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Looking back at legend Charley Pride

Just between you and me, if you haven't heard Charley Pride before, you're about to want to.

Charley Pride is an essential to everybody's Country music playlist. You can't go wrong with "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin," "Just Between You and Me," or "Roll on Mississippi." And if you're really enjoying his music? Try his Greatest Hits album. Actually, do that anyway. The smaller hits, like "Burgers and Fries" and "I Don't Think She's in Love Anymore" are forgotten treasures.

Pride grew up in Sledge, Mississippi and he grew up singing. By 14, he was learning to play the guitar by copying what he heard on the radio. His dad frequently played recordings from the Grand Ole Opry. Country music became Pride’s escape from the wearisome day to day life of a sharecropper.

Despite his 70 million records sold, 30 number one Billboard Country hits, along with 22 songs that made it into the top ten, and Country icon status from the late 60s to early 80s, Pride is passed over for Willie Nelson or Garth Brooks. He's one of three African-Americans to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, along with Darius Rucker and DeFord Bailey. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and has been awarded 4 Grammys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award.

And before his musical success?

He was an all-star baseball player. It was his dream to become a baseball star like Jackie Robinson, and while he never got into the majors, he achieved moderate success in the early 1960s, playing for multiple teams across the United States. That is, until he was drafted into the army in 1954 for 2 years. He was injured during his service, which hurt his throwing arm. Because of this, Pride switched career directions. He moved from Colorado to Montana and he worked at a smelter, and played for the company’s semi-pro baseball team, the East Helena Smelterites. His manager noticed his singing abilities and hired him to sing the National Anthem before baseball games, which boosted attendance.

Pride made a living for his family. But he wanted more, so he began to actively pursue a singing career, calling up old Nashville contacts he’d met years ago when he half-heartedly pursued a singing career. Many people were skeptical of a black man singing Country music but his voice won people over, with comparisons to Elvis Presley being made. In fact, at the height of his career in the early 70s, Pride was the best-selling performer on RCA Records since Presley.

It's hard to believe that in 1967, his first stadium concert in Detroit was met with mixed reactions. There was no biographical information shared prior to the concert; his record label kept Pride’s personal information non-existent. Very few fans knew Charley Pride was black. When he walked onto that stage in front of 20,000 people, the applause trailed off awkwardly to stunned silence.

Pride's race was a big deal during that time period, and he was in a no-win situation. Many die-hard Country fans boycotted his music due to his race, and many in the black community discounted him for bringing more attention to a “white” genre. For this, Pride never apologized and always had a few words on the subject, particularly in 1967 when he became the first black man since DeFord Bailey to perform on the Grand Ole Opry stage: "Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it's very unique, me coming out here on a Country music show having this permanent tan. 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."

He did his three songs, and over the years his three songs turned into five, and then ten, and then twenty. Pride maintains a steady fanbase to this day with consistently sold-out shows and 500,000 monthly Spotify listeners. His last album came out in 2017, showing his talent hasn't stopped, and probably never will.

Pride has proved that no matter how many roadblocks you run into, you can find a way to thrive and do what you love.

Speaking of which, he's still a baseball fan, and partially owns the Texas Rangers. You might catch him singing the National Anthem at the World Series or even the Super Bowl. One thing you'll never catch him doing? Slowing down.

Charley Pride remains unstoppable, no matter what the odds.

Written by Molly Rufus


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