Sunday, July 21, 2024

Country Charley’s Pride Sans Prejudice

From 1992, Dallas Morning News

by Michael Corcoran

Most of the characters of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville were loosely based on famous country singers, which caused some speculation- like, was Ronee Blakely doing Loretta Lynn, Karen Black as  Tammy Wynette? But there was no question who inspired the African-American country singer played by Tommy Brown.

“Who else could it be?,” says Charley Pride, who recorded two dozen No. 1 country hits from 1969- 1983 and was named the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year in 1971. That was the year of his signature songs “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone” and “Kiss An Angel Good Morning.”
For 24 years, until the 1991 release of Cleve Francis’ debut LP, Tourist in Paradise, Charley Pride was the only black country singer signed to a major label.

“They used to ask me how it feels to be the first colored country singer,” Pride says. “Then it was ‘first Negro country singer,’ then ‘first black country singer.’ Now I’m the first African-American country singer. That’s about the only thing that’s changed. This country is so race-conscious, so ate-up with colors and pigments. I call it “skin hang-ups’ — it’s a disease.”

In Nashville, in which the corny values and cold opportunism of Music City U.S.A. was used as an allegory of America during an election year, writer Joan Tewkesbury tried to draw out some of the complexities of racism through the Charley Pride character. “Timmy Brown” was patronized by well-meaning Barbara Jean (Blakely); called an Uncle Tom by a drunken, bitter black man in a bar; endured clumsy comments about “you people’; and had racial slurs muttered about him.

But Pride claims the script was way off the mark. “If that character was supposed to be about me it was a lie,'” Pride says. “The resentment that was portrayed in the movie never happened. That’s what everyone thought probably happened, but it never did. There’s never been one iota of Jackie Robinson-type harassment.

“Whenever I tell writers that,” he continues, “they look at me like they think I’m lying. But why would I lie? I’m a success. It would make a real sensational story if I talked about how this person called me this and that person called me that, but it never happened. Not once.” Charley proudly wore an Afro, not a cowboy hat.

According to Pride, there was only one incident in which he felt any animosity at all — and that was from a table of black GI’s in Germany circa 1966, when the singer had just begun his career.

“The audience had a line down the middle, with the whites on this side,” he says with a sweep of his left hand, “and the blacks over on this side. I told them, right off the bat, ‘I’m not James Brown; I’m Charley Pride and I’m a country singer,’ then I began my show.

“Everything was fine, except for one table that kept chuckling when I sang. Finally, I stopped the show and asked them what the problem was, and one guy stood up and said, ‘What are you going to do for us brothers, man!’ I said, ‘I see that y’all done drawn a line down the middle, with the whites over here and the blacks over there, and you’re trying to draw me into that situation. Every song I do is for my brothers over here and my brothers over there.’ They didn’t say anything after that, and they came up to me afterwards and everything was cool.”

Charley Pride dislikes interviews because of the constant racial queries –“At what point does it stop?’ he asks rhetorically — but he agreed to sit for an hour of questions to help promote his show at Billy Bob’s on Saturday.

He also had a bone to pick about Nashville’s current youth movement, which has left established stars like himself without recording contracts. At the center of his desk sits a letter from a fan bemoaning the fact that Pride is no longer played on the radio, except maybe “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” during an oldies slot. His videos are equally ignored.

“When I came up, there was room for the predecessors like Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold. It wasn’t like for every new star they had to push out an old one,” Pride says. “But country music is becoming more like pop music all the time. They play the same 20 records over and over. Here I am, singing better than ever, and I can’t even get a record deal.”

Why should he care? By 1983 he already had sold more records than any other RCA artist except Elvis Presley (who began his career as a white man singing black music).

“Why should he care?’ Pride answers, motioning toward a picture of himself with Bob Hope. “He’s done everything a person can do, but he’s still telling jokes.” Charley Pride made it as a country singer because his voice, like those of George Jones and Lefty Frizzell before him, gives a little extra. It starts with a smooth baritone, then soars and swoops all over the beat. With a voice like his, Pride could sing almost any style of music. He chose country.

His hometown of Sledge, Miss., is 54.4 miles due south of Memphis, in the heart of the Delta, and his family’s Philco radio would heat up with country, blues and rockabilly music. His father sharecropped, and when young Charley was in the fields picking cotton, he’d imitate the voices of singers like Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, whom he’d heard on the huge wooden radio. His three sisters and eight brothers would laugh at Charley, singing the white man’s music, but he would just boast that he was going to sing on the Grand Ole Opry one day.

“I’m the type of person who, when someone says you can’t do something, I’ll show ’em that I can,” Pride says. “They said I was too skinny to play baseball, so I set out to be the best skinny baseball player. When people told me I couldn’t be a country singer because of my color, that just made me want to show them that I could.”

He left home at 17 to play baseball, with dreams of starring with the Chicago Cubs. But then he was drafted in the the Army and served 14 months (“They sent me home because I was too dumb,” he says with a wink, hinting that he failed an aptitude test on purpose). He tried out for the Dodgers and was cut, so he moved to Helena, Mont., with his wife, Rozene, and their two children to play in the Pioneer League. During the day, he worked in a smelting plant.

Montana was like another country, and the Prides felt more welcome and respected, as blacks, than they ever had been before. His teammates encouraged their star pitcher to sing to the crowd before games, and he soon found a regular gig at a local country music club.

In 1963, Pride opened for Red Sovine, who was so impressed, he offered to introduce the young singer to RCA’s Chet Atkins. It wasn’t until Pride was cut by the hapless New York Mets during spring training that he decided maybe baseball wasn’t for him. He decided to give Nashville a go.

To ensure that Pride would be judged solely on the basis of his music, his first three singles were sent out to DJs without a publicity photo. The first two failed to make much noise, but the third release, “Just Between You and Me,” reached the Billboard Top 10 country chart near the end of 1969. With the hit came publicity, and suddenly the word was out, Country Charley Pride, which is how he billed himself then, was black.

Tammy Wynette with Charley

To help audiences relax from the initial shock, Pride used to break the ice by referring to his “permanent tan.’ Though black militants viewed such kowtowing as an extention of a Steppin Fetchit routine, country audiences appreciated being eased out of a reaction they probably felt guilty about.

At the time, country audiences were also victims of stereotyping — considered ignorant racists who yucked it up, chewed Red Man tobacco and fell for “the Domino Theory.’ The majority were more than willing to give Charley Pride a chance, however.

“Music is the greatest communicator on the planet Earth,” Pride says. “Once people heard the sincerity in my voice and heard me project and watched my delivery, it just dissipated any apprehension or bad feeling they might have had.”

Pride has invested his money wisely, owning a lucrative Nashville song publishing company (latest hit: Doug Stone’s “Come In Out of the Pain”), several real estate ventures and he has controlling interest of the Dallas-based First Texas bank. “Because I’m successful, they try to make me a role model, but I don’t speak for no one but myself,” he says.

“It’s time we stopped looking for role models and started getting the job done collectively. Don’t look for Michael Jordan to bring everybody up in North Carolina, and don’t look at Charley Pride and say, ‘He did it. Why don’t the rest of y’all pull yourselves up by the bootstraps like Charley Pride did?’ That’s a bad mentality.”

“Look at Mickey Mantle. He’s got a twin brother, all big and strong like Mickey, but only one Mantle brother’s in the Hall of Fame. How come Mickey’s brother didn’t hit 500 home runs? You see, we’re all different individuals. We’re not just how we look or what the color of our skin is.”

Charley Pride may dispel Nashville as being inaccurate, but the song that the Pride-based character sings seems to ring true for the country legend: “The bluebird flies, now why can’t I?’ Tommy Brown sings, following that up with, “He doesn’t answer to a time clock/ He answers to the wind.’


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