The velvet-voiced singer who became country’s first black star

The velvet-voiced singer who became country’s first black star

Charley Pride grew up in the segregated Deep South at a time when aspiring black musicians had two options: play jazz or sing the blues. But Pride, raised by a strict father who tuned the radio to the Grand Ole Opry, loved country, the whitest of American genres. The country business didn’t initially love him back. 

RCA Records sent his first singles to radio stations without publicity photos, hoping he’d be mistaken for white. When he began performing live, Pride put white audiences at ease by joking about his “permanent tan.” But with his honeyed baritone, Pride became country’s first black superstar, landing 52 records in the country top 10 from 1966 to 1987, including 29 No. 1’s. His biggest hit, 1971’s “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” sat on the pop chart for four months. Although proud of his trailblazing achievements, Pride—who died of complications from Covid-19—bristled at talk of race. “I’m no color,” he said. “I’m just Charley Pride, the man.” He was born in Sledge, Miss., “the fourth of 11 children in a family of sharecroppers,” said The Washington Post. 

The kids slept three or four to a bed and picked cotton when not at school. Young Charley was a fan of Hank Williams and bought a $10 Sears guitar at age 14. But he also idolized Jackie Robinson and thought baseball could be his way out of poverty; he left home at 16 to pitch for a Negro League team in Memphis. Pride tried out for several major-league teams before an arm injury derailed his ball-playing dreams. He moved to Helena, Mont., where he shoveled coal at a smelting plant, said The New York Times. Country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley discovered Pride singing before a 1962 semipro baseball game and persuaded him to make a go of it in Nashville. 

Record executives loved his resonant baritone but refused to believe a black man could play country. “Now sing in your regular voice,” he was told at one audition. Signed to RCA in 1965, Pride became “the label’s second- biggest- selling artist after Elvis Presley,” said The Times (U.K.). “His success was hard won.” Producer Jack Clement hired musicians for Pride’s first recording session by asking, “I’m fixin’ to cut a record with this n-----. Are you free?” A drunk George Jones once painted “KKK” on Pride’s car. Nashville eventually accepted Pride: The Country Music Association named him Entertainer of the Year in 1971, and in 1993 he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Pride studiously avoided controversy. But in his 1994 memoir, he recalled how singer Webb Pierce had once told him it’s “good for you to be in our music.” Pride replied: “It’s my music, too.”