Interview: Charley Pride Reflects on 50 Years of Country Music Memories
In April of 1966, Charley Pride released his debut album, Country. In the 50 years since, the 82-year-old has released more than 40 studio albums; charted over 60 singles and notched more than 30 No. 1 hits; and earned three Grammys and multiple CMA Awards. As an African-American, Pride has also been a trailblazer in country music: On Jan. 7, 1967, he became the first Black singer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and Darius Rucker says that Pride paved the way for his own acceptance in the genre decades later.
The Boot recently sat down with Pride — who is currently touring in celebration of his golden musical anniversary — to discuss the most memorable moments from throughout his 50-year career, what achievements he’s most proud of and why he still isn’t done making music.
How does it feel to be celebrating 50 years in country music?
I don’t think about the 50 years part of it; I just think about the beautiful blessing and success I’ve had on this journey. I try not to measure it in how old or many years or that sort of thing. I measure it in what I’m into, which is music. I’m still here, and they’re still coming to see me, and I’m very pleased about that.
Do you have a most memorable moment from your career?
There’s so many. But when I first went into the studio, I had only been in the studio once in my life. I went in and cut “The Snakes Crawl at Night;” I was on my vacation, and I went down to my mother-in-law’s, in Mississippi.
I heard it played, and it sounded so good. This is not bragging, but I was afraid it was going to sound so bad because I was so nervous. I was so nervous to go in and do what I did. It’s almost like, “That’s not me.” My stomach was butterflies.
I got my first royalty check. It was $138 … My second royalty check was $16,000. The third royalty check was $62,000. I said to my wife, “This is $62,000!” That was memorable.
You were one of the first black country singers to find any success.
A lot of people will say, “How does it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music?” Or, “How does it feel to be the first colored country singer?” “How does it feel to be the first Negro country singer?” … I don’t feel no different.
What I believe is that with the success of Jackie Robinson — and my career was right smack-dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, with Martin Luther King Jr. and all that … The difference with Jackie Robinson and Charley Pride is, he was specifically picked to do what he basically did, to break the barriers … I’m here by choice.
Nobody sat me down and said, “Go sing country music.” I’m here by choice, and there is a difference … When I walked on that stage, they didn’t care if I was green. That’s what I believe, [and] I think it worked.
When you were first starting out, rumor has it, at least, that your record label, RCA Records, refused to tell anyone that you were black.
Chet Atkins took “When the Snakes Crawl at Night” to the RCA bigwigs, out in Monterey, Calif. [He] played it for them…. They all looked at one another [and said], “He’s colored. But, unanimously, we’re still going to sign him, but we ain’t going to say nothing. We’re going to let the record speak for itself and put it out there.” In doing that, all kinds of things come about, and they still happen.
I don’t have the answer, and I don’t think anybody does.
What are you most proud of?
I’ve got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, three Grammys, second only to Elvis [Presley] that sold the most records on RCA … member of the Grand Ole Opry. Now I’m in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Do you have a favorite song you’ve recorded?
The answer to that is, it’s the one I’m singing at the moment. And that’s not just a quick answer; that’s the truth. I’ve got so many.
When you go overseas, especially Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia and New Zealand — mostly English-speaking places — they take those albums, and they hear my album cut, and they love it better than the biggest single you ever had. This was my producer’s policy: His [idea] was not to get the biggest single, which in my case was “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and then put a few around it on an album and just fill it up with fillers. His policy was, everything we cut, we’ve got to think it can be a single. Plus, if it’s a B song, we want to make it an A; if it’s an A song, we want to make it a double A. That’s why I think I sold so many albums. I didn’t sell so many singles, but albums, sometimes I had two or three on the Billboard charts at one time.
To me, the song I’m singing at the moment is the one I like the most.
Are you working on new music?
We’re getting ready to record; in fact, I’ve got them with me right now. I’ve got them on cassette … I try to listen and get them to be — when I sing them, they’re going to be mine, and not the guy I’m listening to. I like the song, what they did to make me like the song, but I’ve got to now make it me. So that’s what I’m doing right now. I usually — when I first started out, and I still like to do this, I like to live with them and listen to them.
My fans think I’m singing better now than I ever did … I think I’m still learning how to sing … I believe I am. I learn how to phrase the songs better. I think you still can learn.