Songwriter Interviews

Charley Pride

by Roger Catlin

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On his biggest hits and his "permanent tan"

He was the first major African American country star. But Charley Pride never played up what he called "our pigments." With his smooth baritone, he sang on appealing country records that millions loved, making him the biggest selling performer on RCA since Elvis Presley, with 40 #1 Country hits from 1966 to 1986. His biggest came in 1971 with the million-selling crossover "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin.'"

Still recording and touring at 84, Pride recently had his tale told on PBS' American Masters. We sat down with him in Los Angeles on the cusp of a new tour, talking about breaking color lines in baseball as well as music.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): I want to talk about your baseball career and your music career. Which presented the hardest struggle when you started?

Charley Pride: Baseball.

Songfacts: Why do you say that?

Pride: I didn't make it. I was good, but there was a certain point where things are not for you and I think that was part of it. Like the old man [next door] who had 140 acres, that was the only time he let my daddy stop doing sharecropping. He said to me one day, as I was going up and down [the rows of cotton], "Have you ever thought you're not on this planet to play baseball, you're on this planet to sing?"

I wasn't a blue streak but I could run, throw, field, hit. I said, What is he talking about? I had all three pitches: fastball, curveball, changeup. He called me Mockingbird, because I won so many contests entering 4H Club contests. He heard me imitating animals and all these things I could do with my voice. I figured that out pretty quick why he called me Mockingbird. He said, "I could pick you out from all your brothers and sisters." We live about a mile or so in the country out there, but he could tell my voice. He told me, "From all the rest of them, I could pick you out."

But I look back on it, and well, I didn't make it in baseball. He said, "Have you ever thought you're on this planet to sing?" So after all these years, I finally accepted it.

But I still didn't want to stop trying. My thing was I kept going up and back and forth and they wouldn't look at me. Casey Stengel wouldn't look at me for the Mets and lost a hundred and some games, and I was in Ireland in Dublin and a guy who had been with me for 37 years said, "Nolan Ryan is trying to get in touch with you. He's putting together a group to buy the Texas Rangers, are you interested?"

I said, "I believe I am interested." I thought, I'll just make enough money to buy my own team and put myself in the roster! Well, I'm part owner of the Texas Rangers, but it's not going to do me any good. I can't even run. So that's gone.

Songfacts: You listened to all kinds of music growing up. What made you settle on country music to sing?

Pride: Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys, that was my dad's favorite entertainer. He called every shot. Whatever he wanted to listen to on the radio, that's what we listened to. What I wanted to listen to didn't make any difference, so I settled on listening to Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb and all the early ones - Minnie Pearl. My mother would order pictures of the whole group of Opry singers. On the right top corner was David Cobb, one of the announcers of it. I wish that I could find those.

But anyway, that's what I settled on. My mother bought me a guitar from Sears Roebuck, because Silvertone was their music instruments. But the thing is, we listen to what and who we're told what to listen to. That's what we listen to.

Songfacts: When it came to the songs you recorded that were hits for you, how did you choose the songs?

Pride: [Producer] Jack Clement.

"Cowboy" Jack Clement was a young producer and engineer for Sam Phillips' Sun Records, where he worked with stars from Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison to Johnny Cash and is credited for discovering and first recording Jerry Lee Lewis. For Cash, he wrote "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and reduced "Ring of Fire." In addition to working with Pride, he helped make a star of Ray Stevens, produced albums by Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt, and wrote songs that were recorded by Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Bobby Bare, Tom Jones and Hank Snow, among others.

Late in his career, he was called by U2 to record their Sun Studio recordings for Rattle and Hum. In 2013, Clement was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, four months before his death at 82.
Songfacts: He would choose, or he would present them to you and you would choose?

Pride: He would choose them and present them, and he gave me the chance to say what I liked and didn't like. That's the only thing he gave me: He gave me a chance to say. Other than that, "We're going to cut this."

Songfacts: Were some of your biggest songs things you thought were going to be hits?

Pride: "Just Between You and Me" and "Kiss An Angel," those were my biggest. I couldn't wait to get into the studio on "Kiss An Angel." And "Just Between You and Me" I wanted for my first single. But Jack Clement wrote it, and he said he didn't want me singing any gospel song, any love song, and "I don't want you singing my song because I don't want people thinking I got you here and I'm going to push all of my songs on you."

But when it was my third single and went to #9 and was nominated for a Grammy, that tells me something.

Songfacts: I want to know if there's a contemporary artist you admire or get a kick out of, in country or any other field.

Pride: Oh my goodness. I like some of them. I don't jump up and down. My wife really likes Blake Shelton. She likes a lot of those guys. And I don't dislike them. I don't dislike them because I don't listen to them. I like [the Sirius XM station] Willie Nelson's Roadhouse, which plays my music. Not only do they play me, I can hear Conway [Twitty], I can hear Tammy Wynette, I can hear all the ones we started out together.

A lot of times I'm on stage and I'll say, "So many of my peers up and left me." And I start naming them: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Conway... I just go down the line. And I say, "I wish they were here. I'd love for them to be here."

So I listen to what I started out with and the songs that I love. They're all gone but I can still reminisce when George Jones and Tammy put me out front, when Bill Anderson and Faron Young put me out front.

Songfacts: Music coming out of Nashville today doesn't always sound like country.

Pride: Whoever wants to feel that way, that's fine with me. It don't bother me, because I'm still going to cut my classic traditional music, like my latest CD [Music in My Heart]

Songfacts: Who will you have joining you on your upcoming Duets album?

Pride: Whoever wants to do it. We've already talked to three or four and we got some songs that I didn't put on my latest CD that I would have liked to have been put on the CD that we saved for that. Then I have 15-18 more that I'm getting ready to do. I'm going to go ahead and do mine and then they can come in like Dolly [Parton] did on the song that she not only gave me but come and did with me. And Willie, on "Family Bible," he came in and put voice on.

So I'm going to learn them all. By the time I get back from Australia, I'll have them all ready to go. And my producer will be there and we'll go in and run 'em off and whoever wants to be a part of my duets album, let 'em come.

Dolly Parton offered her 1977 song "God's Coloring Book" for Pride's 2006 collection, Pride and Joy: A Gospel Music Collection, and then came in the studio to sing it with him. On the same album, Willie Nelson offered his 1960 track "Family Bible" and came in to sing it with Pride as well.

The Pride/Parton duet may have inspired Chance the Rapper's gospel-themed mixtape Coloring Book in 2016.
Songfacts: You've blazed a trail for a lot of people.

Pride: It's possible, yes. I didn't go into this business to do that, like Jackie Robinson did. There's a difference there. Branch Rickey sat him down and used the N-word on him and he looked, and said to him, "You're going to hear that a lot if you're going to be my second baseman."

That's how it was given to me. Jackie was kind of appalled. But Rickey said, "You ain't going to do nothing. You're going to take your glove, your baseball bat and turn away." Nobody did come and say to me, "Sit down, N-word, you're going to go and cut these songs and you're going to be the first." It's different. I'm here by choice.

I can see why people feel that way: "My goodness, you must have had it hard. My goodness. Right in the middle of the Martin Luther King sit-ins, civil rights and so forth." And then I tell them, "I have had no iota of hoot calls from the audience."

Pride met Jackie Robinson only once. "It was in Chicago at the Negro American League All-Star Game, and I thought he was about seven feet tall," Pride says. "He was leaving the field, and I ran up and grabbed his shirt. I grabbed his arm, and I said, 'I want to meet you.' That's where I met him, in Chicago. But I never got a chance to talk to him or anything."
Songfacts: You famously performed the night Martin Luther King was killed.

Pride: The dispatcher called and I took the cab. I said, "I'm going to do that show." I had to make that decision. People were saying, "Hey they got him! Martin Luther King!" I didn't say a word. I didn't say a word on stage about it.

I just went up and did the best show I could do. Standing ovation. They loved what I did. They were aware that I was aware and I was aware that they were aware. That's the way that I did it.

Songfacts: Do you think that approach is why you have been accepted so universally without the trouble people might assume you get?

Pride: What else would it be? In my opinion, that's the way I did it. I had nobody to pattern myself after but me. How am I going to do it? I wouldn't tell nobody else to do it that way. I did it my way. That's the the way I did it, and if it it works out, real fine.

Pride never much addressed his race on stage, preferring to just entertain. But when he was put on his first national package tour with Dick Curless, Merle Haggard and Homer & Jethro, he noticed the crowd quieting when he first came on stage. "I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it's very unique, me coming out here on a country music show having this permanent tan,'" he recalls. "'I ain't got time to talk about our pigments. I got only 10 minutes. I'm going to do my three songs. And if I have time, I'll do maybe a Hank Williams song.'"

The crowd not only responded but stood in line to get autographs for hours after. "And that's the way it's been, because my thing was it wasn't about all of this," he says, pointing to his skin. "Once I come out and start singing, it didn't make any difference whether I was pink. They wanted to hear me sing again. So that's the way my career has been all these years."
Songfacts: So you're still performing quite a bit?

Pride: Yeah, we're going to go to Tucson, and then we go after that to Australia and New Zealand and we'll be back about the first week or second week of April. We're going to be gone pretty near a month.

Songfacts: What do you do to relax?

Pride: I just eat good breakfasts and try to get good sleep. And watch TV. I could watch TV all day long. Some of them I get tired of watching. I wish I didn't have to watch it. I'm not going to say what it is but I think you can figure it out.

March 28, 2019
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Comments: 1

  • Rick F from Fargo, NdI interviewed Charlie about 35 years ago. He told me the story about a show that he did early in his career in Detroit Michigan with Conway Twitty. He said in those days the headliner would come out, sing a few songs, then introduce the under card for that night, so while they performed the headliner would go take a break and then come out and finish the show. No one in the audience really knew who Charlie Pride was, or what he looked like. Conway Twitty introduced Charlie Pride "Ladies and gentlemen, he's got a hit song out called The Snakes Crawl At Night. Let's give a warm Detroit welcome to Charlie Pride!" Charlie said he walked out on stage in front of those blue-collar auto assembly folks and all he heard was the rumbling and mumbling of the N-word. He told me he started singing The Snakes Crawl At Night and the crowd loved it. He said that by the end of his set all he heard was applause and cheers.
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