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Charley Pride

`I’m Just Me’, his huge C&W hit of 1971, probably sums up the self-effacing ethos of million-selling black country star CHARLEY PRIDE, a man who has always taken his unique position in his stride. There have certainly been other African-American country artists, but none have achieved the same level of mainstream, crossover success.
Born March 19, 1938, Sledge, Mississippi, and growing up among the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta, PRIDE was exposed to the sounds of Nashville’s WSM Radio from an early age. Although his first love – much like SLIM WHITMAN – was baseball, he inherited his father’s love of C&W and eventually purchased his own Sears’ Silvertone guitar. In his late teens he played baseball in the Negro American League with the Memphis Red Sox before a short stint in the US Army. PRIDE’s subsequent attempts at trying out for the Major League were rebuffed and he increasingly focused his talents on music. Based in Montana, where he worked in a steel plant, PRIDE got talking to RED SOVINE and RED FOLEY backstage after one of the former’s concerts. The pair advised him to head for Nashville where PRIDE’s initial attempts to break into the music industry came to nothing.
Eventually, through a chain of contacts that included the two Reds, manager Jack Johnson and producer Jack Clement, Charley came to the attention of CHET ATKINS, who signed him to R.C.A. Records, in 1966. His brooding debut single, `The Snakes Crawl At Night’ was famously promoted to radio minus a publicity shot in an attempt to head off any prejudice. The ploy worked: by the end of the year, “Country Charley Pride” – as he was initially billed – had breached the country Top 10 with the Grammy Award-winning `Just Between You And Me’. His early ‘67 appearance at that bastion of white country conservatism, the Grand Ole Opry (the first black man to perform there since DeFord Bailey in the 1920s), seemed to confirm PRIDE’s acceptance.
Through the late 60s and early 70s, he became one of the genre’s biggest stars with a string of country No.1s, including `All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)’, `Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone’, `I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me’ and `I’d Rather Love You’. The sun-ripened warmth of PRIDE’s deep south baritone lent an appeal to his music that ran the breadth of the country music spectrum and even stretched to the lower regions of the pop charts; albums, too, had their day, his most popular arriving in the space of only a few years: CHARLEY PRIDE – IN PERSON (1969) {*6}, THE SENSATIONAL CHARLEY PRIDE (1969) {*6}, JUST PLAIN CHARLEY (1970) {*6}, CHARLEY PRIDE’S 10TH ALBUM (1970) {*6} and FROM ME TO YOU (1971) {*6}.
1971 also saw the release of his two most recognised hits, the aforementioned title track from his sixth Top 50 album, I’M JUST ME {*6}, and `Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’, the latter of which nearly reached the official Top 20 pop charts. An undercurrent of gospel also characterised PRIDE’s approach, both in the unaffected grace of his voice and his female backing vocalists. Thus it came as little surprise when he cut a full album’s worth of religious material, DO YOU THINK TO PRAY? (1971) {*5}, a favourite on Christian radio and yet another Grammy winner. 1971 also saw PRIDE named Entertainer of the Year by the CMA, the first black singer to be bestowed such an honour.
He continued to rack up country hits throughout the 70s including further No.1s such as `It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer’, `She’s Too Good To Be True’, `A Shoulder To Cry On’ and `She’s Just An Old Love Turned Memory’. While his style increasingly veered toward the lighter side of country-pop, his records were rarely lightweight; the likes of 1973’s AMAZING LOVE {*6} compared with latter day ELVIS for epic, string-drenched balladry. Towards the end of the decade (after numerous LPs), even country couldn’t escape from the all pervasive influence of disco and, while the title piece from YOU’RE MY JAMAICA (1979) {*5} wasn’t exactly dancefloor material, its Caribbean flirtations worked surprisingly well. Ditto 1981’s `Never Been So Loved (In All My Life)’, although 1983’s truly awful `Why Baby Why’ prefigured the likes of BILLY RAY CYRUS and other New Country horrors. Much more interesting for hardcore country fans was his 1980 tribute set, THERE’S A LITTLE BIT OF HANK IN ME {*4}, which spawned a No.1 C&W single, `Honky Tonk Blues’. It wasn’t the first time Charley had covered the legendary singer; `Kaw-Liga’ giving him a big hit back in ‘69.
While PRIDE had himself been instrumental in the careers of younger artists like Dave & Sugar, RONNIE MILSAP, Gary Stewart and Johnny Duncan amongst others, he became increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as an ageist policy at R.C.A. He left in 1986, signing to the small Nashville-based 16th Avenue label where he enjoyed a clutch of lesser hits. When the company subsequently went bust, he moved on to the strangely named Honest Entertainment. 1994’s MY 6 LATEST AND 6 GREATEST {*5} found him re-working a number of his old hits alongside newer material with guest spots by the likes of HAL KETCHUM and TRAVIS TRITT. A little later, PRIDE paid his respects to another country legend on A TRIBUTE TO JIM REEVES (2001) {*5}. Charley is currently living out his years in Texas; his final appearance on record coming courtesy of 2011’s CHOICES {*5}.
© MC Strong GRD/outtake/BG // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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