #1 crossover hit “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” sold over a million singles and helped him to win the Country Music Association’s (CMA) “Entertainer of the Year” award and the “Top Male Vocalist” awards of 1971 and 1972. It also brought him a “Best Male Country Vocal Performance” GRAMMY® Award in 1972. Some of Charley’s unforgettable hits from the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s include “All I Have To Offer You Is Me,” “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone,” “Amazing Love,” “Mississippi Cotton Pickin’ Delta Town,” “Burgers And Fries,” “Roll On Mississippi” and “Mountain Of Love.” After parting ways with RCA Records in 1986, Charley spent the remainder of the decade releasing albums on the 16th Avenue Records label.
Charley wrote an autobiography in the early 1990s, with the assistance of Jim Henderson, called PRIDE: THE CHARLEY PRIDE STORY. That book covers the events of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in significantly more detail.
In 1993, Pride was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, 26 years after he had first played there as a guest. Charley is always quick to point out that he’d always had an open invitation to join the Opry from as early as his first appearance in 1967. “It was purely an economical decision for me. When I was first invited to join the Opry, they had a requirement at the time that you had to perform 26 Saturdays per year. Fridays and Saturdays were the best days for drawing people to shows and making money out on the road–and my career was starting to take off. So I had to politely decline.”
Many of Pride’s other honors clearly underscore his impact on American Music. In 1994, he was honored by the Academy Of Country Music (ACM) with its prestigious Pioneer Award. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And in 2017, The Recording Academy®, renowned for its GRAMMY® awards, honored Charley with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
As an international superstar, Charley has performed all over the world and continues to tour regularly in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, The United Kingdom and Ireland.
Interestingly, Charley’s popularity with many of his Irish and UK fans can be can be traced back to the insurgent territorial conflict known as “The Troubles.” Characterized by bouts of intense political violence, The Troubles were primarily centered in Northern Ireland. And because of the risks, international music acts were routinely skipping Belfast. In 1975, at the height of The Troubles, legendary Irish concert promoter Jim Aiken flew out to a rural Ohio concert and persuaded Charley not to bypass Belfast during his upcoming European tour. In November 1976, Charley’s appearance at Belfast’s Ritz Cinema brought the community together and he subsequently became a hero to both sides of the conflict for helping to break the informal touring ban of Northern Ireland after several other international music acts such as Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones followed suit. Shortly thereafter, “Crystal Chandeliers” became considered a ‘unity song’ in Ireland and the UK when it was subsequently released as a single.
Although he no longer dominates the Country radio airplay charts, Charley has never stopped recording new music. Since 1990, Pride has released many new studio albums, including MUSIC IN MY HEART in July 2017.
One of the more surprising aspects about Pride’s rise to fame is how easily he was accepted by the Country music audience once they heard him sing. “People often say to me, ‘You must have had it hard,’ and when I say, ‘No, I didn’t,’ they give me that you-gotta-be-lying look. But there was never one iota hoot-call at any of my shows. The big problem early on was that [concert] promoters were reluctant or scared to book me,” says Pride. “But they finally came around.”