With 36 number one hits under his belt, Charley Pride, who is black, has helped prove how little race matters to the majority of country music fans. It's taken a long time to understand that, though. His first single, "Snakes Crawl at Night," was released without publicity photos, as some in the industry feared listeners would automatically reject a black country singer. Since then, Pride's 12 gold albums in the United States, combined with 30 gold and four platinum internationally, place him in the Top 15 all-time country record sellers. His easygoing singing style and easy-to-listen-to voice show why these honors have come his way. From picking cotton in his native Mississippi, Pride ended up working in a smelting plant in Montana after a stint as a semipro baseball player. At the suggestion of Red Sovine, Pride moved to Nashville, where he was signed by Chet Atkins of RCA. In 1966, "Just Between You and Me" brought Pride a Grammy nomination and national fame. At the end of the '60s and the early part of the '70s, he had five number one singles in a row, including "All I Have to Offer Is Me" and "(Is Anybody Going To) San Antone." Numerous awards came in 1971 and 1972, with many more hits following, among them "She's Too Good to Be True," "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'," and "Night Games." Pride's warm baritone voice and relaxed style made him the highest-selling act for RCA since Elvis Presley.
Pride was born on a cotton farm in Sledge, MS. His father was a sharecropper on the farm at a time. When he was 14 years old, Charley bought a guitar from Sears Roebuck and proceeded to learn how to play by listening to country music on the radio. Two years later, he turned his attention to baseball. He joined the Negro American League, playing with the Memphis Red Sox. After playing ball for two years, Pride joined the U.S. Army, where he served for two years. Upon his discharge, he intended to return to baseball, but he sustained injuries that affected his throwing arm. Discouraged that he couldn't qualify for the major leagues, Pride began working construction in Helena, MT, while he still played in the minors. Eventually, he earned a tryout for the California Angels in 1961, but they turned him down; the following year, the New York Mets rejected him as well.
Following his rejection in baseball, Pride turned his attention to music, and in 1963, he sang "Lovesick Blues" for Red Foley and Red Sovine backstage at one of Sovine's concerts. The veteran musicians were impressed and told Charley to go to Nashville. Heeding their advice, he traveled to Music City, but he couldn't break into the industry. However, both of the Reds and Webb Pierce kept recommending the fledgling singer to their associates and eventually helped him secure a management deal with Jack Johnson. Through Johnson, Pride met Jack Clement, who sent a demo tape of Pride's to Chet Atkins at RCA, who signed the vocalist in 1966. Later that year, Pride's debut single, "The Snakes Crawl at Night," was released but was issued without a publicity photograph, since the label was afraid that radio programmers would be reluctant to lend support to a black country singer. Both "The Snakes Crawl at Night" and his second single, "Before I Met You," gained a small audience, but it wasn't until "Just Between You and Me" that Charley became a star. Released at the end of 1966, "Just Between You and Me" climbed to number nine and began a virtually uninterrupted streak of Top Ten singles that ran until 1984; out of his 54 singles released during those 18 years, only three failed to crack the Top Ten.
However, Pride's success didn't arrive as easily as it may seem. Though he was praised upon the release of "Just Between You and Me" and won a Grammy award for the single, there remained resistance in certain quarters of the country audience to a black performer. Nevertheless, the consistent quality of Pride's music and the support from his fellow musicians helped break down doors. And the doors began to open very quickly -- on January 7, 1967, he became the first black artist to perform on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1925. Over the next two years, his star steadily rose, and between 1969 and 1971, he had six straight number one singles: "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)," "I'm So Afraid of Losing You Again," "(Is Anybody Going To) San Antone," "Wonder Could I Live There Anymore," "I Can't Believe That You've Stopped Loving Me," and "I'd Rather Love You." All of those singles also charted in the lower regions of the pop charts, giving evidence of his smooth, country-pop crossover appeal. "Let Me Live," taken from his gospel album, Did You Think to Pray?, temporarily broke his streak of number one singles in the spring of 1971, but it won a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance. Directly after "Let Me Live," two of his biggest hits -- "I'm Just Me" and "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'" -- arrived, earning him his greatest success on both the country and pop charts.
Throughout the '70s, he continued to chart in the upper regions of the country charts, earning number one singles like "It's Gonna Take a Little Bit Longer" (1972), "She's Too Good to Be True" (1972), "A Shoulder to Cry On" (1973), "Then Who Am I" (1975), "She's Just an Old Love Turned Memory" (1977), and "Where Do I Put Her Memory." During this entire time, he never changed his country-pop style, though he promoted new performers and songwriters like Ronnie Milsap, Gary Stewart, and Kris Kristofferson. Pride's success continued during the first half of the '80s, as he continued to have number one hits like "Honky Tonk Blues" (1980), "Mountain of Love" (1982), "You're So Good When You're Bad" (1982), and "Night Games" (1983). During 1984 and 1985, however, he grew frustrated with RCA Records, who began to promote newer artists at the expense of veteran performers like Pride himself. He left the label at the end of 1986, signing with Opryland's 16th Avenue label, where he returned to working with his old producer, Jerry Bradley. Pride had a number of minor hits for the label, highlighted by 1988's number five "Shouldn't It Be Easier Than This," before it collapsed. Pride moved on to Honest Entertainment in the early '90s, where he released My 6 Latest & 6 Greatest, where he dueted with the likes of Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt. Pride didn't record much after that album, yet he continued to be a popular concert attraction. On each of his shows, he was supported by his son Dion, who played lead guitar. In 1994, Pride was given the Academy of Country Music's Pioneer Award. ~ David Vinopal