There have been many times while writing a post for Weekly Music Commentary that I think about musicians my parents truly like. Of course many of them are from the 1940’s and 1950’s, usually from the jazz genre. Every once in a while I feature a parent favorite from another, non-related music group. This week is one of those occasions. I am honored to feature country music living legend, and 2017 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Charley Pride.
My mother loves Charley Pride and has listened to him possibly his entire career which has spanned over fifty years. That fact really helps me to write about him this week because I am very familiar with his work and career. However, where would I start to write about Charley Pride for the person who may know nothing about him? I guess somewhere close to the beginning when he first chose to sing professionally.
Pride was born in Sledge, Mississippi, one of 11 children of poor sharecroppers. When Pride was 14, his mother purchased him his first guitar and he taught himself to play. Though he loved music, one of Pride’s lifelong dreams was to become a professional baseball player. This was actually one fact about Pride that I knew from years ago. As a child, I remember well an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show where he spoke about his love for baseball. It caught my interest because of my love for baseball – and not too much later music. In 1952, he pitched for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. In 1953 he signed a contract with the Boise Yankees, the Class C farm team of the New York Yankees. During that season, an injury caused him to lose the “mustard” on his fastball, and he was sent to the Yankees’ Class D team in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Later that season, while in the Negro Leagues with the Louisville Clippers, another player (Jesse Mitchell) and he were traded to the Birmingham Black Barons for a team bus. “Jesse and I may have the distinction of being the only players in history to be traded for a used motor vehicle.”
He pitched for several other minor league teams, his hopes of making it to the big leagues still alive, but the Army derailed this. After serving two years in the military, he tried to return to baseball. Though hindered by an injury to his throwing arm, Pride played three games for the Missoula Timberjacks of the Pioneer League (a farm club of the Cincinnati Reds) in 1960, and had tryouts with the California Angels (1961) and the New York Mets (1962) organizations, but was not picked up by either team.
When he was laid off by the Timberjacks, he moved to work construction in Helena, Montana, in 1960. He was recruited to pitch for the local semipro baseball team, the East Helena Smelterites, and the team manager helped him get a job at the local Asarco lead smelter. The lead smelter kept 18 jobs open specifically for baseball players, and arranged their shifts so they could play as a team. Pride batted .444 his first year.
Pride’s singing ability soon came to the attention of the team manager, who also paid him to sing for 15 minutes before each game, which increased attendance and earned Pride another $10 on top of the $10 he earned for each game. He also played gigs in the local area, both solo and with a band called the Night Hawks, and Asarco asked him to sing at company picnics.
The Pride family moved from Helena to Great Falls, Montana, in 1967, because Pride’s music career was taking off and he required quicker access to an airport. The family ultimately left Montana and moved to Texas in 1969.
Charley Pride became a historic figure in country music from the very start of his career. Pride is one of the few African-Americans to have had considerable success in the country music industry and one of only three (along with DeFord Bailey and Darius Rucker) to have been inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. My mother no doubt was drawn to Charley Pride initially because he was an African-American singing country music. Unique at the time and still quite different. However, it was not long before my mother, like many other fans, came to appreciate Charley Pride for his music first.
After a long musical career, it is an understatement to call Charley Pride a star. I love the term living legend! It implies an extraordinary career that is still going strong. This fact is true because Pride is pleased to announce he has released an album, Music In My Heart, on July 7, 2017. The project marks the CMA “Entertainer of the Year” winner’s first new studio release in more than six years, and features 13 all-new recordings, produced by traditional singer-songwriter Billy Yates.
“It was fun getting back into the studio. My goal was to record the best traditional country album possible. But I also wanted someone else to handle all of the producer chores so that I could focus more on my singing,” said Pride. “Billy Yates and I started working together early last year. His self-produced albums show a strong respect for traditional country and he’s a good songwriter too. Finding the right songs took a while and we both keep busy schedules, so this album took longer to finish than I’m used to. But we did find some wonderful songs and I’m very happy with how everything sounds. I hope everyone will enjoy listening to the album as much as I enjoyed making it.”
Fans can also catch the Grand Ole Opry member on the road this summer supporting the new album. In addition to playing some of his biggest hits like “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and “Is Anybody Going to San Antone,” concertgoers will also get a first-listen to some of the new recordings from the upcoming project. The tour will travel throughout North America, including six stops in Canada, and will cross the Atlantic for both dates of the Harvest Country Music Festival in Ireland.