Charley Pride, pioneering African-American country music star – obituary
Charley Pride, who has died of complications from Covid-19 aged 86, was a hugely successful American country music star who made history when in 1969 he topped the US country charts, the first black performer to achieve that feat since Louis Jordan 25 years earlier.
The song was All I Have to Offer You (Is Me), and with its lush background vocals and slick production the song epitomised the “Nashville sound” pioneered by Chet Atkins, the great guitarist and RCA executive who produced it with “Cowboy” Jack Clement.
Pride hit his artistic purple patch in the late 1960s and early 1970s with ballads of broken hearts including Just Between You and Me and Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger as well as more uptempo hits with “countrypolitan” appeal, among them Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ and the paean to hitchhiking Is Anybody Going to San Antone?
With his smooth baritone and the country twang in his voice – as well as his choice of songs – Pride sounded like a George Jones or Hank Williams, so it was not surprising that many of those who bought his records in the early days had no idea that he was black.
The record company were in no rush to correct this impression, and early demo singles were sent to radio stations without promo photos of the artist. At a now famous concert in 1966, when Pride walked on stage the 10,000 fans fell silent.
He later recalled how he tried to defuse tensions with awkward self-deprecation: “I told the audience: ‘Friends, I realise it’s a little unique, me coming out here with a permanent suntan to sing country and western to you. But that’s the way it is.’ ”
In fact, country music fans embraced Charley Pride: he went on to notch up 29 No 1 singles in the US Country charts, four of his albums made the Top 40 in Britain, and by the 1970s he was RCA’s biggest earner after Elvis.
One of 11 children of Mack Pride, a sharecropper, and his wife Tessie, Charley Frank Pride was born on March 18 1934 in the Mississippi Delta town of Sledge.
He might have been expected to listen to the blues of that region, but his religiously inclined father saw blues as the devil’s work and instead Charley tuned in to country music radio, including the Grand Old Opry, broadcast from the “mother church of country music”, Nashville’s Ryman Theatre.
Like his older brother Mack Junior, he had a flair for baseball, and after leaving home at 16 spent a few seasons playing minor league as pitcher and outfielder.
He moved to the north west and supported himself by toiling in a zinc smelting plant in Helena, Montana, before making his way south to focus on his music. His first recording was a simple blues, There’s My Baby (Walkin’ the Stroll), cut at the Sun Studios in Memphis in 1958.
Pride’s breakthrough came in 1965 when Chet Atkins heard a recorded session and offered him a contract. His 1966 debut for RCA was The Snakes Crawl at Night, a song in the raw country honky-tonk style with menacing lyrics set to an insistent melody – as a man waits in the darkness with a gun to take revenge on his faithless wife and her lover: “I did not plan to give them any warning, for the devil on my shoulder had command.”
He reached No 1 for the last time in 1983 with the disco-country hybrid Night Games.
Pride’s success did not have the effect of ushering in a host of new black country singers, however, and he showed little interest in becoming a focus for campaigning. “I truly believe music should not be taken as a protest,” the genial singer told an interviewer in 1985. “You can go too far in anything – singing, acting, whatever – and become politicised to the point you cease to be an entertainer.”
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2000 and in 2017 received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Charley Pride is survived by his wife, Ebby, two sons and a daughter.
Charley Pride, born March 18 1934, died December 12 2020