Country

The Legacy Of Charley Pride: A Bold Encounter in 1963 Led to Country Stardom

Charley Pride
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Charley Pride

For Charley Pride to present himself as a country singer at a Montana radio station in December 1963 was an audacious move.

In the previous six months, Gov. George Wallace had refused to allow two Black students to register at the University of Alabama until President John F. Kennedy called in the National Guard to protect them. A Ku Klux Klan member had killed NAACP executive Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Martin Luther King Jr. had given his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. Four Black girls had been killed in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing. And Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas just months after he had submitted a bill to Congress that would provide protections against discrimination.

Race was an American tinderbox.

Thus when Pride popped into KCAP-AM on Dec. 12, country singer Red Foley — who was there to promote a concert — had reservations as the tall Black man introduced himself and reached out for a handshake.

"Is this something pertaining to civil rights?" asked Foley, according to an account in Pride: The Charley Pride Story.

The DJ, Elmer "Tiny" Stokes, vouched for Pride, and before the day was over, the singer was able to perform two songs during the show at the Helena Civic Center. He also got a boost when Red Sovine, another hitmaker on the bill, offered assistance to get Pride a meeting at Cedarwood Publishing in Nashville.

Pride died on Dec. 12 — the 57th anniversary of that historic encounter — of complications from COVID-19 in Dallas. In the decades between, the Helena meeting — and Pride's subsequent audition at Cedarwood, where he met his first manager, Jack D. Johnson — led him to a breakthrough career. He became country music's first Black superstar, overcoming public doubts and outward hostility to find success in a genre that was closely associated with white Southerners.

Pride built his legacy in part by playing down the hurdles. A veteran of the Negro Leagues, he was still playing with the Montana State League's East Helena Smelterites at the time he wandered into KCAP. But he had always longed to reach the Major Leagues, and he studied Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1947. Pride took the same tack as Robinson, redirecting attention away from the obstacles he faced and onto his voice and the music he loved.

That voice was a convincing instrument, too. Pride was a dyed-in-the-wool country traditionalist, singing more like Hank Williams — whom he often heard through radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry during his formative years in northern Mississippi — than Sam Cooke. He also stood firm in that position. Session piano player Hargus "Pig" Robbins recalled on Dec. 11, the day prior to Pride's passing, that Pride would caution him to dial it back when Robbins added too much blues influence to a session.

Pride used his sturdy, traditional tone to amass 52 top 10 singles, with 29 of those titles — including "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'," "Mountain of Love," "Just Between You and Me" and "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone" — climbing all the way to No. 1.

He parlayed his hit list into a significant body of accolades: the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year in 1971, Grand Ole Opry membership in 1993, the Academy of Country Music's Pioneer Award in 1994, Country Music Hall of Fame membership in 2000, the Recording Academy's Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 and the CMA's Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.

Once Pride became a leader in his field, he used his position to boost younger acts. Ronnie Milsap, Janie Fricke, Dave & Sugar, Sylvia and Neal McCoy were among the artists he personally encouraged and/or actively promoted by giving them the opening slot on his concert tours.

"Without his encouragement when I was playing the Whiskey a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in the '70s, I might have never made it to Nashville," said Milsap after Pride's death.

"There is a Neal McCoy because there was a Charley Pride," said McCoy. "No other way to put it."

When Pride accepted the Willie Nelson Award in November from current hitmaker Jimmie Allen, the moment underscored the long-tail significance of the former's foray into country. When RCA released Pride's first single in 1965, the label took numerous steps to sidestep his race. The record, "The Snakes Crawl at Night," shipped without the usual PR photo; it branded him Country Charley Pride on the label; and it listed three RCA staff producers — Chet Atkins, Danny Davis and Bob Ferguson — in addition to actual producer Jack Clement in a show of support.

When Stoney Creek released Allen's first single in 2018, the label also avoided his racial status — not because it was controversial, but because it simply didn't need to be pointed out.

As recently as 2008, a radio programmer told Darius Rucker that country audiences would not accept a single from a Black man, but Rucker, Allen, Blanco Brown and Kane Brown have proven that assessment to be incorrect.

Black women are asserting themselves in greater numbers, too. During an acceptance speech the same night that Pride claimed the Willie Nelson Award, Maren Morris listed several who have inspired her. On Nov. 24, Mickey Guyton's "Black Like Me" became the first track by a solo woman of color to earn a Grammy nomination in a country category.

It's been a long, long time coming, but thanks in no small part to Pride charting his original course, change is underway in country and seemingly picking up steam.

"My heart is so heavy," tweeted Rucker on Dec. 12. "Charley Pride was an icon a legend and any other word u wanna use for his greatness. He destroyed Barriers and did things that no one had ever done. But today I'm thinking of my friend. Heaven just got one of the finest people I know."

There was, to be sure, only one Charley Pride, a man who stepped into a difficult role and used a forceful, convincing voice to become a key insider in a genre that initially thought of him as an outsider.

"He broke barriers, unprecedented at the time, and made us all realize that we have more in common than our differences," said actor Dennis Quaid, who has been developing a Pride biopic. "While Charley has left this Earth, he is now singing in the Heavenly choir."

"His last performance," noted Ken Burns, producer of the PBS series Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, "was his hit, 'Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'.' Now he is one."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.