Charley Pride

TrackAlbum / Single
Crystal ChandeliersThe Country Way
Wings Of A DoveMake Mine Country
Is Anybody Goin' To San AntoneCharley Pride's 10th Album
Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'Sings Heart Songs
All His ChildrenRCA Victor 74-0624
Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta TownPride Of America
You Win AgainThere's A Little Bit Of Hank In Me
Roll On MississippiRoll On Mississippi
Mountain Of LoveCharley Sings Everybody's Choice
Have I Got Some Blues For YouAfter All This Time

Charley Pride photo 1

 

 

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Charley Pride playlist

 

 

 

Contributor: David Lewis

He was a staple on radio when I was growing up. He was an immensely successful recording artist with sales second only to Elvis on the RCA label. Charley Pride amassed 56 Top 10 hits between 1966 and 1987 – 29 of them No.1s. He was the first black superstar in a predominately white genre – country music. (I’ll look at some of the nuances of this a bit later.) But he was as authentic and honest as any of his contemporaries.

I find myself writing this after his death in 2020 – a year that has taken far more than it has given it seems. Charley’s death, by COVID-19, saw an outpouring of grief and sympathy for his family. He was born in 1934, a son of sharecroppers in Mississippi. He grew up in Sledge, Mississippi, a cotton town. After a stint in the army, and a period as a professional baseball player, he moved to Nashville in 1960 and through hard work and talent, very quickly made an impression.

He was a trailblazer. Although his music was very much a typical Nashville sound, he did an excellent job of it. He was, as I mentioned above, a black man in a white dominated industry during a period of civil rights unrest, and the unravelling of the Jim Crow laws. He did not march at Selma, nor stand with Dr. King. He didn’t need to. He broke barriers in the simplest of ways – by being himself. There’s a story where Charley was on a tv show with some other black musicians. After his set they asked when he was going to relax and be himself. Charley, in his Nudie suit, Stetson hat, boots and belt-buckle said “I am being myself”. By singing honest songs of his audiences, he exuded an authenticity that many couldn’t.

He wasn’t really the first black country artist, nor was he the first influential black figure in country music. He is, though, the most influential, and the biggest seller. If one listens carefully to Jimmie Rodgers, and compare him to, say, Robert Johnson, there is a massive gulf spanning a millimetre. The gulf is social, and economic. The little difference there is matters, though. A.P. Carter relied on a black man, Lesley Riddle, to find new tunes, which he’d memorise and sing to him. Carter would take the publishing credit. DeFord Bailey had been the first guest on the Grand Ole Opry in 1932, and later played in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Muddy Waters, if we are to stretch the definition a little, was the King of Country Music. Chuck Berry, for all his rock and roll swagger, was a country singer – what is Johnny B. Goode if not perhaps the most paradigmatic of country songs? There’s a young boy in a shack in the woods, a train, and a guitar. The link between Booker T. and the M.G.’s, the Swampers and the Nashville session crowd is more than geographical. Charley Pride was resolutely country. He wore the shirt, the jeans, the boots, the hat, the belt-buckle. And he sang songs which were country songs.

The history of country has been somewhat whitewashed. Many black performers were marginalised, or ‘defined’, into other genres (Chuck is an example, perhaps). Others were ignored or forced out of the industry. Charley’s quiet dignity spoke volumes. And the honesty of country – three chords and the truth, as Harlan Howard put it – suited Charley.

Charley fit well within the notion of ‘countrypolitan’. In the late 1950s and early 1960s rock and roll, particularly hillbilly cats like Elvis, had caused massive sales drops in country music. Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley and Bob Ferguson decided to counter the hit in sales by changing orchestration, changing styles. Instead of fiddles, violins formed string sections. Instead of lap steel guitars and banjos, the solid body electric guitar gave a more ‘modern’ sound. Songs were softened, and a smoother, more appealing country music appeared. Charley’s voice was perfect for the style. His voice was not as smooth as many of his contemporaries, but it worked. Chet saw him and was impressed. And I suspect Charley’s background may have helped a bit. This is not to deny, nor to downplay, the racism he faced. But he was part of an evolving and sophisticated genre, and his success later in the 1960s helped define and expand the industry. Chet rarely went wrong – as well as a great guitarist, he was a masterful producer and a first-rate A&R man. Charley was one of his great finds; and the risk of Chet losing everything by signing Charley cannot be understated. Charley faced racism daily, just about; stars who’d embraced him as a friend on stage refused to talk to him backstage. When he tried to buy a house, real estate agents refused to show him places. He put up with hundreds of micro-aggressions each day. Chet took a risk. But that risk paid off for years. And it is fair to say the world was better for it.

The Outlaws – whose numbers included Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson – were a reaction to countrypolitan. As Andrew Shields (who read an early draft of this) pointed out, Charley was not an outlaw. He didn’t have to be.

This brings us back to the notion of country music; it is generally rooted in reality. While they exist, songs of the supernatural are rare. (Ghost Riders In The Sky and Long Black Veil are two notable exceptions.) Songs of faith, rooted in community, are common. Songs of heartbreak, of financial problems, of addictions, of struggle are common. Country music expresses it all. It is not a uniquely white experience of course. Many of Charley’s songs don’t reference the black experience directly. But like Sammy Davis Jr., say, he preferred to sing to everyone. And there’s little doubt that some people listened to that wonderful voice, heard the lyrics and thought, hey, he’s just like me.

Charley started recording in 1966 but it took a while for him to find his audience. His stage presence, voice and song quality helped. He faced hostile audiences but won most of them over. And as I said above, when he started singing, he was a juggernaut.

His biggest hit was perhaps Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’. Unusually for a country song, this is about a healthy relationship and how to maintain it. Charley’s joy comes through – it’s infectious, fun and just a great song.

The follow-up was a song featured on the soundtrack of Sometimes A Great Notion (1971). All His Children seems a little uncharacteristic, until you listen closely. Henry Mancini’s sympathetic and appropriate arrangement is lifted by Charley’s heartfelt vocal.

Yet Charley could do heartbreak. When he asks Is Anybody Going To San Antone, he means it. Anywhere is better – just get him away from this heartbreak. The audience cries with him. And joins him on the long trek to Texas, or Phoenix, Arizona.

My friend Dave Stephens has written eloquently on Mountain Of Love in his wonderful article on Harold Dorman. All I can really say is that Charley does my favourite version. When he sings “you should be ashamed”, the hurt, the anger and the frustration come through. This was his 26th hit on the Country charts.

You Win Again proved that Charley had at least a little bit of Hank in him, and in 1980 he did an album of superb covers. I’ve picked this one at random. He knew his Hank. And it shows.

Charley grew up in a Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta Town and he never forgot his roots. Perhaps he was never allowed to. Nostalgia is a powerful force in country music. And though superficially it sounds wonderful – many songs talk about difficult times and places in a positive way – the way Charley sings the lyrics makes me think he’s happy for the memories, but glad they’re memories. And getting dressed up and going into town on Saturdays, eating a dust covered ice cream and then wondering how you’d get home is an Australian experience as well. This was co-written by Harold Dorman, who’d grown up in Sledge, Mississippi, Charley’s hometown, and George Gann. Note, two white men wrote the song, but Charley doesn’t change the words at all. When it gets down to it, we are the same. Another song in this vein is Roll On Mississippi – looking back at a childhood home that must have had its challenges but was still a good place to grow up. Charley sees the positive, and his audience, whether they grew up in Mississippi, Western NSW, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, or Marseilles, France agrees.

Charley was an inspiration all around the world. Indigenous Australians see him as a role model and hero (to get some idea of the relationship of country music and Indigenous Australia, I recommend Clinton Walker’s “Buried Country”, but also watch the first 20 minutes of the movie The Sapphires, which is an entertaining and somewhat reductive telling of a true story). He wasn’t just an inspiration to people of colour, though. He played to an audience of Catholic and Protestant Irish in Belfast – a unifying concert at the height of the Troubles. Crystal Chandeliers became his biggest hit in Ireland and a symbol for a future beyond the conflict.

Bob Ferguson’s Wings Of A Dove (a Country No.1 for Ferlin Husky in 1960) sees Charley at his spiritual best. The church may be different, but the god is the same. This type of song requires an authenticity of belief that is hard to fake. Charley isn’t faking it though. Like Elvis, there’s a truth that comes through in his voice when he sings gospel.

Have I Got Some Blues For You shows Charley delivering the bad news, rather than being the recipient. Released in 1987, his voice is rich and full – it doesn’t seem to have lost any range, but the experience of life, of music, and yes of blues and country shines through.

Charley Pride fought depression, racism and bigotry. Quietly and with character. He won a truckload of awards and accolades in his long career. It is a cruel irony that it seems he caught COVID-19 at an awards ceremony to honour his long career. Yet he deserved every award he earned and will remain a giant of country music. Darius Rucker and Kane Brown are two African Americans who were able to pursue successful careers thanks to Charley. And even Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, which mixes hip hop with country, can tip its Stetson to Charley and the trails he first blazed.

 

 

TRIBUTES

“I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away. It’s even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you.” Dolly Parton

“Charley was a part of my career from the earliest days when I was hanging out with Byron Gallimore at Pride Music Group. Charley was just the nicest man, generous of heart and spirit. So kind. Musically he will always be a legend and one of the country greats.” Tim McGraw

“Charley Pride was a hero, and a trailblazer in country music. Everyone who had the pleasure of knowing Charley loved him. He was truly one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I am saddened beyond belief.” Trisha Yearwood

“The most generous, kind, trailblazing man has left us. I met Charley Pride when I was 15. He gave his home phone number to my dad, and said ‘I’d love to help your son.’ And help he did. I am so blessed to have had so many memories with him. I’m devastated. You changed country music for the better, Charley. And you changed this kid’s life. We love you.” Brad Paisley

“My heart is so heavy. Charley Pride was an icon a legend and any other word u wanna use for his greatness. He destroyed Barriers and did things that no one had ever done. But today I’m thinking of my friend. Heaven just got one of the finest people I know. I miss and love u CP!” Darius Rucker

“Charley Pride will always be a legend in Country music. He will truly be missed but will always be remembered for his great music, wonderful personality and his big heart.” Reba McEntire

“So sad to hear about the loss of my old friend Charley Pride today. He was an amazing entertainer and could sing a country song like no other. I had the privilege of getting to work with him early in my career and he couldn’t have been nicer and more welcoming to a new guy.” George Strait

Charley Pride photo 2

Charley Pride (1934–2020)

 

Charley Pride – the official website

Country Music Hall of Fame: Charley Pride (2000)

Charley Pride discography

Charley Pride biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is Australia’s best jazz mandolinist, unless you can name someone else: then he’s Australia’s second-best. In any case, he’s almost certainly top 100. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost, and also plays guitar, banjo and bass professionally. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website. David is also the co-author of “Divided Opinions” published this year and derived from an established podcast on Australian politics.

TopperPost #925

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 2, 2021

    David, thanks for this superb tribute to a great Country singer. Charley’s music was played constantly on Irish radio when I was growing up. So much so that when I bought a two cd compilation a few years ago I realised that I already knew almost all of the songs by osmosis. With this piece you have done Charley proud (excuse bad pun).

  2. Dave Stephens
    Jan 3, 2021

    Congratulations David. You have put together an excellent Toppermost on an artist who was not only a fine performer but a very important one too. Reba McEntire put it very well in one of the quotes that you use: “Charley Pride will always be a legend in Country music”. I would only add, “and beyond”. It is to my eternal shame that I never got that close to his music for whatever reason: he wasn’t sufficiently outlaw, he never got close to rockabilly (and I didn’t even follow up the Harold Dorman connections), etc., etc. All I can say that it’s been my loss. What I have subsequently discovered though is that Sledge, Mississippi which has a population of 545 recorded in the 2010 Census, is certainly proud of Charley: they list him as one of their three “Notable People”. One of the other two is/was his older bother Mack who was a baseball pitcher nicknamed “Mack the Knife” and famous enough to warrant his own Wiki entry.

  3. David Lewis
    Jan 4, 2021

    Dave and Andrew, thank you for your lovely comments.
    Andrew – good music will always stay with you.
    Dave – he’s worth digging into. And the Dorman connection was a rabbit hole I didn’t want to go down but it’s fascinating I think.

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