The recent death of Charley Pride was cause for reflection and reminiscences of the time I interviewed the famous country music star.
In May 1971, Pride was to make his first public concert in his home state, Mississippi, and in the Delta where he was born and raised. I was a reporter for the Vicksburg Evening Post. I called Pride and he agreed to the interview. I found him to be easy-going and delightful, totally unpretentious and easy to talk to.
His being black was “no big angle,” he said, adding that “The only difference between me and other country music singers is pigmentation.”
He was unique in that blacks didn’t usually sing old-fashioned Hillbilly music. That was thought to be reserved in both taste and in an unwritten assumption as a genre for mostly middle-class and rural whites. Pride broke that barrier with his amazing talent.
Pride had been singing publicly for about a dozen years when his talent was discovered and underscored in 1966 by a Grammy nomination for Best Country and Western Male Vocalist. He also won a variety of awards from country music publications, and those honors were capped by an invitation to sing on the Grand Ole Opry.
In a sense, the Opry is where it all started, for as a child Pride would listen to the Saturday night show from the Ryman Auditorium, imitating and singing along with such stars as Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold and Uncle Dave Macon.
He told the story of how one of his neighbors on the Quitman County farm used to call him “Mockingbird” for he could hear the youngster each morning singing “while I was picking up chips to build a fire” or milking or doing other chores. He sang on his way to school, when he was working in the cotton fields and when he played baseball with the neighborhood kids.
Pride was 14 when he got his first guitar, “just a cheap one, not a Stradivarious type as guitars go. It got rained on and cracked all to pieces. I cried about that, but then I taped it up and played it anyway.”
His guitar-playing is self-taught, and he can’t read a note of music, adding “If I couldn’t sing I’d be in had shape. I used to tune my guitar by the radio…I don’t profess to be a picker.”
He likes the whole spectrum of country music and said The Chuck Wagon Gang and Elvis , influenced him the most. He said his version of “Kawliga” isn’t just the way Hank Williams wrote it “because I’d try to learn a verse every time I’d hear the song on the radio and I didn’t get them put together in the right order.”
The sound of music isn’t the only love in Pride’s life, for he’s a baseball player who played for Detroit and Memphis in the Negro American League, then after two years in the Army he played for the Los Angeles Angels. For 10 years he was in the Pioneer League.
“I love the sound of the crack on the bat,” he said, recalling that as a youth ”Many a time I’d walk from Slege to Birdie – seven miles – and pitched nine innings and walked back home…We didn’t have any organized ball games. When we played, it was out in the pasture. You know, it was kinda like ‘What It Was Football’ that Andy Griffith recorded.”
Pride was in his teens when he entered a talent contest in 1954 at Lowe’s Grand Theatre in Memphis. He made it to the finals but had to leave for a baseball training camp before he could perform.
His career was a mixture of sports and music. In Montana, between seasons, he would work during the day for Anaconda’s Zinc Complex in Great Falls and at night entertain at clubs. ·
One night Red Sovine of country music fame was in the audience, and he was so impressed with Pride’s talent that he talked him into going to Nashville for an audition. It was a year before Pride made it to the south, and Chet Atkins heard him and realized what an extraordinary talent Pride possessed. The singing ballplayer signed a contract with RCA and cut his first single, “Snakes Crawl at Midnight” in 1965. It was an immediate nation-wide hit.
Many listeners in the radio audience had no idea that Pride was black, and to most, when they did find out, it made no difference because the man could sing! His accent was simply soft and Southern, and he laughed about the first recording he made, one he did on his own in Montana. After listening to it, the owner of the studio said, “Now let me hear it in your natural voice.”
Pride, who describes himself as having “a permanent tan,” said that by his being black “society had to adjust to me, not me to society. To me, it was just like eating breakfast every morning…I liked country music when I was a kid. I was born into it.”
When his musical career began to gain momentum, promoters had all kinds of gimmicks and ideas and even said he’d have to change his name to something like ‘George Washington Carver Jones’ but he told them, “I was born Charley Pride and I was going to stay Charley Pride.” That has been his way of life, and he said “I’m just me – that’s all I want to be.”
In the years that followed that 1971 interview, just about every recording that had Charley Pride’s name on it was a hit. He received many awards including Mississippi’s “Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.” He never forgot his home state, and the award was the capstone of a storybook career.
After that interview I had with Charley Pride almost half a century ago I went to his concert that night (at the Delta State stadium where he sang his heart out for his home folks). It was a sold-out performance, but when it was over Pride remained to sign autographs as long as anybody wanted one.
I’ve never tired of his music, and I’ll never forget what a Southern gentleman he was.
Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.