Forgotten Artists: Charley Pride

Paul W. Dennis | July 28th, 2008

Charley Pride

While he’s not exactly forgotten, it’s been a nineteen years since Charley Pride received much airplay on Country Radio–which seems unbelievable considering the dominant force he was on the charts. For the ’70s, Billboard has Charley listed as its third ranking singles artist behind only Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. Pride also shows up as fourth on the Billboard Country Album chart for the same decade, while Cashbox has him as its number one artist for the period of 1958-1982.

Younger listeners who have not previously heard Pride will have a real treat coming when they sample his music from the ’60s and ’70s. He has a very distinctive voice; one not easily forgotten once it’s been heard.

Originally planning on a career in Major League Baseball, Pride grew up in the cotton fields near Sledge, Mississippi, where he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. For whatever reason, Pride’s taste in music leaned towards country–perhaps he sensed (correctly) that his voice fit the genre perfectly. While pitching in semi-pro baseball in Montana, Pride was “discovered” by Red Sovine, who urged him to try his luck in Nashville. Pride did just that after his hopes of a career in baseball were gone, and soon thereafter he came to the attention of Jack Clement, then, as now recognized, a visionary. Clement did everything within his power to get Pride recorded and on a label, including self-producing the singer’s early recording sessions and shopping the masters. Clement even eventually persuaded Chet Atkins to add Pride to RCA.

Racial relations have come a long way since Pride emerged as country music’s top star and its first African-American superstar. The situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued his first few singles without the customary picture sleeves and promotional information, hoping to get Country audiences hooked before they realized his race. To get the disk jockeys to play the records, they made them as hard-core country as was possible for the time, and listed the label’s four big name producers (Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis) as the co-producers on the singles. DJs of the ’60s might not have known who Charley Pride was, but Atkins, Clement, Ferguson and Jarvis were the Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and Mays of producers, so the records were destined to get played.

Eventually country audiences tumbled onto Charley’s “permanent suntan” (as he put it), but it was too late. They simply loved his singing and would demonstrate this love by purchasing millions of his albums over the next 30 years, pushing four albums to gold status, a rarity for country albums with no cross-over appeal.

The first album, appearing in 1966, was Country Charley Pride; it had solid country arrangements and contained no hit singles as it was basically an album designed to introduce Pride to the marketplace. The songs included:

Busted” — a 1963 hit for Johnny Cash & the Carter Family, and later a successful single for Ray Charles and John Conlee. It was written by the Dean of country songsmiths, Harlan Howard.

Distant Drums” — this Cindy Walker-penned song was a posthumous #1 for Jim Reeves in early 1966–the first of several such songs for Reeves.

Detroit City” was a 1963 hit for Bobby Bare. Earlier in 1963, Billy Grammer had hit with the song recording it under the title “I Want To Go Home.” Mel Tillis and Danny Dill wrote this classic song.

Yonder Comes A Sucker” — Jim Reeves took this self-penned song to #4 in 1955.

Green Green Grass of Home” — Johnny Darrell and Porter Wagoner hit with this Curley Putman classic in 1965, Porter scoring the much bigger hit of the pair. Of course, Tom Jones would later blow both versions away in terms of total sales.

That’s The Chance I’ll Have To Take” — label mate Waylon Jennings had a minor hit with this in 1965.

Before I Met You” — charted at #6 for Carl Smith in 1956. Smith’s star had faded by 1966 but he had been one of the biggest stars in the genre during the 1950s, ranking fourth behind Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. This was Charley’s second single, issued in mid-1966. It would be the last non-charting single for Charley Pride for the next 28 years.

Folsom Prison Blues” — this was not as obvious a trendy a pick as you might think. Johnny Cash took this song to #4 in 1956 – the #1 hit version and album were still 18 months away at the time this album was issued.

The Snakes Crawl At Night” was Pride’s first single, and while it did not chart nationally, it got significant regional airplay in the south and southwest. It was, however, a great song and was, in fact, the song that introduced me to Charley Pride. I did not purchase this single but I did purchase the next several before switching to album purchases.

Miller’s Cave” — Hank Snow had a hit in 1960 and Bobby Bare had one in 1964 with this Jack Clement-penned song (both top ten records). Clement was not simply padding his coffers by having Charley record his songs, as he was a top-flight songsmith. He wrote several Johnny Cash hits, including “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” (Cash’s top charting record), and “I Guess Things Happen That Way.”

The Atlantic Coastal Line” — this was the “B” side of “The Snakes Crawl At Night” but it got some radio airplay. Mel Tillis wrote this song.

Got Leavin’ On Her Mind” — Jack Clement wrote this song, which was never a big hit, although Mac Wiseman had a terrific record on the song in 1968, and many others recorded it as well.

Normally, the strategy of introducing an artist to the public through an album entirely composed of oldies does not succeed. This time, however, the “country classics” strategy worked to perfection in priming the demand for more. Subsequent Charley Pride albums would feature new songs and more of Pride’s own hits–lots of hits. Before long, all of Nashville’s leading writers were pitching their best material to him, with Dallas Frazier being his early favorite. So successful was Pride that an incredible string of 35 consecutive songs reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox Country Charts–starting with 1969’s “Kaw-Liga” and ending with 1980’s “You Almost Slipped My Mind”, every Charley Pride single (except the 1972 two-sided gospel record “Let Me Live”/”Did You Think To Pray” and the 1979 “Dallas Cowboys” NFL special souvenir edition) reached #1. After the streak ended, Charley would have another 6 songs that were #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox. “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” released in 1971, would, of course become his signature song.

In addition to the above milestones, Charley Pride recorded a live album in 1968 at Panther Hall in Dallas, simply one of the best live albums ever. During his career, RCA issued three best of Charley Pride albums and two Greatest Hits albums with no overlap (repeat — NO overlap) between the albums and several major hits were left off completely. And, of course, the CMA Entertainer of the Year award, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the ACM’s Pioneer Award (a fitting award, if ever there was one), and several Grammy awards. Global sales reportedly brought 30 of his albums up to gold status.

During the CD era, Pride was very poorly served, at least until recently. At one point in the mid-1990s, he re-recorded 25 of his classic songs for Honest Entertainment, using the original arrangements, producer Jack Clement, and as many of the original musicians as he could find. For several years these re-makes were the only versions available, as RCA neglected its back catalog of anyone not named Elvis Presley, Glenn Miller, or Tommy Dorsey.

Pride’s voice has lost some tonal quality over the years and his success did not herald a phalanx of African-American singers into county music; perhaps that was an unrealistic expectation, since voices as good as that of Charley Pride only rarely come around.

Very rarely, indeed.

Charley Pride’s RCA recordings on CD

  • The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 1997 — an adequate overview with 20 songs, 19 hits plus a cover of “Please Help Me I’m Falling.”
  • Charley Pride’s Country – Readers Digest 1996 — the best available American collection, 72 songs, 20 or so hits plus some good album cuts and cover versions.
  • The Legendary Charley Pride — BMG Australia 2003 — 50 songs, 40 hits plus a few other songs. This collection gives you the most hits.
  • 36 All Time Greatest Hits — RCA Special Products 193 — 36 songs — about 50-50 hits and other songs.

Generally the albums from before 1972 are the best, although all of them are worthwhile. After Pride hit the big time the albums became more formulaic and contained more filler, but the hit singles remained top-notch.

2 Pings

  1. [...] (and black American) Charley Pride in 1965. Paul W. Dennis explained the circumstances well in a recent installment in the Forgotten Artists series: The (race) situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued [Pride's] first few singles [...]
  2. 100 Love Songs
    May 10, 2009
    [...] a man meeting his old flame and apologizing for how he mistreated her, then making a pass at her. Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’ - Charley Pride - Charley Pride seems forgotten these days, but he was a trailblazer. “Kiss an angel in the [...]
  1. Paula
    July 28, 2008 at 9:23 am

    In addition to the above milestones, Charley Pride recorded a live album in 1968 at Panther Hall in Dallas, simply one of the best live albums ever.

    I have this album and it is indeed one of the best. But then I never heard Cherley sing anything I didnt like. I have the “There’s A Little Bit Of Hank In Me” album also. Charley is the only person who can sing Hank songs as well as or better than Hank.

  2. Rick
    July 28, 2008 at 10:29 am

    When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s my mother would play albums by a very limited set of country artists that primarily consisted of Merle Haggard, Johhny Cash, Hank Williams, Ray Price, and Charley Pride. I guess I get my good taste in real country music honestly! (lol) Its still a thrill to hear Charley when he appears on the Grand Ole Opry.

    PS – Now I see why this series isn’t on the “Country Universe” blog where Charley was recently spotlighted as “An Artist Who’s Music / Success I Just Don’t Get”…..(lol)

  3. Scott
    July 28, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Charley Pride is performing at the Opry next Friday and Saturday (Aug 8 and 9)

    http://www.opry.com

  4. leeann
    July 28, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Hey, now, Rick! I love Charley Pride!:)

  5. Matt C.
    July 28, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    I’ve heard Marty Stuart tell a story, by way of paying tribute to both Charley Pride and Dallas Frazier, of listening to the radio during his boyhood in Mississippi and hearing the DJ sob uncontrollably after playing “All I Have to Offer You is Me.” It’s the consummate country song, and Charley Pride is the consummate country artist. I wouldn’t call him forgotten, but he is unjustly omitted from mention alongside more familiar country legends.

  6. mikeky
    July 28, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    i don’t think we should forget the contribution willie nelson made to helping charley pride. pride was having a hard time getting hits (and getting radio airplay) until he got the official willie nelson stamp of approval. nelson and pride toured together back in the days when a black performer was looked upon VERY suspiciously by country music fans. and willie’s response was to kiss pride flat on the mouth ONSTAGE. this particular story is told in various places (including pride’s autobiography and various books on nelson). willie nelson’s contribution to getting charley pride the respect he deserved shouldn’t be overlooked. race be damned; a great singer is a great singer.

  7. Paul W Dennis
    July 28, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Don’t pick on Kevin at Country Universe. Kevin accepts opposing opinions quite graciously. These articles are over here at The 9513 because Brady asked me to do them. Kevin has urged me to start my own blog and I’ve never gotten around to it. If I ever do , it will probably be titled something like “Country Curmudgeon” or “Grandpa’s Country”

    The Willie Nelson story is oft-told, and while it may have helped Charley in Texas, Willie’s influence outside of Texas was minimal. Charley reached national stardom as a performer several years before Willie’s breakthrough

  8. J.R. Journey
    July 28, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    I know this piece is actually about Charley Pride, but my question is about the man who urged him to come to Nashville – Jack Clement.

    After reading about him in the Johnny Cash autobiography, Cash, I became intensely interested in him. The country music resources just don’t list him as the visionary I assume he is. If Johnny Cash and Paul W Dennis say it’s so – I am inclined to believe it. So where can I find out more about him? I have googled him and all I can really find is a small but very informative wikipedia article on him.

    Anybody?? …

    P.S. Countryuniverse rocks!

  9. Paul W Dennis
    July 28, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    http://www.cowboyjackclement.com/bio/articles/quick_bio.html

    try the website above

    Jack has issued two records (about 25 years apart and perhas one book

  10. Razor X
    July 29, 2008 at 11:30 am

    As far as CD releases of Pride’s RCA recordings, you should have mentioned the 2 disc “Essential Charley Pride” released in 2006 by Sony Legacy, which replaces the 1997 version you referred to. I purchased this collection a few months ago and have been playing it non-stop ever since.

    A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who is 27 years old. He said something about how Cowboy Troy being the only African American to make it in country music. He’d never heard of Charley Pride, which validates the “forgotten artist” label. I gave him a copy of the Essential collection to listen to, and now he’s a big Pride fan.

  11. northtexas
    July 29, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Is Darius Rucker’s “DON’T THINK I DON’T THINK ABOUT IT” the first country top 20 (possibly top 10)single by a black artist since Pride?

  12. Jim Malec
    July 29, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Yes.

  13. J.R. Journey
    July 29, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Thanks for the link Paul. That is one awesome site … can’t believe I didn’t find that via google.

  14. Homebody
    August 3, 2008 at 9:06 am

    I was surprised that “The Snakes Crawl at Night” was not only not a Top 10 hit, that it did not even chart. It got massive airplay here in SC.

    By the way, Jack Clement acts as DJ on one of the Sirius stations I listen to, either the Classic Country or Outlaw Country. He tells lots of stories between the music. With these two stations, I actually started enjoying listening to country music “radio” again.

  15. lois
    August 11, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I am trying to find who sang a song in the late 1970’s – early 80’s that had the lyrics… and when I die you can bury me under a cyprus tree.. or maybe it was “bury me neath a cyprus tree.. It was a country song. Thanks,
    lois:o)

  16. Ron
    August 11, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    I read in the 9513 Archives about a Charley Pride movie of his life starring Terence Howard. Is there any update on this project?

  17. Thomas
    August 15, 2008 at 10:54 am

    had you asked somebody in the german-speaking world at the end of the seventies, who were the most famous country singers, the answer, most likely, would have been:
    “dave dudley, hank snow, charley pride” and possibly johnny cash. how come?

    in 1978, the german country outfit “truckstop” had a big radio hit with “ich möcht so gern dave dudley hörn” ( engl. “i’d love to hear dave dudley”). a song in which a trucker laments that the radio station is only playing a/c dance music after midnight, when he’d love to hear dave dudley, hank snow and charley pride…but the next afn would still be far away. a catchy melody, pedal steel and some name-dropping made it a smash-hit in germany, austria and switzerland.

    i don’t think most of us could name one of charley pride’s many hits from the top of our heads but there was no doubt that he had to be a great one. :)

    there’s a youtube-clip, “truck stop – i möcht so gern…”. enjoy country music european style. the guys are still successfully touring.

  18. james Barnes
    June 9, 2009 at 10:13 am

    I am looking for this 3 cd set! Please tell me how I can get my hands on it!
    Jimmy Barnes
    Charley Pride’s Country – Readers Digest 1996 — the best available American collection, 72 songs, 20 or so hits plus some good album cuts and cover versions.

  19. Denise Otradovec Gossett
    March 18, 2011 at 2:33 am

    I grew up listening to Charlie Pride, I was 2 when his first album came out, and i can sing most all of the songs from his first 3 albums. My mother loved his voice, When she past I got all her albums. I have a total of 21 different ones from 1966 to 1979. I have his first five albums. I’ve been trying to find a list of all his albums

  20. Paul W Dennis
    March 18, 2011 at 5:23 am

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