Charley Pride Still Remains Country’s Only Black Superstar

From Sharecropper to Hall of Fame, Pride Combined Music Talent With Business Acumen

Editor’s note: Country Music Hall of Fame member Charley Pride will be profiled on the new episode of CMT Inside Fame premiering Friday (May 13) at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Charley Pride is the only black superstar in the history of country music. What that fact proves — if anything — is up for debate.

If his singularity is a demonstration of racism, then how did Pride achieve star status during the turbulent 1960s, when open racial discrimination was still widely tolerated? If he is merely country’s “token” black, as some few have asserted, then why has he endured so long and significantly as an entertainer?

On the other hand, if Pride’s success is simply the triumph of his great talent, then why have such richly-gifted fellow black performers as DeFord Bailey, Stoney Edwards, Big Al Downing, Ruby Falls, O.B. McClinton and Cleve Francis all been relegated to the footnotes of history?

Between 1969 and 1983, Pride scored at least one No. 1 each year. In all, he’s had 29 top hits. None of the other performers cited above, though, ever pushed a song higher on the charts than No. 18. (Bailey, a regular on the Grand Ole Opry between 1926 and 1941, quit performing professionally before country music charts came into being.)

Pride has never seemed eager to talk about race and its implications, preferring instead to let his life speak for itself. It has done so eloquently.

Charley Frank Pride was born March 18, 1938 in Sledge, Miss., to sharecropper parents. His early enthusiasms were baseball and music, with the former initially winning out. While still in his teens, he played for the Detroit Eagles and the Memphis Red Sox in the Negro American League. He served in the Army from 1956 until 1958, after which he moved on to a construction job in Helena, Mont. There he continued to play semi-pro baseball. It was in Helena in 1963 that he met country stars Red Foley and Red Sovine, who, after hearing him sing, urged him to move to Nashville.

Nashville met Pride with considerable caution. One industry music figure, who eventually became his manager, suggested — perhaps humorously — that Pride change his name to George Washington III. Pride politely declined.

RCA Records signed Pride in 1965 and at first billed him as “Country Charley Pride.” The label released his first single without the usual publicity photo. Pride finally charted with his third single, “Just Between You and Me,” which went Top 10 in 1967. His next six singles did even better, five of them making it into the Top 5. Then, in 1969, he achieved his first No. 1 with the poignant “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me).”

For the next 15 years, Pride experienced one success after another, even though he was managing — and concealing — bouts of manic depression. In addition to turning out a long string of hit singles and best-selling albums, the smooth baritone singer became a major concert act. The Country Music Association proclaimed him entertainer of the year in 1971 and male vocalist of the year in ’71 and ’72. He also won three Grammy awards during this same period.

In 1971, Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” stayed at No. 1 for five weeks and became his signature hit. The following year, he paired with pop composer Henry Mancini to record “All His Children” for the movie Sometimes a Great Notion. Other songs that Pride put his stylistic stamp on include “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Hope You’re Feelin’ Me (Like I’m Feelin’ You”) and “Burgers and Fries.”

Developing into an astute businessman, Pride organized the Chardon talent booking agency (which handled such emerging clients as Dave & Sugar, Janie Fricke and Neal McCoy) and the Pi-Gem Music Publishing Company. He also invested profitably in banking and real estate.

By the mid-1980s, the country music business was becoming more youth-oriented, and new management at Pride’s label was putting more emphasis on immediate album sales and less on long-range artist development. Feeling slighted at the attention being lavished on younger acts, Pride asked RCA to release him from his recording contract. To his great surprise, the label agreed.

Pride next signed to 16th Avenue Records, but in his three years there achieved only one Top 5 single. Still, he continued to tour, often internationally. In 1993, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. A year later, he released his autobiography, Pride: The Charley Pride Story, in which he told about his depression. He briefly headlined at his own theater in Branson, Mo.

In 2000, Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His latest album, 20 Classics, was released in 2004 on Music City Records.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.