When Charley Pride took the stage at the October 2010 All for the Hall benefit concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, the reception was startling.
Stars with recent hits — Billy Currington, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Keith Urban and others — dotted the lineup at this annual fundraising event for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Many of the 13,000 or so fans in the audience hadn’t even started school yet when Pride hit No. 1 in 1983 with “Night Games” (written by Alan Mevis and Norro Wilson). It was easy to wonder if a large block of seats might be occupied by people who were unfamiliar with his work.
But then Pride launched into his signature song, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” (Ben Peters) and a scant two minutes later the response was long and loud.
Assessing Pride’s impact on younger listeners, his fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee offered, “I think you respond to talent. I don’t care if you know who he is.”
The kids at the arena not only knew who Charley Pride was, they loved him. And they gave him another overwhelming reception when he followed with a cover of “Hello Darlin’,” written and recorded by Conway Twitty. The feedback was so strong that Bob Heatherly, President/CEO of Pride’s record label, Music City Records, later received several enthusiastic phone calls from some Music Row peeps who’d witnessed the emotional performance.
“When you get industry executives excited,” he observed, “then you know you’ve done something right.”
Pride has indeed done a lot, much of which is referenced in his 1994 autobiography, “Pride: The Charley Pride Story.” Beginning in 1966, he lobbed more than 65 singles onto the charts, with more than 50 reaching the Top 10. Thirty-six of them went all the way to No. 1, including the Hank Williams cover “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” (David Kirby and Glenn Martin) and the sultry “You’re So Good When You’re Bad” (Ben Peters). Pride accrued seven Gold albums from 1970 through 1975, a time when the Platinum designation didn’t exist, and picked up a million-selling single with “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.” He also won the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award and two CMA Male Vocalist of the Year honors during that same period. To date, he’s sold more than 70 million albums, including 31 Gold, four Platinum and one Quadruple Platinum.
In 2000, Pride joined the late Faron Young as the last two members inducted into CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame when the museum was still housed at its original, barn-shaped structure at 16th Avenue and Demonbreun Street on Music Row.
That distinction is symbolic. The museum moved to its present location the following spring, and Pride is arguably one of the architects who helped country music move to larger venues as well, from clubs and theaters into arenas.
“He’s absolutely part of the reason that the business expanded to what it is today,” Lee said. “He was one of the first superstars that started working the big venues that country artists had not regularly worked before.”
Pride recognizes the importance of the role he has played — but pride goes only so far.
“My dad used to say, ‘Your name is Pride but there’s more to it than that,’” the singer recalled. “You don’t want to have too much of that; you can overdo anything. I think everybody should have pride about themselves but it shouldn’t be overused.”
This conviction remains at the heart of Pride’s material. He did, after all, make a name for himself singing “I’m Just Me” (Glenn Martin) and “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” (Dallas Frazier and Al Owens). It’s also a central theme on his latest album, “Choices.” Its songs embrace old-school attitudes, from the family-values opener “America the Great” (Edward Allen Gowens and Larry Mercey) to “The Bottom Line” (Drew Bourke, Art Craig and Justin Peters), whose lyric prioritizes commitment over finance. Two other songs employ fictitious newspaper names — “Hickory Hollow Times & County News” (Matt Lindsey and Herb McCullough) and “Guntersville Gazette” (Phillip Douglas, Ron Harbin and Richie McDonald) — in celebrating a slower-paced era. It’s Pride singing about who he is to an audience that’s holding on to that same identity.
“He wants to stay true to his fans, even though they may be getting older and may not be buying as much music,” said Heatherly.
Yet they do still buy tickets and they respond as much as that youthful audience at the All for the Hall event did to “America the Great.” Pride inserted that song into his live set even before he released the album, and listeners reacted immediately to the words, which invoke John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, prayer in schools and “In God We Trust.”
“They start to rise up in the front,” Pride said. “They just start clapping their hands, and then they stand up, and pretty soon it goes all the way back almost half a block to the bleachers. Goosebumps just started coming,” he added as he recounted the scene at his shows. “It was something else.”
A native of Sledge, Miss., and one of 11 children, Pride confounded his friends and family by listening to the Grand Ole Opry rather than gospel and blues in his early years. In those days, however, a dream for a career in country music seemed unattainable.
“My dream was to play baseball and go to the major leagues,” he said. “When I saw Jackie Robinson go to the major leagues, I said, ‘Well, that’s my way out of the cotton fields. I want to go to the major leagues and I want to make all the records.’”
Pride had the talent to do it too. He played for the Memphis Red Sox, and in 1956 he pitched for the Negro League when it assembled a group of its top players to play a major league all-star team that included future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. But while the majors include 30 teams today, that circle was more exclusive in Pride’s youth.
“There wasn’t but 16 teams in the major leagues then,” he said. “You didn’t go around hitting .212 — I call it the New York area code — with five runs batted in and getting $1.5 million.”
Pride had tryouts with a couple of major-league teams, including the Los Angeles Angels soon after they were founded by another Country Music Hall of Fame member, Gene Autry. But he didn’t make the cut, and when he suffered a severe ankle injury at 23, that ended his chances.
“When Johnny Bench was in the Cincinnati Reds, he went in at 18 or 19 years old, and he’s in the (Major League Baseball) Hall of Fame,” Pride noted. “So back in those days, if you weren’t in the majors by the time you were 25, that’s about it; they just kind of marked you off. Of course, now we have 30 teams and if you can do anything at 45, they’ll use you.”
His teammates had always encouraged Pride to consider singing professionally, and as baseball faded, he refocused his sights on country music. It seemed like a long shot, though. Country had spun a series of African-American string bands in its early days, and DeFord Bailey had played harmonica on the Opry in the pre-TV era. But there had never been a successful black country singer up to that point.
The odds were staggering. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Pride’s home state in 1963, just nine months before Pride signed his first management deal with Jack D. Johnson. The Civil Rights Act was signed in July 1964, barely more than a year before he secured his first recording contract with RCA Records, run at the time by his fellow CMA Country Music Hall of Fame member Chet Atkins.
Pride won over the industry and the public by applying his grainy tone to traditional country songs with a sincere passion. In one key moment in Arizona, he had to fill in for Jimmy Durante when the vaudevillian had suffered an injury. The audience had never heard of Pride. It certainly hadn’t come to hear country music. But Pride prevailed and the date instilled a huge amount of confidence.
“I got a standing ovation when I got through,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Now, wait a minute. If I can get in front of Jimmy Durante’s audience and get a response like this, all I got to do is get in front of them.’”
Forty years have passed and Pride is still winning over audiences. And beyond his new fans and the film world, Pride has strengthened his links to baseball. For decades he’s attended spring training annually with the Texas Rangers; in 2010 he took it a step further by joining with Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and other investors to purchase the team. Just a few months after the deal was done, the Rangers made it into the World Series for the first time in the club’s 50-year history.
For all that’s going right for Pride, he still feels the need to prove himself with every concert and every trip to the recording studio.
“I’m never a guy that’s going to think everything is automatic,” he said. “I don’t take anything for granted. No matter how successful I’ve been, I still have a job to do.”