Why Charley Pride Was a Pioneer for Country Music as Well as Black Musicians

by Jeremy Helligar | via Variety Magazine, December 13, 2020

One of the most telling parts of Ken Burns’ sprawling 2019 PBS documentary “Country Music” was the section devoted to Charley Pride, who was billed as country music’s first Black superstar. In the segment, Pride, who died on December 12 of COVID-19 complicationss at age 86, tells a story that perfectly illustrates what it was like to be a Black man during the Civil Rights era singing what was — and, to many, is still — considered to be white man’s music. It also perfectly illustrates what it was like back then to be a Black man trying to make it in a white world.

Pride recalls his early days as a newcomer to Nashville in the mid-’60s and being introduced for the first time to Faron Young, the superstar who recorded the 1961 classic “Hello Walls.” Young was sort of the town quarterback, and, as Pride’s manager at the time told him, if you could win over Faron Young, you were on your way; if you couldn’t, well, better luck next life. According to Pride, that first encounter, the beginning of a friendship that would last until Young died in 1996, went something like this:

“He would sing one, and I would sing one. He would sing one, and I would sing one, And finally he said, ‘Well, I’ll be! Who would ever have thought I’m sitting here singing with a jig and don’t mind?’”

That Pride could laugh about being called what was then considered a kinder and gentler substitute for the N-word and still take it as a compliment shows us why he was able to survive and thrive as a Black man in country music at a time when Blacks may have been even less welcome in country music than in much of the United States. Armed with talent and extraordinarily thick skin, Pride, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper and the fourth of 11 children, beat the odds to become RCA Records’ best-selling artist since Elvis Presley and the third most-successful country act of the ’70s, behind Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard.

He amassed 29 No. 1 Billboard country singles between 1969 and 1983 and scored a total of 52 Top 10s, while becoming the first Black act to win a Grammy in a country category, best country vocal performance, male, for his 1971 album “Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs.” His career was a succession of firsts: the first Black artist to have a number-one country single, the first artist of any color to win the Country Music Association’s male vocalist of the year prize twice in a row (1971 and 1972), the first Black performer to win the CMA’s coveted entertainer of the year award (in 1971), and, in 2000, the first Black artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Without him, it’s hard to imagine that Darius Rucker would be enjoying life after Hootie & the Blowfish as a successful country music singer. There’d probably be no Jimmie Allen, the rising Black country star with whom Pride performed his signature 1971 crossover hit “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” at the November 11 Country Music Association Awards, where he received Lifetime Achievement honors. And we almost definitely wouldn’t have Mickey Guyton, the singer-songwriter who recently became the first Black woman to be nominated for a country Grammy since the mid-’70s with her best country song contender “Black Like Me.”

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