By Lee Zimmerman
Charley Pride’s decision to pursue a career in country music was, at the very least, an unusual one when he made it. He was signed to RCA Records’ Nashville division by Chet Atkins at a time when black artists were gravitating toward Berry Gordy’s soul-flavored pop at Motown Records in Detroit. Pride’s first country single, “Snakes Crawl At Night,” was released without publicity photos; the Civil Rights movement notwithstanding, label executives weren’t sure how country music’s predominantly white audience would receive a black country singer.
But Charley Pride has never been one to leave his destiny up to someone else. He was born March 18, 1938, in Sledge, Miss., one of 11 children to sharecroppers Mack and Tessie Pride. At age 14, Pride got a guitar from Sears Roebuck and taught himself how to play by listening to country music on the radio. When Pride went on the road to play minor league baseball with the Negro American League’s Memphis Red Sox in the late 1950s, he would often sing and play guitar during the team’s bus trips.
After a backstage audition for Red Foley and Red Sovine, Pride was encouraged to relocate to Nashville, where he hooked up with longtime manager Jack Johnson, who in turn, brought Pride to Atkins’ attention.
Beginning with his first hit in 1966, “Just Between You and Me,” Pride racked up an impressive string of 51 Top 10 singles for RCA in 18 years, second only to label mate Elvis Presley — powerful proof that talent mattered far more than color to music fans. All told, Pride earned 36 No. 1 hits; 31 gold and four platinum albums; a mantel full of awards from his peers; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and membership in the Grand Ole Opry. Pride has used his influence to champion country performers including Ronnie Milsap, Gary Stewart, Kris Kristofferson, Neal McCoy and, more recently, Darius Rucker.
Although Pride and RCA parted ways in the mid-1980s, Pride has continued to record and tour. His most recent studio album, 2011’s “Choices,” found Pride in as fine of a voice as ever.Visit www.charleypride.com to check upcoming tour dates, cities and venues.
GOLDMINE: After such a successful career, with all the accolades you’ve been accorded, do you still have goals you want to achieve? What haven’t you done that you’re still anxious to do?
CHARLEY PRIDE: My fans think I’m singing better now than I ever did, so as long as I’m blessed with that, I don’t see no reason to quit. I had several songs on the CD — not just one, but several — that could be big hits along with all the rest I’ve had, if I could get the airplay ... The point is, I still have the voice, and I’m blessed to still have that.
GM: You’ve touched on an interesting point. Playlists are tighter than ever these days. Country radio stations aren’t playing a lot of the great standard bearers like yourself or Ray Price or Mel Tillis or Loretta Lynn. It seems to be all about these younger acts. Do you find that frustrating?
CP: If my fans could hear the new material, it wouldn’t matter if they were 15 or 18 or 25, 45, 102 — it wouldn’t make any difference. If they could hear the songs, that would be it.
GM: It seems like radio doesn’t care about that anymore. It seems like all they care about are the people with the funniest hairdos and what kind of controversy they can stir up.
CP: I’m not disagreeing with you or your analysis of it. But there are certain things I just can’t say or I’m not going to say ... I use myself as a metaphor for what I see. Since I’ve been in this business a while, I think I should have my opinion when we start talking about music and whoever and whatever.
So my thing is that country music is American music, and there are three basics of American music — that’s country, gospel and blues. All three of those have borrowed from one another over the years, when [Huddie] Ledbetter did this, and other people tried to call it this. Some people point out that Ray Charles sang country music, and with the way he did his music, he did a wonderful job with songs like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a beautiful, beautiful cut.
But Dean Martin also came in and did “Going Back to Houston,” and that was considered pop. Then there’s Darius Rucker. I love Darius Rucker. We were both sitting backstage at the Opry and doing some singing together, and we were supposed to do a song together on “Oprah,” but she had him on and didn’t have me. Darius is from Hootie and the Blowfish.
Anyway, the point is that these are people from different categories singing country songs. Darius is a great songwriter, but the point is I’m a traditional country singer. The only difference between me and Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or Conway Twitty is that if you put us all behind a curtain and didn’t know who it was, we could all ‘look’ alike ... I get asked all the time, “Why is there not more of y’all in that area?” So there you go. I get all these questions, and the thing is, I don’t have all the answers.
But I do think that in all the years I’ve been singing, I’ve done traditional music. I did shows in Detroit with Neal McCoy, who opened my show for years. I had Ronnie Milsap and Dave and Sugar ... they were all with me on RCA. So when RCA got rid of me, I said to the people in my stable — which included Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings — they just let us all loose and they just went with the folks that you described (chuckles). Everybody went to what a lot of people call the Hat Gang. So my thing is that I was still selling 250,000 albums when RCA let me go. That’s the way it went, but it’s OK. I’m still not in the soup line, ya know.
GM: It’s interesting you mention Darius Rucker, because it would seem there’s an example of a guy you obviously opened a door for.
CP: That’s true, but that could be said for Stoney Edwards and Cleve Francis; he was a doctor who came in. So everybody has to help somebody at some point.
GM: We once interviewed Jerry Lee Lewis. It was almost 25 years ago, and Jerry Lee was talking about how he tried to convince Chuck Berry to sing some country music, and in doing so, he said, “You can probably sing country better than Charley Pride.” Had you ever heard that before? Do you know Jerry Lee?
CP: (Long silence.) Oh, yeah, I like him. We did a concert on a riverboat once with Conway Twitty — sailed from New Orleans through Natchez, [Miss.], and we were changing different people. We started with Loretta Lynn, and then Tammy [Wynette] came and joined us, and then Jerry Lee joined us later. I was on the whole thing, but some of them got on and got off. Whenever we stopped, they made some of them get off, but I stayed on the whole thing. I went to see Jerry in Tampa, [Fla.], and I worked with him here in Dallas. The only thing that came up was that he wanted to close the show, and I didn’t mind. I said, “Let him close it, then.” But before the time the tour was over, he said, “I think you better close.” So it was one of those kind of things. Some of these people have been around longer than I have, and some of them do it different.
I played with Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours. That was in Peoria, Ill., and I got some of my ideas from him. I just loved him. There was a 3 o’clock show and an 8 o’clock show, so I opened the 3 o’clock show, and he had all these folks opening for him. And that’s what gave me the idea to have Ronnie Milsap and Dave and Sugar and that sort of thing — to give people a chance, like Gary Stewart; like I said, Neal McCoy.
GM: Are there up-and-coming artists you especially admire these days, for whom you see great potential?
CP: There are a couple of kids that did the Opry with me — Scott (McCreery) and Lauren (Alaina) — and they just tore the house up ... But anyway, getting back to what I was saying, you were asking why isn’t there more guys like myself. I can start mentioning all the talent that RCA let go, like Milsap, Gary Stewart, people like that. As far as the colored thing, I got a son, and I got a brother. I said, I’ll take the brother’s hat off, and I’ll take the son’s hat off, if you want one or two more, but do they want another one? Another Charley Pride? We have to ask the industry that. You mentioned about opening the door for Darius Rucker. Well, there was also Stoney Edwards and Cleve Francis, and O.B. McClinton did real well, but no one has reached the kind of success that I’ve had.
GM: Darius Rucker has made some serious headway into country and did real well in pop.
CP: God bless him. I love him. But I don’t have the answer to nothing. I can give my opinion. I don’t give advice, but I’ll give an opinion. Here’s the deal: Country music is been a lot more lenient about people we just mentioned, like Ray Charles, Dean Martin and the various different people that come out of the various different categories to sing country music. You take a song like “Kiss An Angel in the Morning” — it went into the Top 20 and all the way up in pop.
So the guy who was programming all the stations for Gordon McLendon, his name was Ken Dow. He lived in Dallas. So I said, “Ken, when are you going to start playing me? You’re playing ‘Going Back to Houston’ and all the others.” So he says (affects drawl), “Well, I don’t know. We’ll see.” So the record got up into the Top 30, and then the Top 20. So I said, “Well, when are you going to play it?” He said, “Charley, I’m not going to play it. I’m not going to play a record with a steel guitar on it.” That was his answer to me. So it doesn’t matter about the music. It’s all about what’s going on in the industry itself.
GM: But you were one of those individuals who really brought country music into the mainstream. In the early ’70s, there were some rock bands who helped do the same thing.
CP: I think I was a part of it, and I do think I helped popularize the music more. Music goes into cycles, and I guess I’m just going to have to wait. I think it will come back; I really do. You can only go so far until you go over the line. This guy in England asks me why so many people all over the world like county music. But now there’s not one country station in England now. Not one station that plays country music.
GM: We were under the impression that country music was pretty popular over there.
CP: Oh, it is. When I began my career, I wanted to go international. So when “Just Between You and Me” came out, I went over there. It took me almost an hour to get through customs. They had me standing out there and waiting.
GM: Why did they do that?
CP: Well, I just don’t know. I finally got through. It was at Heathrow — you can go into Gatwick now — but anyway, my third single, “Just Between You and Me” went to No. 9, so that’s why I started going over there. England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Norway — I was booked in all those places, even Australia, New Zealand.
GM: It appears like you’re always on the road.
CP: The reason that people like country music is not just one reason, but the big reason. Here’s what he said to my booking agent: “I’ve noticed that country music folks are just nice people.” Now, that’s what he said. Well, I don’t put on a front. That’s just the way I am. I’ve always been taught that it’s better to be nice and cordial than to be a person who’s cursing and snarling — you know, being mean. And my fans, they love my voice, but they say it’s me, too, that they admire.
GM: With all your success, do you ever wake up and say: “Boy, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe all this stuff is happening to me. They’re talking about me!
CP: No, and let me tell you why. The reason is that when someone says to me, “Charley, when you were growing up, did you think you’d be in the Grand Ole Opry or that you’d be in the Country Music Hall of Fame or have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?” It’s like you just asked. Now if I said, “Oh, yeah, I thought I was going to be a big star,” who would ever believe it? In the music that I’m in? I think certain things are meant to be, at least a certain amount of it. You’ve probably heard of sharecropping haven’t you?
GM: Yes; you were a sharecropper’s son.
CP: What that means is that’s all I ever did until I was about 14 years old. When I was about 14 years old, there was a black fellow from Pine Bluff, Ark., and his name was Allen Putnam. He had 120 acres, and my dad rented 40 acres from him. And that was the first time we weren’t sharecropping. Because in sharecropping, what happens is, let’s say Lee Zimmerman owns the land and Charley Pride’s dad works all the land and he made 10 bales of cotton. You get your five bales for owning the land, what they would call the harvest, my dad’s five has got to pay you back for subsidizing and giving us what they call furnace money over the winter, to be able to eat over the winter. So sometimes that would eat up all those five bales. It’s a continuous cycle. So you never get out of debt, you see? He goes and rents this 40 acres and we made about 18 bales. So all the rent money was ours. So my dad gave my brother and I a bale apiece. That was $220. So for a 14-year-old, I was rich.
GM: No, that’s not bad.
CP: So it’s been that kind of thing. He had it all mortgaged up to the hilt and they — I say “they,” meaning whoever was going to buy it from him — he was going to give them the same thing I could give him per acre, so I bought it from him: 119 acres. He left one acre for his oldest son. Out of 120 acres, I bought 119. And I told him, if he ever wanted to sell that one acre, I’d buy it back from him to keep it intact. But they sold it to someone else, so I never did get it. But I got the 119 acres.
GM: When you were starting out and you were learning to play guitar by listening to country music, did anyone ever say, “Son, that country music isn’t the kind of place where a black man is going to be able to break through?
CP: My older sister said to me one day, “Why are you singing their music?” I said to her, “Why are you saying ‘their’ music? It’s my music, too.” I had to tell one of my peers that once: “Well, it’s my music, too.” And he said, “That’s right!” When my old man bought me a guitar from Sears Roebuck, I didn’t know how to tune it, so I sat by the radio and listened to Ernest Tubb (sings as if imitating a guitar): “Dop-do-do-ding-ding, dop-do-do-ding-ding.” I was just tuning it to that. That was called open bar chords. Then I left that guitar out in a wagon, and it rained on it. Well, that’s another story. But the thing is, I played it like that until I started recording in 1966, when I started playing it conventional.
GM: When you moved to Nashville, did you find any initial resistance there?
CP: Oh, no, no, no. All right, here we go now. Let me give you this. My manager at the time was Jack Johnson, and we were on the way back to Nashville. He says, “Charley, let me tell you something. There’s a whole bunch of people you’re going to have to get by before you get accepted. So I said, “OK.” The main one, his name was Faron Young.
So when we got to Nashville, I said, “Let’s look him up and get it over with right now.” (Chuckles.) So we started looking for him in this club, in that club. So we finally found him, and it was about 1:30 or 2 o’clock. He was sitting on a chair with a bandanna on and a microphone plugged into a Wollensak tape recorder. So then, what happens is, I was a little bit ahead of him, and I stepped up quickly before he had a chance to say anything.
So Jack says, “He might just use the N-word when you meet him.” So I said, “Let’s just see what he’s going to do. Let’s get it over with.” So as we were coming up to meet him as we were sitting in the chair, Jack says, “Faron, I’d like you to meet Charley Pride.” So he turns around and he says, “Charley Pride, you sing a fine song!” And I says, “You do too, Faron.” (Chuckles.)
Now I don’t know where the guitar came from, but pretty soon I was singing one and he was singing one, then I’d sing one and he’d sing one. And finally he says, “Well, I’ll be! I’m sitting here singing with a jig. Oh, my!”
So from that day, when people were asking him about him taking me out on the road with him, well, it got back to me. I don’t know if he actually said anything like this, but he supposedly said, (affects deep voice) “I make over $200,000, so I don’t need to take some jig, go out and prove something out on the road.” He never said it to me; this is what I heard. So guess who was one of the very first to take me out on the road, regardless of whether he said it or didn’t say it?
CP: Yes, it was Faron. So guess what? He and I both went into the Hall of Fame together. Charley Pride and Faron Young. So that just shows you. Then he had someone who said something he didn’t like about me, and he fired him. And listen to this: I’ve never had one hoot from the audience after 47 years. When I talk to people like you, other reporters, they tell me, “Oh, you’ve got to be lying. I can’t believe that!” Then I start naming my accomplishments. I got three Emmys. I got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I’m a Grand Ole Opry member. I’m second only to Elvis Presley in selling the most records on RCA. If I had been called the N-word every time I walked onstage, it wouldn’t make any difference. I’m a success.
GM: Actually, we hesitated to bring it up, knowing you probably get asked about this racial thing repeatedly. And you must get awfully tired of talking about it.
CP: No, on the contrary. I was born and raised in Mississippi. So I understand why they ask that question.
GM: Still, it’s been 45 years since you broke through.
CP: It don’t make any difference. Take a look at what TV is like today. Look at Fox News and how they talk about all the “thugs” out on the streets. It’s a subtle thing, but you can tell what they’re talking about. So it’s still there, that subtlety. But my point is, they didn’t care. Once I opened my mouth and started singing, they liked what they heard.
GM: But isn’t it true that when you released your first couple of singles, they didn’t want to put your picture on the sleeves because they didn’t want anyone to know you were a black man?
CP: I was talking with Mel Tillis about this at the Opry. So what happened was I cut the single, and my manager played it for all the bigwigs at RCA and didn’t say a word. “So, you like the voice?” “Oh yeah.”
Then he passed my picture around, and they all looked at it and almost unanimously, they said, “We’re still going to sign him. We ain’t going to say a word about nothing; we’re just going to put the record out there and let it speak for itself.”
That’s the way they did it. So after doing that, all the deejays called one another and said, “Hey, that song ‘Snakes Crawl At Night.’ What do you think of that song? Pretty good, isn’t it? What color you think he is?” “What do you mean what color do I think he is? Why?” So finally it gets out. And one called the other, and another called the other. Pretty soon, “Just Between You and Me,” my second one, comes out and bam, No. 9. I’ll sum it up this way. There used to be those big package shows.
My first big package show was in Detroit. Used to be called Olympia Stadium, and now it’s called Joe Louis Arena. I had to drive all the way out from Montana, because I’m on the show. Guess who’s on the show? Flatt and Scruggs, Dick Curless, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Charley Pride.
GM: Sounds like a great package.
CP: I was given 10 minutes. That’s all I got because I was the opener. This was 1966. I had just bought me a brand new 1966 beige Mustang. I paid $5,500 for it. Now it’s up in Canada somewhere. They repainted it, but they still say, “This is Charley Pride’s car!” But anyway, I drove my old ’66 Mustang there, and I’m about five minutes away.
Back then, a lot of promoters were very leery about the fact that I was the first one; they didn’t know what was going to happen. They never had this before. Prior to that, I played this club up in Detroit that sat 300 or 400, and I came out, and they were just shocked. They said, “You know, we got to do something. So let’s come up with something, and don’t just go out there and start singing right away.”
Ralph Emery, who was producing this big package show, comes over to me and says, “Charley, how do you want me to bring you on?” I said, “Well, how about just ‘Charley Pride, RCA Records?’” He said, “I got to say something to make them love you before you get out there.” (Laughs.)
So here we go, the announcer goes out and he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got a young man here on RCA Records. He’s had three singles,” and he names them all. “And he’s got one going up the charts now called ‘Just Between You and Me’.” So I’m standing backstage and I hear, maybe out of that 10,000 people, maybe 300 know the song. So the promoter, he says, “Now, Charley, you’re not thin-skinned are you?” And I ain’t never heard that expression before. I didn’t know what that meant. He says, “I know you’re used to those clubs with 300 or 400 and here there’s 10,000 folks.”
So I said, “Well, I’m just Charley Pride, RCA Records. Whatever you want to do.” And he names these three singles of mine — “And now, from RCA Records, Charleeeeeeeeeeeeeeey Pride.” and I hear “YEEEAAAAHHHHHH! Oohhhhhhhhhhh.” It was like they were turning down the volume when I walked out into those lights.
GM: That must have been a bit scary.
CP: So here’s what Jack and I came up with. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen” — of course I didn’t say it this comfortable, because I was nervous as hell — I said, “I realize it’s a little bit unique me coming out here on this country music show wearing this permanent tan.“ And they go, “Yeahhhhhhh!” Because I’m saying exactly what they’re thinking, you see?
So I says, “I’ve got three singles, and I’m going to do those, and if I have time, maybe I’ll do a Hank Williams song or something like that.” So they kind of laid back, as if to say, “All right; show us what you got.”
So that’s what happened. I did those three songs and come off that stage and after the 3 o’clock show. I signed — what do you call it when you get your ticket at the airport and the little lines they got there, where you go through the line, you know? There was a line for the people, and it was roped off, and they were holding them back. So I was signing autographs, and it’s been over 40 years that it’s been like that.
GM: So you won them over.
CP: Oh, they couldn’t wait to get their autographs. So the 8 o’clock show, man it was ready to go. What this one promoter had told me was that since I hadn’t rehearsed with the band, I didn’t have to do the 3 o’clock show.
“Uh oh,” I said to myself, “If I don’t do the 3 o’clock show, I won’t be doing the 8 o’clock, either.” I didn’t have to call my manager or anybody like that; it just went “BING!” So I did that 3 o’clock show, and when I did that 8 o’clock show, I couldn’t wait to see that reaction again.
So it’s been that kind of thing, but there’s never been a hoot call or nothing. So that’s why I tell people, me telling lies ain’t going to help me get no more stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, ain’t going to get me no more sales, ain’t going to get me no more Country Music Hall of Fame. I already got those things.
GM: It’s fascinating. That’s why we asked you if sometimes it just doesn’t all sink in, all the stuff you’ve done.
CP: Jack Johnson said to me when we first got together, “What if you get as big as Elvis and you can’t get anywhere?” And I said to him, “I’m not going to get that big in terms of not being able to get anywhere. No matter how big I get, I’m going to get where I want to go. I’m going to play golf; I’m going to do what I want to do.” So he said, “No, no. What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to do what I’m doing now. I don’t care how successful I get ... I’m not going to be no shut-out.”
Like my daughter. I took her to Six Flags when she was about 6 years old. And we’re standing in line, and I hear the whispers start (lowers voice to a whisper). Maybe 30 or 40 people, and it’s getting back to me. “Hey, that’s Charley Pride.” So I turn around and I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s true. I am Charley Pride. But let me say this: Today, I’m playing daddy and daughter. I’m going to stand in line and take my turn just like y’all. I appreciate all your admiration, but today, I’m just daddy and daughter.”
Guess what? They let me do it. They didn’t push, they didn’t say another word. They smiled, and I never have forgotten that. So that’s what I was trying to tell Jack, my manager. I’m going to get that big — which I never did, but if I did — I’d never do like Elvis, where he had to bring his movies in and screen them at home. Now we own part of the Texas Rangers baseball team now, and we have our owner’s booth, but we still have our season tickets. My wife has season tickets to everything except hockey.
GM: Do you still go out and do spring training with the team every year like you used to?
CP: Forty years I’ve been there. I’ve been out there with every manager that’s been there, from Ted Williams to right now. Billy Martin was there, too. I gotta tell you this: I’m legit. I signed a Triple A contract. I was a designated hitter that year. I got a hit off Jim Palmer on my birthday. Line drive! They said, “He let you hit it. It was batting practice that day.” I said, “You can say what you want, but I got a hit.”