The accomplished singer-songwriter discusses his successful career as an African American country music icon.
Singer-songwriter Charley PrideOriginally aired on December 16, 2016
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with country music legend, Charley Pride. Charley has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in the history of country music and is credited with helping to break the color barrier by becoming the first African American super star in the genre.
This year marks his 50th anniversary as a recording artist. He remains loved and respected around the world, so we are glad you’ve joined us for a conversation with Charley Pride in just a moment.
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Tavis: Charley Pride is a true living legend. He has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in the history of country music. He is a three-time Grammy winner who has sold tens of millions of records worldwide.
Today he celebrates 50 years as a recording artist and I am honored to finally have him on this program to discuss a trailblazing career. But before we start that conversation, first a look back at Charley Pride performing “Just Between You and Me”, his first success on the country charts.
Tavis: How’d that sound to you all these years later?
Charley Pride: Well, it sounded like what I’m still doing [laugh].
Tavis: To what do you attribute the fact that you are still doing this 50 years later?
Pride: See, of course, I want to get in as much when you ask a question. Let me say it like this. I love what I do. You remember the song called “That Old Black Magic Has Me in Its Spell” by Billy Daniels? We were touring over in England at the same time and we were on.
I said, “Well, I’m gonna go hear this guy sing”, so I went to see him. 65 years old. His voice just pummeling out there. I said, “Well, I sure hope my voice is like that when I’m 65.”
Here I’m about 20 years difference and people saying, “You still got it, Charley! You sound as good now as you did ever.” I said, “Well…” I just did a sold-out performance in Wendover, Nevada just about four days ago. That’s why I say I’m still doing what…
Tavis: How have you taken care of this instrument over these years?
Pride: I don’t have no answer for that other than just a blessing. I followed Elvis out in 1971 when I won Male Vocalist Entertainer of the Year. I hear people talk about Vegas Throat and all that. I never drank any water or nothing when I’m performing. I don’t have any answer other than I’m just blessed.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Let me go back to the beginning. From Mississippi?
Tavis: So we have that in common. Of course, you sing much better than I do, but we’re both from Mississippi, so I got that in common with you. From your earliest recollections, how did you get turned on to country music?
Pride: Well, see, my dad had an old Philco radio and nobody used the knobs on there or turned the knobs but him. You buy a battery that had old tar on it and everything. We tried to put it–sometimes we put it in the oven and maybe keep the battery longer, you know.
Well, Bill Monroe was his favorite–and we get the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville and he was one of his favorite singers. I remember his favorite show was “Mr. District Attorney” on radio. I’m gonna do this for you. I’m gonna give you a snap never recorded. I remember it’s always been in here since I was this high.
“Mr. District Attorney, guardian of the people. Jay Joslyn in the title role. Len Doyle as Harrington. And Vicki Vola as Miss Miller. It shall be my duty as District Attorney not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all persons accused of crime perpetrated within this county, but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of its citizens.” [laugh]
So it’s the same–all right, the first time I saw a television and the guy I saw on there, there’s a café in Sledge where they could walk down the middle, the owner. He served me and, if you were white, he’d serve you. I could probably spit on you if I wanted. But that’s the way it was. Up on the little mantle was a TV and here’s what–it went like this.
“Howdy, all you friends and neighbors. Join us in [inaudible]. Tune up your five string banjo, hang up your fiddle and your bow. Roll back the rugs on the floor. Light up your old cob pipe ’cause everyone’s gonna have some fun at the Grand Ole Opry tonight.” That was Carl Oswald, but his real name was Kirby.
So my mother used to order group’s pictures from them and I still had them, but my father and mother are both gone, but I would love to have those right now, you know, to have the announcers on each corner of the picture.
Tavis: So your mother and father, then, are the ones who introduced you to country music?
Pride: And everything else.
Tavis: And everything else, yeah. When did you first get an instrument, a guitar?
Pride: I was 14 years old and I picked cotton to buy it. My mother, she used to order a lot of boots and all those–you remember when you go to school those bibbed overalls and you put a flute down. So we used to wait until they come back and I love the smell of those boots and everything. But she ordered a guitar from Sears Roebuck.
And let me tell you. I never will forget and I’m pretty sure that the Country Music Hall of Fame would love to have it. It was a $14 guitar. I got it that evening and was out by the lot in the wagon. Went back in the house and it rained that night. Think about that. It rained that night…
Tavis: You had left your guitar outside?
Pride: I left it out in the…
Tavis: Oh, Lord.
Pride: And I never could keep it in tune, Tavis. I never could keep it in tune, but I’d always try to keep [inaudible[. Finally, my mother was coming up on the porch. We lived in an old shotgun house, you understand? Oh, you’re from Mississippi.
Tavis: I’m from Mississippi, yeah [laugh]. One way in, yeah, exactly.
Pride: Open up from the center and, pow.
Tavis: Shotgun straight through, exactly, yeah [exactly].
Pride: Okay. So she was walking up on the porch coming in in the back. She said, “Boy?” She went [inaudible]. She called it my box. “You better go up and look at…” I had it up in the top. I got up there and it had doubled together.
Pride: You see, it was only taped. I mean, it was only glued and so I lost everything. Finally, I kept everything but, for a long time, the neck. Last time I remember seeing it was out in the dust going out to the…
Tavis: But how did you get proficient playing a guitar that had been damaged in the rain? How’d you get good at this?
Pride: Okay, let me give you this. I didn’t.
Tavis: Okay, you didn’t, okay [laugh].
Pride: Now here’s what happened.
Pride: When I got the guitar, I mean, it played pretty good until I kept trying…
Tavis: Kept bending, yeah.
Pride: Okay. I stopped and got by the radio. I don’t know whether it was Ernest Tubb or whoever, “And I’m walking the floor over you”, thum-thum-thum-bing. So that’s the way they ended it. So I took the guitar and tuned it to thum-thum-thum-bing. Then I can boom-chicka-chicka.
That’s the way I played it till I got to start recording. It’s called bar chords. I barred mine. You remember the song, Jimmy Rodgers had the song, “Kinda funny how the Lord made the bee and the bee made the honey, Honeycomb, Honeycomb”? Remember that?
Tavis: I remember it, but I’ve heard the song. I don’t remember the song, but I’ve heard the song.
Pride: Well, he chorded his with his thumb. I did mine with these two fingers here. So I had nobody out there in the country to…
Tavis: To teach you.
Pride: To show me how to tune it, so that’s what I…
Tavis: So you learned to play by ear.
Tavis: You would just listen to the radio and tune everything…
Pride: I could do everything by whatever you hear me sing or do. I don’t read a note of music.
Tavis: So from this $14 guitar your mother got you, when did you get a real guitar where you could really start to…
Pride: I’d say when I moved–well, I went in the Army and I think that’s when I got my other one, my next one. I remember going down to where Elvis and Roy Orbison and all the guys, and Jerry Lee Lewis, in Memphis. So when I got out of the Army, I went in [inaudible]. I went down and I got to tell you this too. When you ask me, there’s so many I can give you…
Tavis: Yeah. PBS. Let loose, yeah [laugh].
Pride: Well, I went down and this song, Dion and the Belmonts, I believe, had “Strollin”, I believe. “There’s my baby walking in…” and I did it in kind of in an Elvis type. “There’s my baby walking in the door”, so that’s the first time I ever been in a recording studio. So I did this and he said do it again. Now here’s what has happened.
I’m gonna have to condense it down because the guy, Sam Philips, I did it, but I called it “Walking”. It was called “Strolling”. I thought if I did “Walking”, you see, ’cause I started trying to learn publishing and all that stuff. and maybe if I just put “Walking”, it might be mine. I always wanted to be as good a businessman…
Tavis: You were young, but you understood publishing rights. You understand how to write your own concert. Okay.
Pride: You know, I always wanted to be a good–anyway, I just got it back. What happened is they put a shuffle on it. “There’s my baby walking in the door”. I got it. I finally got it back from Europe. What they did, they put the shuffle on and it sold a lot of those things over there in Europe.
And it happened to me again when I did the Edmonton Symphony–this is after I done got into the business. We had eight cameras. I had to fly all the way from Hawaii to do the thing. I thought I was gonna go the next day, but we got there–this is before the security I had to go through.
So I get there by 6:00 and they said, well, you gotta go to Edmonton today. So I ran home, repacked, got back out, caught the plane, did this Edmonton Symphony. I mean, I thought I was about the best Edmonton Symphony. I think it’s the first one I ever done and it was good. Had a green suit on, so people say, “I saw you in a symphony.”
What they did, they took–when I agreed to do the symphony, they had eight cameras. Now, Tavis, they didn’t have any DVD like that, so I didn’t have no language to put all those eight cameras together and they put it on DVD and sold them over in Europe. They made a ton.
Tavis: They made a ton of money, yeah.
Pride: I still ain’t got to them…
Tavis: You didn’t get any of that, did you?
Pride: Not a nickel. I said, “Can’t you do something? It’s me. Is somebody like this? Everybody can take”–but anyway. That’s where it happened.
Tavis: I want to go back to this clip that I played earlier because it occurred to me–I think I knew this, but in preparing for our conversation, I was studying a bit more in-depth. You were actually starting to make hits in the last 60s, so you were coming into your own as a Black country star during the height of the civil rights movement.
Pride: Now there we right there. Now let me just give it to you right now.
Tavis: Okay, give it to me.
Pride: That’s what I tell people. My career was flat smack dab in the middle of the civil rights movement.
Pride: So the people will say to me, “Man, you must have had it hard.” And I say, “No” and they look at me. I said my troubles I had was the promoters didn’t want to book me because they thought it was too early to try it, you know.
Tavis: Too early? What you mean it’s too early to put a Black man on stage?
Pride: Yeah. Let me throw in that there too because when a reporter when a lot of times I was being interviewed, they’d say, “Well, Charley, how did it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music?” Or they’ll say, “How does it feel to be the first colored country singer?”
Or they’ll say, “How does it feel to be the first Negro country singer?” Or “Charlie, how does it feel to be the first Black country singer? Or “Charlie, how does it feel to be the first Afro American country singer?” I say, “Well, I feel the same way when I was colored. I don’t feel no different.” [laugh].
That’s the way I answered it because, you see, I’m a staunch, staunch American and that’s what I’ve always been. And I’ll throw in this. My oldest sister, she just passed away about three months ago or so.
She used to say to me, “Charles–they call me Charles–you think you’re better than we all? Why you singing their music?” I said, “Well, honey, it’s not my music. This is when I’m growing up to.” “Well, you don’t talk like…” I say, “I talk and do the talk the best way I can and do whatever I can do with my voice.”
Now I talk [inaudible] sometimes, Tavis, but what I said to her, I says, “It’s my music too.” A lot of my peers, which all of them are really in my corner, I’m trying to make sure I come back to the point about being Black and being the first…
Tavis: In the civil rights era, yeah, sure.
Pride: And the first record, which was “Just Between You and Me”. Well, and another thing. When it comes in here, I’m gonna have to try to jam it in. I was told when I came to Nashville by my one and only manager I ever had, he says, “Charley, you’re gonna have to get by some people in Nashville.” I said, “Yeah?” He named one special right out of the bag: Faron Young.
I said, “Okay. We’re on our way to Nashville at this time. When we get there, we want to look him up and get it out of the way right now.” So we looked at this club and we jumped that club and we went to this club. Finally found him with a bandanna around his head, with the microphone plugged in a tape recorder.
So I was like this coming when we found him. Jack told me, he said, “When he meets you, he probably gonna say you’re one of those N words that are trying to sing country music.” I said, “Okay, I’ll be ready for that too.” So I got by here and he ran up ahead of me…
Tavis: Your manager.
Pride: Only manager I ever had. He said, “Faron? I want you to meet Charley Pride.” His shoulders went like that and he turned and he got up and he says, “Charley Pride, you sing a fine song.” I said, “Well, you do too, Faron” and we shook hands. I don’t know where the guitar came from, but he would sing one and I would sing one. Finally, he said, “Well, how do you know? I’m here singing with a jig and don’t mind it.”
I said, “I thought you were gonna say the big N word. I was gonna come right back at you just like this. I was gonna say you’re a little pucker-mouth banty rooster.” He said, “You were gonna say that?” I said, “That’s the way I was gonna come back at you.” Now I was just in “50 Years of Country Music”. I opened for “50 Years of Country Music”. They used for what we call traditional singers.
His son, Robin, he came over and he mentions all the times that you and Dad, about that very thing. This is a Faron son. Sit and eat with his daughter, Faron’s daughter. Now he become one of my very staunch supporters. Now people say he used to–and I never heard him say this, but I heard people say.
They would ask Faron, “Would you take Charley out on the road?” “I’m not gonna take no jig out on the road and try to prove nothing. I make $200 and some thousand dollars a year.” Guess who was one of the first who took me out on the road? Faron Young.
Tavis: So Faron didn’t give you the kind of pushback that your manager had predicted you were gonna get from him.
Tavis: But did you get pushback being the first country star of African descent? You had to get some pushback.
Tavis: You didn’t get any?
Pride: Here’s what I got…
Tavis: Except from the promoters who didn’t want to book you.
Pride: Well, now if anything was said to me like what was told to me that Faron was gonna say or I can give you things–I want to give you a couple of examples. I’m just starting out. I’m going to Texarkana, Arkansas. I’m playing VFW.
Up comes this guy. I don’t whether he was kidding around or was serious, but he came up to me and said, “Charley Pride? He said, whatever his name was, I’m the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I like to shake hands with a man.” This is what he said. And I would say this if that’s what happened.
He could have said, “Charley Pride, I’m the–well, Tavis Smiley or whoever, had it been you–I’m the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan here in Texarkana. When you get through, we’re gonna tar and feather you.” Now he could have said that, right? I didn’t have no guards or no…
Tavis: Security, yeah.
Pride: Security around me and all that. Now people say, “Well, why you think that you didn’t have–like I said. When I say to a reporter I have not one iota who calls out of my audience and he’ll give me that I can’t believe, you got to be lying look, I say, uh-oh, you’re giving me that I can’t believe, you got to be lying look.
So I started naming my accomplishments. I say a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame between Gladys Knight and Leonard Bernstein. See, sometimes you get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and you might put it over on that little old…
Tavis: On a side street [laugh].
Pride: Well, no, not a side street, but a little palm over there and somebody might–you know, you never know what happened to it. So I said three Grammies. I just started naming. I said now I’m Grand Ole Opry, so I’m second only to Elvis Presley. They sold the most records on RCA.
So they go like–I say now if you given me that I can’t believe, you got to be lying look, if I’m lying to you, it ain’t gonna help me get no more Grammies. It ain’t gonna help me get no more stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, so why should you be giving it to me? But I’m not lying to you. It didn’t happen.
Tavis: So let me ask this question then. So you’re telling me that you were never treated in a racist manner? It didn’t happen, to quote you. But what also didn’t happen–hold on now. What also didn’t happen is that a bunch of Black people followed you in. Why not?
Pride: All right, let me give you an example of that. Well, see, that’s not their music. Y’all limit us. We live–remember our culture. Remember what I said about my sister?
Tavis: Your sister said, “Why you singing their music?” But you said it’s all our music.
Tavis: You said it’s our music as well.
Pride: Wait a minute. Yeah, mine.
Tavis: Yours but not ours?
Pride: No, no. It’s ours if you want it.
Tavis: Okay. So more Black people didn’t want to sing country?
Pride: Well, you have to ask them. I’m not speaking for them. Dr. King did all that, to show and speak for whoever they wanted…
Tavis: But I’m asking why didn’t more Black people follow you in when you kicked open the door.
Pride: We went, we meaning Don Meredith of the Dallas Cowboys, which I did the anthem for them in the first Super Bowl. We went to Toronto, Ontario to do a pilot for a potential like way before “Hee-Haw”. So we get there. The ones that went there to do that pilot was Don Meredith, Brenda Lee, Ferlin Husky, Joe Tex and Charley Pride. Now I’m standing and I don’t know who it was, Brenda Lee or Ferlin Husky.
Now, Tavis, here’s the deal. I’m sitting with Joe Tex’s drummer and he said, “Did you ever listen to any other music when you were growing up?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” I started naming people like Jackie Wilson and that made sense ’cause we were on the same label, I mean, Sam Cooke and I.
So I got ready to say Jim–he says wait a minute. He says, “You for real, ain’t you?” I said, “What?” He interjected and said, “You for real.” I said, “What do you mean?” He say, “Well, I see you singing that music and making that money and sounding the way you sound like them, but I didn’t know you talked like them too.”
That’s what he said. So I ain’t had nobody say nothing like that to me before, so I marked that down. The ones that didn’t have a chance to say that to me, they’re out there. Of course, I can tell.
There’s a lot out there who probably think I’m an Uncle Tom, and I despite Uncle Tom, because he didn’t supposed to be. Because my mother and father taught me the best I could how to what I call maneuver and deviate around and be the staunch American that I always believed I am.
And I got nothing against anyone that want to do what they want to do. See, that’s me. I try to do what I want to do and get what I want, the least amount of infringement on the next fellow. That’s the way I’ve always tried to do.
Tavis: My time with you is up. Let me ask you this. Did you ever feel offended when your sister repeatedly asked you before she died three months why are you singing their music?
Tavis: You never were offended by that?
Pride: No, sir.
Pride: No, siree. That’s the truth.
Tavis: So you have nothing but pride in this career, pardon the pun. Nothing but pride in this career you’ve established.
Pride: I try. I mean, I’ve been very blessed. See, you ask me what do I do to keep these pipes when I mention about Billy Daniels, it’s a blessing. I’m blessed. See, I’ve had an operation on my right vocal chord, but the only thing I lost was the real deep bass ’cause I was singing four octaves. “Way on down, way on down.” But I could go…
Tavis: High as you want to go.
Pride: Just about.
Tavis: Well, you’re still doing it 50 years later. Honored to have you on this program.
Pride: I been wanting to get with you a long time.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad you came in, man. You got more career than I got time [laugh], but I’m glad to have you here. It’s been 50 years of Charley Pride making hits and he’s still doing it five decades later. Congratulations. An honor to have you on, sir.
Pride: The time’s up?
Tavis: That’s how fast it goes.
Tavis: Like 50 years goes right by real fast, don’t it?
Pride: Well, not that [laugh].
Tavis: On that note, I’m out of here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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