Country Music's "Jackie Robinson"
Forty years ago today, Charley Pride and his longtime producer Cowboy Jack Clement walked into a recording studio after lunch and emerged before dinner with three new tracks. Pride says he had no idea that one of them—“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”—would become a country colossus. But to really appreciate the magnitude of Pride’s more than thirty year-long hit-making heyday, it’s best to go to the beginning.
There was a time when Pride was a young baseball pitching prospect who entertained his teammates with Hank Williams covers on the way to road games.
“My heart and my mind and my whole soul,” says Pride, “was to go to the major leagues and break all the records there and set new ones by the time I was 35, 36, and then sing.”
Once Pride realized all his hustling in the Negro American League and the minors wasn’t going to get him there, he turned his attention to a world that hadn’t yet had its Jackie Robinson—country music.
INFLUENCED BY THE OPRY
For Pride, nothing could’ve been more natural.
He describes the sound that’s long appealed to him this way: “The steel guitar and the fiddle, I mean, background singers and things like that. And the four-four beat and all, I cherish that. I just love that.”
Pride digested that musical tradition growing up the son of a Sledge, Mississippi sharecropper who ruled the family radio.
“So that’s how I got used to listening to the Grand Ole Opry,” Pride explains. “His favorite artist was Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. In fact, my mother ordered pictures and all of them.”
THE COLOR LINE
Years later, there were no publicity photos sent to radio stations with Pride’s 1966 debut single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”. That way people would hear him before they got a good look at him.
Oh, the snakes crawl at night, that’s what they say/When the sun goes down, then the snakes will play
It’s hard to imagine now, but that modern murder ballad—about a husband who shoots his cheating wife and her lover—seemed a safer way to introduce Pride to the country audience than a love song. With a storyline like that, no one could say he was aiming romantic lyrics across the color line.
“The thing is,” he says, “they didn’t want me singing ballads, right then, love ballads. And it ended up that’s what my fans like me singing the most is love ballads.”
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
Pride’s 1969 live album In Person captures him wowing a Fort Worth, Texas crowd with several songs about love, including his first top ten single “Just Between You and Me”. He also performed it during one of his appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show, with Welk—ever the courtly host—introducing him as “a gentleman who really knows how to sing country songs.”
The reality was that when Pride opened his mouth and sang, barriers simply fell away. Here was an unabashedly country singer who could please diehard honky-tonk fans, and win over a decidedly mainstream television audience with his smooth crooning and clean delivery.
In 1971, Pride earned two of country music’s top prizes—CMA Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year. And he scored the crown jewel of his 29 number one hits—“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”.
And every time they ask me why I just smile and say/You’ve got to kiss an angel good mornin’/and let her you think about her when you’re gone
STILL DRAWING A CROWD
That song—plus other favorites from Pride’s repertoire—still draws a crowd. During the annual Charley Pride Fan Club breakfast in Nashville, a hotel banquet hall buzzes with people waiting in line to shake the 73-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer’s hand.
While somebody else gets their turn with Pride, fan club member Tammy Hobbs recites the lyrics to a ballad of his called “White Houses” that her husband used to propose to her 22 years ago. The song, and the moment, are cemented in her memory.
“White houses and small picket fences,” she recites, “she’s tearing down all my defenses. My senses are gone and I don’t mind it at all. She’s got me hearing church bells ringing, wedding marches, people singing.”
BACK TO THE WELL
Pride stayed on the country charts all the way through the ‘80s; “White Houses” came out at the end of that decade. But even when his airplay stopped, his recording career didn’t—he just slowed the pace.
He produced Choices—his first album in eight years—recording part of it at Jack Clement’s studio, The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, and using some of the players he’d worked with in the early days, like steel guitarist Lloyd Green. One of the biggest challenges was finding songs.
Says Pride, “But then my wife [Rozene] and all the people around me, we got to talking and said ‘Why don’t we go back, you might say, to the well?’ And that means people like Ted Harris that wrote “Crystal Chandeliers.””
Pride cut three new ones by Harris, including the song that gave the album its title, “The Choices She Made”. He also plucked a tender ballad called “Except For You” from the catalog of the late Ben Peters, the guy responsible for “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and plenty more songs that Pride recorded over the years.
It’s hardly surprising that he’s turning to proven sources, considering the body of work he has behind him. Pride is the antithesis of a one-hit wonder.
He says, “Jack Clement said to me one day, ‘Charley, the songs we’re recording now, fifty years from now they’ll be playing.’ And so we’re almost there right now.”
At the fortieth anniversary of “Kiss an Angel”, to be exact. Next, Pride wants to set his musical legacy in celluloid. There’s talk of a biopic with a big-name actor. But it will have to be an open-ended movie. He’s still putting that mellow, Mississippi baritone to good use.