Charley Pride: From baseball player to country music icon

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations, and artists like Charley Pride that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

He was born the son of poor sharecroppers on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi, but Charley Pride had a big dream — of being a professional baseball player. Life threw him a curveball, however, and he instead made history as a country music legend.

Few things went the way they were supposed to in Pride’s early life, including his name. His father named him Charl Frank Pride, but a mistake on his birth certificate renamed him Charley. And although Charley Pride loved the blues, his father didn’t like the culture and lyrics of that genre. Mack Pride preferred the Grand Ole Opry, so young Charley listened to country music at home.

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

At 14, Charley had earned enough money picking cotton to buy a Silvertone guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalog. He learned to play by listening to the radio and "was musically schooled on the likes of Ernest Tubb, Pee Wee King, Hank Williams, and Roy Acuff," his bio on the Country Music Hall of Fame website states.

Charley Pride has had 52 songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot Country chart, 30 of which made it to No. 1. CONTRIBUTED BY RCA RECORDS

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But it was in Jackie Robinson that Pride saw his path out of the Mississippi Delta.

"I used to sit on the porch and I'd look up at the clouds," he said on the Ken Burns documentary "Country Music." "And I said, 'Boy, how'd it be to float on them clouds?' And I'd think of that, you know, when I was little. So when I saw Jackie Robinson go to the major leagues, I said, 'There's my way out of the cotton field.' "

And it was. But it wasn’t his way to fame.

Pride played professional baseball in the Negro American League as a pitcher and outfielder for the Memphis Red Sox. At age 19, he signed a contract with the Boise Yankees, the Class C farm team of the New York Yankees. A shoulder injury affected his pitching, however, and he spent the next few years playing for various teams. After a two-year stint in the Army, he rejoined the Memphis Red Sox, winning 14 games as a pitcher and earning a position on the Negro American League All-Star team.

Charley Pride, center, played professional baseball in the Negro American League from 1953-58 as a pitcher and outfielder for the Memphis Red Sox. (Negro League Museum)

Credit: Negro League Museum

Credit: Negro League Museum

As an All-Star, he pitched against a group of major-league players that included Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. He even scored a rare victory for the negro-league All-Stars by closing out a game with four innings of shutout ball.

But he never made it to the majors.

On his way home from Florida after a disastrous 1963 tryout with the New York Mets, Pride stopped in Nashville. Years earlier, country music star Red Sovine had told Pride to stop by when he became serious about a singing career.

Charley Pride loved the blues, but his father’s musical preference was country music, so that’s what Pride heard at home. CONTRIBUTED BY COUNTRY MUSIC FOUNDATION

» RELATED: Chitlin' Circuit: Black performers' soulful showcase during segregation

At Cedarwood Publishing, the company that booked Sovine’s shows, Pride met Jack Johnson, who made a couple of recordings to shop around. Johnson was still shopping those records three years later when country music legend Chet Atkins heard them. With Atkins’ backing, RCA signed Pride to a contract.

Pride’s early singles were released with no mention of his race — and included no publicity photos. So the audience was often surprised when Pride took the stage.

“You could drop a pin,” Pride told Burns. “I’d say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it’s kind of unique, me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan.’ The minute I said that, big applause. I guess they said, ‘Well — let’s sit back and see what he’s got to offer.’ Once they heard me sing, (they said), ‘I don’t care if he’s green. I like his singing.’”

Pride’s rise in country music was much faster than in baseball, and his career proved much more fortuitous.

It took only a year to crack the top 10 on the country charts, with “Just Between You and Me,” which also garnered Pride his first Grammy nomination.

That was 1967. Since then, Pride has had 52 songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot Country chart, 30 of which made it to No. 1.

Entertainer Charley Pride, shown circa 1973, went on to become the first black performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. CONTRIBUTED

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It was in 1967 that Pride first appeared on the show that influenced his musical career, making history as the first black singer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. But he wasn’t the first African American performer on the show. That honor belongs to DeFord Bailey, the first performer to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry and the first African American performer on the show. Bailey played numerous instruments, but was best known for his talents with a harmonica.

Although he didn’t join the Opry until 1993, Pride said it’s not because he wasn’t invited.

"It was purely an economical decision for me," he says on his website. "When I was first invited to join the Opry, they had a requirement at the time that you had to perform 26 Saturdays per year. Fridays and Saturdays were the best days for drawing people to shows and making money out on the road — and my career was starting to take off. So I had to politely decline."

Charley Pride (right) was with Willie Nelson to visit President Jimmy Carter for the presentation of the first Special Country Music Association Award in the Oval Office on May 15, 1979. (Jimmy Carter Library)

» RELATED: Negro leagues opened door to players who would change baseball forever

Pride made history again in 2000 when he became the first black performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Although Pride is often compared with Robinson — and has been called the Jackie Robinson of country music — the comparisons end with both being the first African Americans inducted into their respective halls of fame.

When Robinson stepped onto the field April 15, 1947, he swung open wide the doors of major league baseball and was followed by dozens of black players who have become stars of the sport. There are more than four dozen black players in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

But country music has only two black performers in its Hall of Fame: Pride (2000) and Bailey (2005). Darius Rucker is a member of the Grand Ole Opry. There aren’t many more black performers regularly played on country music stations.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.

AWARDS

Academy of Country Music Awards

1994 Pioneer Award

American Music Awards

1973 Favorite Country Album — “A Sun Shiny Day”

1973 Favorite Country Male Artist

1976 Favorite Country Male Artist

Ameripolitan Music Awards

2016 Master Award

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Inducted in 2000

Country Music Association

1971 Entertainer of the Year

1971 Male Vocalist of the Year

1972 Male Vocalist of the Year

Grammy Awards

1971 Best Sacred Performance (Musical) — “Did You Think to Pray”

1971 Best Gospel Performance (other than soul gospel) — “Let Me Live”

1972 Best Country Vocal Performance, Male — “Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs”

2017 Lifetime Achievement Award

Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame

1996 Merit of Distinction Award in the Performing Arts

2019 Mississippi Crossroads of American Music Award

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