Charley Pride is the first African-American country singer to ever perform at the Grand Ole Opry. In total, he's sold some 70 million records and recorded dozens of No. 1 hits — and in two weeks, Pride will be presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys. Pretty extraordinary for a man born and raised in Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper.
He grew up 275 miles from Nashville with dreams of playing major-league baseball. But after a few years of playing for the Memphis Red Sox and a few more in the Army, he moved to Missoula, Mont., where he was encouraged by some music-industry friends to audition his voice. Not long after, he was in Nashville, demonstrating his yodel to a white publicist who represented a publishing company.
"He said, 'Where you from?' I said I was born and raised in Mississippi but I live in Montana. 'Well, how did they take you up there?' I said, 'Bout the way you doin' right now' — because, you know, the pigmentation I had me," Pride recounts. "And they say, 'Oh, you look like them and sound like us.'"
Even today, country has a reputation as music for a white audience. But Pride says he resists being thought of as a pioneer, even though he was confronted with the notion throughout his career.
"I've never seen anything but the staunch American Charley Pride," he says. "When I got into it, they used different descriptions. They'll say, 'Charley, how did it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music?' or 'How did it feel to be first colored country singer?'
"It don't bother me, other than I have to explain it to you — how I maneuvered around all these obstacles to get to where I am today. I've got a great-grandson and daughter, and they're gonna be asking them that too if we don't get out of this crutch we all been in all these years of trying to get free of all that, you see? 'Y'all,' 'them' and 'us.'"
Charley Pride spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about his life in country music and his relationship with Elvis Presley. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS AN ANGEL GOOD MORNING")
CHARLEY PRIDE: (Singing) You've got to kiss an angel good morning and let her know you think about her when you're gone.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Ah, the signature tune of country singer Charley Pride, just one of dozens of No. 1 hits he's had. In total, he's sold some 70 million records. Pride was also the first African-American singer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry - that was in 1967.
And in two weeks, Charley Pride will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys - pretty extraordinary for a man who grew up in Mississippi the son of a sharecropper.
Charley Pride spoke to us from the studios of KERA in Dallas, and he told us about his early baseball career and how he discovered country music.
PRIDE: We had an old Philco radio my dad bought. And of course he was the only one that'd mess with the knobs. And whatever we heard is what he heard. So Nashville was about 275 miles from where I was born down in Mississippi. And it was 50,000 watts, and that's what we got every Saturday. And I just got kind of hooked on it. And I bought me a Sears Roebuck guitar and started emulating the singers, and that's - and one thing led to another from baseball to segueing into this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you originally wanted to be a Major League Baseball player.
PRIDE: Right. See, when I saw Jackie Robinson go to the Major Leagues, I'm picking cotton beside my dad. And I said, uh-oh, here's my way out of the cotton field. So when I saw him go to the majors, I said, boy, I tell you, if I'd like to go to the Major Leagues and break all the records, then set new ones by the time I'm 35, 36, then I would sing. That's kind of the way I had it kind of planned.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're playing baseball - tell me about how you made the transition into being a full-time musician.
PRIDE: Well, I went in the Army in '56, got out in '58. I still was signed to the Memphis Red Sox. And I - but when I went in the Army, I was single. But when I came out, I had married and had a kid. I had a chance to try to get my release from Memphis, and I read an article in The Sporting News - baseball players capable of playing A-ball, write this number. I got a reply from Missoula, Mont. And when I got to Montana, Red Foley and Red Sovine came up there to do a show. I went out backstage. They let me sing on the show. They said, you ought to go to Nashville. I went to Nashville.
PRIDE: I went to Nashville, and the guy that was doing public relation for the publishing company they had told me to go to, he come in and heard me. I sang for him. He said, where you from? I said, I'm from - born and raised in Mississippi, but I live in Montana. Well, how do they take you up there? I said, about the way you doing right now - when they see me because, you know, with the pigmentation I have - I mean, I say (yodeling). Oh, you look like them and sound like us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SNAKES CRAWL AT NIGHT")
PRIDE: (Singing) Oh, the snakes crawl at night. That's what they say. When the sun goes down, then the snakes will play.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when you went and auditioned, they said, you sound like us - I guess white and country - but you're black.
PRIDE: No, they didn't say - let me explain that, too. You see, Chet Atkins took the dub. I did a dub for Jack Clement. Chet Atkins took it out to Monterey, Calif., and played it for all the bigwigs there. And he said, how do you like this voice? So they all said, he sounds good.
So when he showed the picture and said he was colored, everybody looked at one another. But unanimously, they said - well, we're still going to sign him. We ain't going to say nothing about it, and that's the way they did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME")
PRIDE: (Singing) But just between you and me, you're too much to forget.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you a little bit, since you brought it up, about the fact that you are African-American in a genre that is still seen as, sort of, music for white America in many ways. Do you see it as that way, country music?
PRIDE: No, that's why I am where I am. I never see nothing but the staunch American, Charley Pride. But see, like, when I got into it, about the minute I told you a while ago about the you look like them and sound like us - say, for instance, like I'm talking to you - they use different description. They'll say, well, Charley, how does it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music? Or Charley, how does it feel to be the first colored country singer? Or how does it feel to be the first negro country singer? Or how does it feel to be the first black country singer?
Or - so it don't bother me other than I'm have to explain it to you how I maneuvered around all these obstacles to get to where I am today. So I'd like to clear that up because - like, I've got a great-grandson and daughter. And they going to be asking them that, too, if we don't get out of this crutch we've all been in all these years of trying to get free of all of that, you see - y'all, them and us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've read that your sister used to say to you - why are you singing their music?
PRIDE: Right, right. She passed on, just passed on about six, eight months ago. She was the oldest of 11 of us. She said to me - she said, why you singing their music? And I said, well, it's my music, too. She said, well, it ain't going to get you nothing.
Now, before she passed away, I bought her about two or three SUVs. And she tells people she said, I laughed at him and all that and told him it was - why is he playing their music? And she said, but who's laughing now?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS ANYBODY GOING TO SAN ANTONE?")
PRIDE: (Singing) Is anybody going to San Antone or Phoenix, Ariz.? Any place is all right as long as I can forget I've ever known her.
As far as being in the country music field, my greatest feeling was when I was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But it's so many other - you know, I got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame between Gladys Knight and Leonard Bernstein. I've got three Grammys. I'm second only to Elvis to have sold the most records on RCA before they sold it all to, I guess, to Sony.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you meet Elvis?
PRIDE: Oh yes, yes. We used to play the Houston Livestock Show. But yes, I met him. In fact, I went to two of his openings. The third opening I went to with him was 1971. That year, I won male vocalist and entertainer of the year. I was out in the audience.
He said, ladies and gentleman, out in the audience is a - (singing) the easy part's over now. That's the line in one of my singles - and he says, Charley Pride. So I waved and everything, and he invited us all up to the suites. Then I got up there, Lulu, and I walked all the way around all those 15 suites up there. I said, boy, this is a long way from picking cotton beside my dad trying to get here, you see? So you just think about those kind of things, too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charley Pride, he'll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys on February 12. He joined us from the studios of KERA in Dallas.
Thank you so much, sir, for taking the time to talk to us today.
PRIDE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS AN ANGEL GOOD MORNING")
PRIDE: (Singing) Kiss an angel good morning, and love her like the devil when you get back home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.