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The son of a Sledge sharecropper, Charley Frank Pride first won notice as a singer when music was just a sideline to his early baseball career. Taking a shot at what seemed an unlikely career in Nashville, he went on to record fifty-two Top Ten singles, twenty-eight of them No. 1 hits. Singing honky tonk songs in his remarkable baritone, Charley Pride became a country music legend and the most successful African American artist of the genre.
Born on March 18, 1938 in Sledge, Charley Frank Pride was one of eleven children, the outgoing son of poor, sharecropper parents. Pride family entertainment focused on the radio—dramas, baseball broadcasts, and his father Mack’s favorite, the Grand Ole Opry. Young Charley would sing along with Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Williams, and at age 14, he got his first guitar. It was baseball, though, that he would first pursue as a career. He was a pitcher and outfielder with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League, had try-outs with the New York Mets and California Angels, and stands with minor league clubs in Montana. He’d been singing country for teammates on bus trips, and in Helena, Montana, began appearing in clubs. A local disc jockey arranged for him to audition for Red Foley and Red Sovine as they passed through; they recommended him for a publishing contract and recording audition in Nashville.
Pride quickly found a manager in Jack Johnson, but it would take more than a year, into 1966, for a recording contract to follow. While early string bands, blues and R&B singers had occasionally performed country songs, and DeFord Bailey had been a harmonica star of the early Opry, there was no precedent for an African-American singer achieving country music stardom. Charley Pride possessed a rich, distinctive, unquestionably country baritone, and brought extraordinary clarity and affecting simplicity to the traditional honky tonk country he favored. The country audience would prove very accepting of that talent. When “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who’d produced Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Records, recorded a few songs with Charley, RCA Victor agreed to give the idea a try. Pride was a successful recording artist from the release of his first single “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” and by the third, “Just Between You and Me,” he reached the Top Ten.
Most all of Charley Pride’s 50 singles between 1966 and 1984 would be Top Ten hits, 28 of them Number Ones, including the million selling “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and such soon-to-be country standards as “All I Have to Offer You Is Me,” “Is Anybody Going to San Antone?,” “Crystal Chandelier,” and “Someone Loves You Honey.” A massively successful live act across multiple continents well into the 21st Century, Pride was voted the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1971, the top male vocalist of 1971 and 1972, and became a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1993. His memoir, Pride: The Charley Pride Story, was published in 1994. In 2000, Charley Pride, already a legend, was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2008, he was presented a lifetime achievement award by the Mississippi Arts Commission.
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