The Courageous Humility of Charley Pride 

How country’s first Black superstar broke barriers while thriving in the genre’s commercial mainstream.

by
Charley Pride performs in the 1970s. Credit: David Redfern/Redferns.

People call Charley Pride the Jackie Robinson of country music. But they may not know that the Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman provided the example that set Pride — who died from complications related to Covid-19 on December 12, at age 86 — on the path to his groundbreaking country-music career.

When Robinson made his major-league debut in 1947, just as Mississippi’s cotton-planting season began, the 13-year-old Pride believed he’d seen his future — and a way out of the sharecropping life. Pride would follow in Robinson’s footsteps, though not through baseball, where he washed out in auditions for the Los Angeles Angels and New York Mets after playing for Negro League and low-level minor-league teams from Memphis, Tennessee, to Montana. Instead, Pride would break the color barrier in country music, becoming a legitimate superstar during his era and building a recording career that spanned decades.

Like many rural Southerners, Pride grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on his parents’ radio, its 50,000-watt clear-channel signal beaming the voices of country stars like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb directly into his soul. Even on Pride’s most popular recordings — like 1971’s crossover smash, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” — Pride’s burnished baritone shows traces of those singers’ honky-tonk nasality. Pride would have hits covering three of Williams’ songs — “Honky Tonk Blues,” “You Win Again” and “Kaw-Liga,” which became a concert staple.

When Pride finally made his way to Nashville in the mid-1960s and signed with RCA Records, he presented a dilemma to the label and his producer, “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Pride clearly had incredible potential, but if they pushed his persona too far in one direction they risked blowback from audiences — or, worse, radio programmers — that weren’t ready for a Black country singer; if they pushed too far in another, they could turn him into a novelty act. Instead, they took Pride straight down the middle of the road, even sending out his first records without a publicity photo, to help make sure his music got a fair shake.

Pride released his first records four years after Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music redefined what could be done with a country song, but Pride didn’t sound anything like that. Nor did he draw from either Motown Records’ ascendant sound of young America or the country-soul hybrids being made by interracial groups of musicians in Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Pride’s records — particularly early highlights like “Just Between You and Me” and “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” — had a traditional bent, but not the edge that would attract rock fans. They incorporated elements of adult-oriented pop, notably in choruses of backing vocals, though rarely enough to attract interest from pop radio (aside from “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”).

Pride favored material with a casual, disarming intimacy that matched his delivery: “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me),” “She’s Too Good to Be True,” “Someone Loves You Honey.” About the closest he ever came to social commentary was a 1985 single called “Down on the Farm,” which he performed at the first Farm Aid, singing, “If we can send a man up to the moon, we can keep a man down on the farm.” If a part of Pride’s life is found reflected in his songs, it’s the devotion he felt toward his wife, Rozene Cohran Pride: The couple would have celebrated their 64th anniversary on December 28.

Pride and Robinson shared at least one trait, the ability to let whatever indignities they suffered in their trailblazing roles roll off their backs, at least publicly. When Pride took the stage, he often would dismiss the racial tension in the room with a well-rehearsed quip about his “permanent tan.” He made it easy to like him, and country audiences responded enthusiastically.

It’s said that at one point Pride was RCA’s best-selling artist after Elvis Presley. To put that in perspective, consider this: During the first decade of his career, Pride had 11 albums certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. That’s more than Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, George Jones and Conway Twitty had combined during the same period.

Unlike Robinson with baseball, Pride and his success didn’t result in a radical change of country music’s racial makeup. A handful of Black acts were signed in his wake — notably Linda Martell, Stoney Edwards, O.B. McClinton and Big Al Downing — but none came close to replicating his accomplishments. Darius Rucker, the next Black singer to have a No. 1 country hit as a solo artist, wasn’t even born when Pride released his first single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night.”

As much as country music’s largely white audiences might have identified with parts of Pride’s story — his sharecropping childhood of poverty, his love of Hank Williams, his trading in a childhood dream to find his calling in another area — they couldn’t possibly have understood so many of his experiences. The tedium of winning over houses, one by one. The barely disguised racism and the insensitive jokes masquerading as geniality. The being singled out as “proof” of country music’s advancement while also deflecting accusations of selling out by singing white music for white people. His clear discomfort with the incessant questioning from reporters about his racial role in country music, decades after his achievements placed him among the most successful artists — of any stripe — that his genre had produced.

Pride gave his final performance on November 11, singing “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” during the CMA Awards. He sang with Jimmie Allen, a chart-topping Black country artist who clearly idolized Pride. Afterwards, Allen said, “It’s just such a privilege to be with the guy that was so important in my life, in making me feel comfortable with chasing this country-music dream. Knowing that ‘You know what? There’s somebody that looks like me that did it, and sold 70 million records.’”

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