Charley Pride Was My Hero and Here’s Why
I'm sure you know that classic country star Charley Pride died last week of complications of COVID-19.
Charley was my hero. He has been compared many times with baseball star Jackie Robinson. They were both the first African Americans in the modern age in their respective careers. But here's why I think their experiences were different and why Charley Pride deserves more credit than he's gotten so far.
Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball in the 20th century. After a stint in the minors, he broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and played until 1956. The first few years were difficult for Jackie especially in the most southern of the National League cities: Cincinnati and St. Louis. He was heckled by spectators and players on the opposing bench. But after a period of getting his teammates to accept him, he was always on a team. The same year he became a Dodger, Jackie was joined by another African American, Dan Bankhead on the Brooklyn team. The next year the great Roy Campanella came on board the Dodgers and in '49 Don Newcombe. Many other National league teams added black players by the time Jackie hung up his spikes in 1956. By that year almost every major league team had African American players.
Charley Pride played baseball as a youth and worshiped Jackie. He wanted to follow him in the majors, but he injured his pitching arm; and although he had tryouts with the New York Mets and California Angels, Charley realized music might be his calling.
Charley Pride was well received in Nashville and his first tune, "Snakes Crawl at Night" was released in 1966. In those days we couldn't see what our country stars looked like because there wasn't much live country music on TV. I remember when we received Charley's record at the station where I worked in Lexington, Kentucky, in '66 - it had no picture on the front cover. So at the time his record was on the air, no one knew what he looked like. By the time he had his first big hit a few months later, it wasn't important. Charley was an instant hit. Now for the hero stuff...
As I mentioned above, Jackie Robinson had a team to back him which soon included several black teammates. Charley Pride didn't. When Charley stood on the stage and sang, he was all alone. When Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers, about half the crowd in the stands was African American. Except for some USO shows, Charley's audience was almost exclusively white. By the time Jackie ended his career, all teams had African American players and fans in the stands to watch them play. When Charley Pride was taking the national stage for the first time, the future second major African American country star, Darius Rucker, was just being born. Charley was all alone in the spotlight from 1966 until Darius came along with his first country offering in 2008. Now the unbelievable stuff...
Charley had his first top 10 hit in 1966. Between that song and 1984 he released 52 songs. Every single song except one made the top ten. Fifty-one songs in the top ten! And thirty of those were number one hits! Charlie has sold over 70 million records (45s, albums, 8 track tapes, cassettes and CDs--downloads not included). Since Charley was singing standard country music, the great majority of the folks buying those records were white. This is a very important indication of Charley Pride's popularity--millions and millions of white folks in the US went to their local record store and laid down their hard earned money to purchase a record by a African American man singing country music. They came back and bought more again and again. If they had a few dollars left, they went to a concert and saw Charley in person.
Charley wasn't a gimmick. When you first saw him, you might think, "How unique--an African American singing country music;" but after a few songs you understand Charlie Pride is a rural southern man singing in his fashion. Being black is incidental. He wasn't a pop singer that has "Gone Country". Charlie always sounded country and always sang country songs. That was one of the elements of his appeal.
I think we all understand how brave he was to take the stage in front of an all white audience and perform "their" music. Charley was quoted as saying he never heard any negative catcalls from concert attendees. . Maybe he's just being nice but I remember a concert I emceed in Ohio in the 1970's. When I announced his name, he got a standing ovation from thousands of folks before he had sung a note.
Charley Pride was truly special. If he wore a number on his shirt like Jackie Robinson did, it should be retired like Jackie's #42 was. Charley is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Association on November 11. Charley took the stage at the awards show looking very fit for age 86 and sang his signature song, "Kiss an Angel Good Morning". It was his last public appearance. Here is a video of that performance. It's very emotional since we know he died exactly four weeks later.