Charley Pride Reflects on His 50th Chart Anniversary & Lack of Diversity in Country Music

Charley Pride
Ben De Rienzo

Charley Pride

From picking cotton to beating Willie Mays, Charley Pride talks fighting the system and thriving for 50 years in Nashville.

There are three African-Americans in the Grand Ole Opry: legendary harmonica player DeFord Bailey (1899-1982), Hootie & The Blowfish alum Darius Rucker (inducted in 2012) and Charley Pride (inducted in 1993). The Sledge, Miss. (pop. 529) native went from picking cotton to pitching in the Negro American League to becoming RCA's second-best-selling artist ever (Elvis Presley holds the crown) thanks in part to 29 No. 1s on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Classics like "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'," "Just Between You and Me," and "(I'm So) Afraid Of Losing You Again," combined with his 12 (12!) Top Country Albums No. 1s brought him to No. 6 on Billboard's Top Country Artists of All Time list, ahead of Garth Brooks (8), Alan Jackson (9), and Tim McGraw (10).

"Charley is not just a legend in country music, but a legend in general," says Rucker, who recently duetted with the 78-year-old singer at a Nashville benefit. "When I first signed with Capitol Nashville, I said to myself, 'I can put up with anything, because whatever happens to me, Charley Pride went through things that were 10 times worse than I will ever encounter.' "

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Billboard chart debut (Nov. 6, 1966, when Country Charley Pride arrived at No. 40 on Top Country Albums), Pride speaks about his long road to becoming an icon.

AP Photo/Charles Harrity
Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia is joined by Barbara Mandrell and Charley Pride as he entertains at a Country Music Association reception for members of Congress on April 23, 1980 in Washington.

What was it like playing in the ­Negro Leagues?

Most kids, when they're growing up, have some kind of dream. Where I'm from, we'd sleep three and four to a bed -- chopping wood and milking cows, that sort of thing. When I saw Jackie Robinson go to the major leagues, I remember picking cotton alongside my dad and thought, "Here's my way out of the cotton fields." I had the fastball, curveball and the change-up, and I could get people out with all three. In 1956, Willie Mays led a barnstorming tour [of exhibition games], and [the Negro American League All-Stars] were the only team to beat him, 4-2. I'll always keep that clipping.

At the beginning -- until I cracked my elbow -- my dream was to go to the majors, break the records and set new ones by the time I was 35, and then sing.

What inspired you to turn to ­country music?

The people in the Grand Ole Opry. My dad had an old Philco radio, and nobody could turn the knobs but him -- so that's what we heard. Bill Monroe was his favorite singer. I got hooked on it. I bought a guitar, but I was out in the country and I didn't know how to tune it. So I'd hear [the arpeggios], and just tune it that way.

What do you think about country music today?

It's alright, but I'd like for it to still be a little more traditional, like myself. I think it will revert to that sound soon -- at least, more than it does now. From the ones who influenced me -- Bill Monroe and Ernest Tubb -- I take it all the way up to George Strait, and that's who I consider to be last of the traditional guys. But I don't kick success, you know? My policy is if you can't say something good about something, don't say nothing. And I haven't said anything bad about anybody.

Why do you think the genre is still predominantly white?

It's a combination of the culture and a lot of other things. I was watching the Olympics, and the first African-American woman [Simone Manuel] won a gold medal in swimming. Why is that? They weren't competing. Even when I was a little above somebody else [who was white], he or she would be given the job -- that's the way it worked. Promoters were reluctant to book me. When you ask why things haven't changed, I just say, "How far do you want to go back?" Do you want to go back to 1817? Once someone in the industry said to me, "I don't mean no harm" -- you know, just throwing that in -- "but I want to ask: How come every time we let y'all in, you just take over?" I told him, "See that barrel over there? Go peek in it. Oh, look, there I am, down at the bottom! Now where is there for me to go?"

Promoters were reluctant to book me because of the uniqueness of the situation, but I've never had not one hoot call or nothing from the audience, my whole career.

In 1966, I drove all the way from Montana to Detroit to play in a showcase with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens -- there were 10,000 people there. The thing about me is that I shocked a lot of people, because after RCA signed me, they didn't say anything [about my race] when they put the first singles out. My manager Jack D. Johnson said, "Charley, we've got to come up with something -- you can't just go out and start singing." The promoter was twirling his pencil around in his hand, saying, "It's so unique...we don't know how they're going to react. Charley, you don't have to do the show. You haven't rehearsed with the band." I said, "Do they play country music?" He said, "Yeah." The M.C. said, "How do you want me to introduce you? I gotta make them love you before you go out there." I said, "They're gonna see me when I go out anyway!"

It was time to go out -- "Ladies and gentlemen, here from RCA Records, Charley Pride!" You could hear a pin drop. So, what Jack and I came up with for me to say was: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a little unique, me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan." That got some applause. Then it was like they said, "What you got?" After the show, they had to have ushers holding the ropes along the line for autographs. That's how it's been for the last 50 years.

I used to have to be real careful about what I'd say to people. Not not being truthful, but just avoiding things that didn't need to be said. Now, I feel good just telling the truth and there it is.

You are also one of the minority owners of the Texas Rangers. How do you think the team's chances stack up this post-season?

I do think if everyone on the Rangers do what they are capable of, I think we could go all the way. We have the pieces in place, we just have to do it. As far as being a part owner, we have two billionaires and us little folks -- I have no say so about trades and that sort of thing. I think [general manager Jon Daniels] did a pretty good job with the core. I give my opinion sometimes though -- the wife don't like me doing that, but I say, "Well honey, I played the game."

I've been involved with the Rangers for 40 years -- I've known every manager. Whenever I go, they just ask, "When are you going to sing for us?" They love me to do that every year. Ball players are a superstitious kind of people, so I sing for them before every spring training. Then they say, "Now spring training has started."

There has long been talk of a ­biopic based on your life. What's the status of that project?

We're still trying to get it off the ground. It was supposed to have been done in 2008. Everything was set -- the directors, the producers, everything -- then they had the writers strike in California, and it fizzled. I got one payment out of it. I said to Creative Artists Agency, "I don't want to be like my friend Johnny Cash, trying to look up through the grass when you're doing this thing." There's so much in my head, it's like a computer. You could make three movies.

If you could go back and do it again, how would you approach your life and career?

I’d just try to do it better.