Thu July 28, 2011
Charley Pride: An Authentic Country Voice, 40 Years Later
By Jewly Hight
Nashville, TN – Forty years ago today, Charley Pride and his longtime producer Cowboy Jack Clement walked into a recording studio after lunch and emerged before dinner with three new tracks. Pride had no idea this one would become a country colossus: From WPLN in Nashville, Jewly Hight has this past and present profile.
When a young pitching prospect named Charley Pride realized all his hustling in the Negro American League and the minors wasn't going to get him to baseball's major league, he turned his attention to a world that hadn't yet had its Jackie Robinson country music.
For Pride, nothing could've been more natural.
"The steel guitar and the fiddle, I mean, background singers and things like that. And the four-four beat and all, I cherish that. I just love that," Pride says.
Pride digested that tradition growing up the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who ruled the family radio.
"So that's how I got used to listening to the Grand Ole Opry. His favorite artist was Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys." Pride continues, "In fact, my mother ordered pictures and all of them."
Years later, no publicity photos were sent to radio stations with Pride's 1966 debut single "The Snakes Crawl at Night". That way people would hear him before they got a good look at him.
It's hard to imagine now, but that modern murder ballad seemed a safer way to introduce Pride to the country audience than a love song, so no one could say he was aiming romantic lyrics across the color line.
"The thing is, they didn't want me singing ballads, right then, love ballads," Pride explains. "And it ended up that's what my fans like me singing the most is love ballads."
When he opened his mouth and sang, barriers fell away. Here was an unabashedly country crooner who could please diehard honky-tonk fans, and win over the very mainstream Lawrence Welk TV Show audience.
In 1971, Pride earned two of country music's top prizes CMA Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year. And he scored the crown jewel of his 29 number one hits.
Pride stayed on the country charts all the way through the 80s. But when his airplay stopped, his recording career didn't he just slowed the pace. The 73-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer produced Choices, his first album in eight years, recording some of it at Jack Clement's home studio. One of the hardest parts was finding songs.
"But then my wife and all the people around me, we got to talking and said Why don't we go back, you might say, to the well?' And that means people like Ted Harris that wrote "Crystal Chandeliers"."
And, posthumously, Ben Peters, the guy responsible for "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'", and this new cut Except For You.
It's no wonder Pride is turning to proven sources with the body of work he has behind him.
"Jack Clement said to me one day, he said Charley, the songs we're recording now, 50 years from now they'll be playing.' And so we're almost there right now," Pride said.
At the 40th anniversary of Kiss an Angel, at least. Next, Pride wants to set his musical legacy in celluloid. There's talk of a biopic with a big-name actor. But it will have to be an open-ended movie. He's still putting that mellow, Mississippi baritone to good use.