The Demon COVID takes another country legend, gone at 86
When Charley Pride, who we lost sadly over the weekend to COVID-19, first emerged in the 1960s, his smooth baritone vocals became a fixture of country radio for decades.
Even in the honky-tonk heyday of the Fifties, there was always a market in country music for singers who could put over a good love ballad. If you liked, say, Jim Reeves or latter-day Ray Price, then Pride would have scratched the same itch. It evidently worked – Pride had 52 singles in Billboard’s country charts between 1966-84. Only one of them missed the Top 10.
Considering he had to overcome racial barriers to do this, it’s even more impressive. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Charley Pride was truly, without exception, the first black country singer, at least on record.
Sure, Ray Charles’ country-soul albums came first, as well as similar efforts by Brook Benton (who preceded Ray), Esther Phillips, and any other black musician who added a C&W song to their repertoires. Even jazz musicians like Ramsey Lewis and Sonny Rollins covered songs in that style.
At any rate, they weren’t full-on country artists. They just recorded R&B and jazz versions of country songs. Even the harmonica solos by DeFord Bailey (the first black member of the Grand Ole Opry) owed as much to blues as to country.
However, Charley Pride was, arguably, the first black country singer to make it solely as a country singer. He didn’t come through the back door via some other genre, and he didn’t just record a lone country record before going back to R&B.
In those times, not long after the Civil Rights Bill was passed, this wasn’t an easy task.
After making the rounds of the Nashville record companies, the Sledge, MS native was eventually signed to RCA, a major label who probably had slightly more success in country than they did in pop. Knowing that breaking an African-American country singer would be a controversial decision, they decided not to issue a promo photo right away. To head off any doubting opinions, they stuck the word “country” in front of his name so there wouldn’t be any doubt about what he was supposed to be – Country Charley Pride. On his third album, The Country Way, his name was simplified to Charley Pride. By then everybody knew that Charley Pride was not a novelty act. But it took a while to convince the industry that he wasn’t just passing through.
According to Pride, when meeting fellow country singers on the road and at shows, he’d often be “quizzed” about how much he knew about the music. Another performer even started naming random R&B artists and asking if Pride knew these artists personally. One notoriously racist 1950s honky-tonk legend, whose fame was fading just as Charley was getting hot, refused to even say hello when the younger singer approached him. Additionally, when he’d appear on stage, performing to audiences who had never seen his photo, he’d have to crack a joke apologizing for his permanent tan before he could sing a note. Can you see Jimi Hendrix or Arthur Lee, both black men in the white rock universe, acting this humble before starting their show at the Fillmore? However, Pride did it with a certain dignity that can’t be taken away from him.
Also, while Hendrix and Lee were known as superstuds who smashed every white groupie in their paths, Pride’s handlers made sure that none of his songs cast him in that light. Many of his songs portrayed Pride as a doting family man who couldn’t wait to get home to his wife. If there was cheating involved, usually the woman stepped out on him – never the other way around. Interestingly, for all his easy-listening country success, he never had much crossover pop appeal. The closest he came was when “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'” made the Top 40 in late ’71, and even then, according to Pride, not all radio stations were on board. One pop program director told Pride that he’d consider adding the record if they found a way to remove the pedal steel. Rather than give in to some pompous PD, Pride went on to sell a thousand more copies of that one song, and others to come.
VIDEO: Charley Pride “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'”
Despite the ubiquitous pedal steel, Pride’s recordings were the epitome of the “Nashville Sound”; just rustic enough to let you know this was a country record, but sophisticated enough to reach an easy-listening audience. RCA’s artists probably overdosed on this sound the most. String sections and croony background singers were standard features on a Charley Pride record, but those of you allergic to that kind of production should seek out In Person, a live album from 1969. Rather than surround him with members of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, it’s just Pride and his road band, live at Panther Hall in Fort Worth, TX, sounding rougher than you are probably used to hearing him. If anything, this LP is closer to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens, with harder drums and the most electric guitar you will ever hear on a Charley Pride record. (If you eally want to hear Charley Frank Pride in a different light, seek out his 1984 version of “Stagger Lee.” While Pride has pointedly avoided any R&B influences in his music, this song showed he was definitely no stranger to it!)
Inevitably, more black country singers entered the picture as the sixties turned into the seventies – Linda Martell. Stoney Edwards. O.B. McClinton. Ruby Falls, all with varying degrees of fame, but not long enough to really stick around. McClinton idolized Pride so much that his live album contained a Charley Pride medley, and he even recorded a song about him, the controversial “Black Speck,” which was as well-meaning as it was politically incorrect. Only in the last decade have African-American artists hit the C&W charts with more regularity, but even if Pride didn’t make it directly possible, he was certainly there first. The line of smoke can be traced directly back to him,
Pride himself summed it up when, early in his career, one veteran country singer showered him with praise, adding that “it’s good to have you in our music.” Charley’s response: “It’s my music, too.”
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