Forgotten Artists: 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.
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