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How Charley Pride Went From Negro League Ballplayer to Country Music's Jackie Robinson
Baseball and country music, America’s most celebrated forms of popular art, have much in common: They are best enjoyed on the radio, in the summer, with the windows down; they are homespun and freewheeling in theory but held rigid in reality by unwritten codes; their most gifted practitioners come up from obscurity and poverty to reach fame and fortune ... but not without first paying their dues in a series of seedy honky-tonks or crumbling minor-league parks, many of them located in the very same crumbling American towns.
At Texas Rangers camp in Surprise, Ariz., on a bright day early last March, there are more aspiring baseball players than any team could ever need. Some of them probably stand a better chance at singing country songs than ever playing in Arlington.
If they need confirmation of that, they can ask Charley Pride, who is at camp almost every morning. Everyone here knows him. He’s a Mississippi-born pitcher and outfielder, a switch-hitter, sturdy and in good shape but a little past his physical prime. Don’t blame him; he’s doing the best he can. This spring he turned 84.
Pride has owned a small stake in the Rangers since 2010, but he started training with them long before that, ever since they turned up in Texas in 1972 with Ted Williams as manager. Pride will tell anyone who’ll listen that he got a hit off of Jim Palmer one spring in the ’70s. He has his own locker in the coaches’ room, a team-issued- uniform (number 05, which he’s worn since turning 50) and cleats.
“It’s one of those rites of spring to see Charley Pride stretching in the outfield,” says John Blake, who has handled communications for the team since 1985. Blake says the Rangers were lucky to have him: “We’re not the Dodgers, we don’t have a lot of what you would call celebrity fans. And, you know, we’ve been good the last seven or eight years, but before that. . . .” He trails off.
Pride, who lives in Dallas and has a vacation home in Surprise, is known not just in North Texas but all over the world, for he is one of those people known by a unique identifier: He is the first—and still the biggest—black country music star.
Pride’s first single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” came out 51 years ago. He would in time become RCA’s best-selling- artist not named Elvis Presley and have one of country’s most successful careers, period. He’s had 36 No. 1 hits and 11 gold albums. In February he was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement alongside Jimmie Rodgers, Sly Stone and the Velvet Underground. He possesses one of the smoothest voices ever to come out of Nashville, and his honeyed baritone on heartbreak songs—“Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger?”; “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone”; “It’s Gonna Take a Little Bit -Longer”—is so warm and sweet you might wonder why any woman would have left him in the first place. He amassed a fortune and has met every president since Gerald Ford, save for the current one.
Pride’s considerable talent brought him all that way. Still, the question presents itself: How in the hell did a dark-skinned son of Mississippi, who grew up literally picking cotton, crash the country world just a few years after the height of Jim Crow? It’s all the result of one spring training more than 50 years ago.
In the spring of 1963, Pride cooked up a plan to join the New York Mets. He figured surely the worst team ever—the ’62 club had lost 120 games and spawned Jimmy Breslin’s classic Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?—could make use of him.
Pride was 13 years old on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson debuted at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Says Pride, “I saw Robinson get to the majors, and I said, here’s my way out of the cotton fields.”
He turned out to be right. But his professional career would begin a world away from home and farther still from Brooklyn: at Memphis’s Martin Stadium, the home ballpark of the Memphis Red Sox, one of the few Negro leagues clubs with a dedicated field. Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and Bill Foster had all passed through by the time a 19-year-old Pride—claiming he was 15—made his debut as a pitcher-outfielder in 1952. Pride earned $100 a month plus two bucks a day in meal money, and pitched well enough to get signed by the Yankees’ Class C team in Boise for the ’53 season. But he hurt his arm, got cut and spent the next two years bouncing around. One year he and another player were sold to the Birmingham Black Barons for enough cash to buy the team a bus.
In 1956 he returned to the Red Sox, this time sporting a knuckleball in hopes he of enduring the toll injuries had taken on his once-strong arm. He won 14 games and made the All-Star team. He met a beautician named Rozene Cohran that year, too. Her father had raised her and her sisters as big baseball fans but told them never to date players; she and Pride (whom she addresses to this day as “Pride,” like a heckler) will celebrate their 61st anniversary this fall.
Those Negro League All-Stars, once the season ended, played at stadiums all over the South against a barnstorming group of the best black major leaguers called the Willie Mays All‑Stars. Mays’s team won the first 16 games. Then, one night in Victoria, Texas, at the end of October, Pride threw four shutout innings to seal a 4–2 win for the Negro Leaguers. He keeps a photocopy of the Associated Press’ game story on hand.
Pride moved to Montana in 1960 after departing the Army, where he had he served as a private first class from 1956 to ’58, to play for the Pioneer League’s Missoula Timberjacks. The team cut him after four games. In 1961, off the strength of his clippings, he landed a tryout with the expansion Angels in Palm Springs. Again he was cut, even though he approached owner Gene Autry at his hotel and begged him for a chance to stay in camp. Defeated, he returned to Montana to play for the East Helena Smelterites, the club team of a copper smelter where he worked.
By ’63 he was a 28-year-old with a blown-out elbow. Then again, as far as organized baseball knew, he was only 24.
As wretched as the Mets were, they weren’t so desperate as to be scouting smelters’ club teams. Pride sent the clippings about his past baseball success to the general manager, George Weiss, and received no response. But he came up with a gambit: What if he mailed six Louisville Slugger Brooks Robinson–model bats with his name on them to the Mets’ camp in Clearwater? Then the team would be expecting him when he arrived.
He bought a one-way ticket from Great Falls, Mont., to Tampa, with connections in Chicago and Atlanta. It was 4 a.m. by the time he made it to the Mets’ hotel. He talked the night manager into showing him the guest register, where he found the name of an old Negro leagues buddy, second baseman Sammy Drake. Pride knocked on Drake’s door, and the stunned, half-dressed infielder took him in.
Pride’s big-league dream ended the next day. In fact, he got no further than the team bus. Casey Stengel told Weiss, “We ain’t running no damn tryout camp down here. . . . Take him downtown and put him on a bus anywhere he wants to go.” Pride asked for a ticket back home to Montana—with a pit stop in Nashville.
Pride now lives in the Dallas suburbs in an eight-bedroom mansion that he and Rozene had built for themselves and their three kids in 1975. They picked Dallas in ’69, after Pride’s career had blossomed to the point where air travel out of Montana was insufficient for his purposes. Dallas had both busy airports and pro sports.
Why not Nashville, the hub of his new industry? “We didn’t want to subject [the kids] to what we had to go through,” he says. “We figured, move to Nashville, it’d be no different. Only 275 miles from Nashville to where I was born. So we’d have had to try to get them to adjust to all that kind of stuff.”
A look around the house reveals the spoils of a prosperous career—gold records, giant Chinese urns and, in what must be the apogee of Dallas chic, a throw pillow made from a Dirk Nowitzki jersey. Pride shows off a long wall of photographs of himself with all manner of American icons: Hank Aaron, Bob Hope, John Wayne and Mickey Mantle, whose switch-hitting superstardom Pride once wanted to emulate. In an alcove there’s a picture of the Prides with Barack and Michelle Obama in the Oval Office. Pride is so pleased with it that he has made it his cellphone’s lock screen.
Pride still performs and he still records—his 46th studio album, Music In My Heart, came out this July—but, as with many folks in their 80s, his goals now tend to have more to do with his legacy than his present. To that end, he invited a reporter to the ballpark and to tag along on a four-hours-each-way ride in summer 2016 to and from a show at a county fair in La Grange, Texas, in no small part because he wants to get his movie made.
He had a project in the works at Paramount; Terrence Howard would play him. It was scuttled, he says, by the 2007 writers’ strike. Then another, to be produced by American Idol’s Randy Jackson, in which he’d be portrayed by Dwayne Johnson. That was almost green-lit circa 2011, but it’s been mothballed too.
It’s not that he wants Hollywood’s money, Pride says. He doesn’t expect much of a payout, though he figures a release would kick-start his bookings for the few years he and the Pridesmen have left to tour. What he wants is nothing less than an essential addition to American cinema. Every biopic made about a country singer has won an Oscar, he says. (Coal Miner’s Daughter? Yes. Walk the Line? Yes. Sweet Dreams? No, but it was nominated.) There’s enough material, he says, for three films.
The color barrier in country music may have been more stubborn than baseball’s. Jackie Robinson had no easy time blasting through the major leagues’ institutional racism, but teams wanted to win—and eventually it became undeniable that black players could help. But in Nashville, even as late as the 1960s, there was no way to know for sure that a black country and western artist would sell. Ray Charles had a No. 1 with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962, but two of Charles’s R&B singles had already been No. 1 hits before that.
Even the more progressive recording-industry eminences knew their audiences didn’t broadly share their views, and no industry bigwig wanted the risk of developing a black artist.
Lucky for Pride, Jack D. Johnson was no bigwig. In 1963 he was working a dead-end gig as the publicist for a songwriting shop called Cedarwood Publishing. He had gotten the idea that if he could break a black country act it would be his ticket to the top, or at least to the middle. He had gone so far as to deputize a black soul singer, Obrey Wilson, to find potential candidates.
Which is where that abortive Mets spring training visit comes in. In 1962, back in Montana, Pride had performed backstage for a couple of country artists, Red Foley and Red Sovine, when they visited on tour. Pride had found some success playing clubs up there, and both Reds figured he’d have a shot outside of Big Sky Country. They told Pride to visit Johnson at Cedarwood if he were ever passing through Nashville.
Nashville was, more or less, on the bus route from Florida to Montana, so Pride popped into Cedarwood after getting the boot from Mets camp. Johnson thought his talent scout had sent Pride. “Are you Obrey’s boy?” Johnson asked. No, Pride said, but Johnson invited him to sing anyway. Pride did Ray Price’s “Heartaches by the Number.” Johnson didn’t expect Pride to sound the way he did—but he liked what he heard.
“How do they take you up there?” Johnson asked, with the scheme starting to take shape. “About the way you take me right now,” Pride replied.
Pride first cracked the top 5 on the country chart in 1967; that same year, Stokely Carmichael’s speeches at Nashville colleges prompted race riots. Says Pride now, “There were rumors going around, ‘Who is this Charley Pride? What’s he trying to do?’ They had never met me. They had never heard my songs. [But] they had certain feelings about it.”
When “Cowboy” Jack Clement, a producer Johnson had introduced to Pride, called steel-pedal guitarist Lloyd Green in 1965 to book him for an early session, he told Green, “I’m fixin’ to cut [a record with] this n‑‑‑‑‑, are you free?”
Clement, who died in 2013, wasn’t a racist, Green says. He just had no sense of propriety. Clement wanted to be known on Music Row as an eccentric genius, says Peter Cooper, who long covered music for the Tennessean and now works for the Country Music Hall of Fame. Clement had made early-career waves at Sun Records in Memphis as a recorder-engineer and an early booster of Jerry Lee Lewis. In Nashville, Clement had written a couple of top hits for Johnny Cash. What better way to grow his renown than by producing country’s first big black act?
Before Pride’s first singles came out, Clement would bring industry people by his office to play them the record. He’d get their approval of what they’d heard. And then he’d show them Pride’s picture. He got a big kick out of that. “Cowboy used to say, ‘If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our jobs,’ ” Cooper says. Says Green, “Jack smoked a lot of weed.”
“Looks like them, sounds like us,” went one familiar refrain, Pride recalls. In fact, Pride’s early listeners didn’t know a thing about what he looked like: His first few singles went out without his picture on them, which was awfully rare. RCA called him “Country” Charley Pride on his earliest records and hesitated to let him cut a song in which he mentioned a love interest’s blonde hair. Some club promoters had to be talked into booking him; one booked him but wouldn’t promote the show.
And yet in other ways, Pride says, “the whole business bent over backward to help me.” Chet Atkins at RCA, fearing he’d be passing up the next Elvis, signed Pride despite apprehension among company executives. Willie Nelson brought Pride on stage at a tough East Texas bar and kissed him on the mouth. (Nelson also took to calling Pride “Supern----” so as, Nelson said, to blunt the force of the slur. Pride never had a problem with it.) And one night at another bar, Pride approached Faron Young, the hard-living Louisianan who sang “Hello Walls,” having heard that Young’s blessing would be important. He had heard, too, that Faron had a big mouth. But after a dramatic pause, Young said, “Charley Pride ... you sing a fine song.” “You do too, Faron.” After a few minutes, they were even singing together. “Damn, I’m singing with a jig, and I don’t even mind it!” Young said.
Pride was seen as a threat to the established order, but he had no desire to remake the industry’s sound. He wanted to sing traditional country songs like Ray Price or Jim Reeves would, like they had always been sung, just with, as Pride took to describing it in front of audiences, his “permanent tan.” Onstage, during many shows he’d swear his fidelity to country music, and talk about how he’d grown up listening to the Opry since age 5.
He says now, “In this country, there are certain things you just don’t mention, cause it just ain’t good for you ... Most of the time I back off and see if I can find another way other than confrontation. I deviate. That’s the way I did it. That’s the way I still do it. It’s the way I live my whole life.” He wiggles his hand like a swimming fish.
Here’s one thing Nashville musicians who want to eat just don’t mention: The recent redneckification of country music—but for a few exceptions, the radio hits spun most in the last two decades came practically pre-licensed to sell cars, Coors, or Cabela’s—has marooned the genre. About the only variety in mainstream country music today comes from whether the singer favors a cowboy or trucker hat.
Nashville wasn’t always so hermetic. The biggest stars of the ’40s and ’50s bequeathed their sound to rockers: Hank Williams begat Bob Dylan; Roy Acuff signed Roy Orbison; Jerry Lee Lewis inspired Elton John. And more important, country in its formative days owed much of its punch to influences drawn from the wider music world, black ones especially. Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, pioneered the country sound in the ’20s, picking up some of his style and subject matter from his father’s black railroad coworkers in Meridian, Miss. Williams, who grew up in Butler County, Ala., studied guitar under Rufus (Tee Tot) Payne, a bluesy black street performer. Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, learned the blues from cotton pickers on his family’s farm in Texas. And on the night the WSM Barn Dance, broadcast from Nashville’s 50,000-watt flagship station, was first dubbed the Grand Ole Opry (riffing on “grand opera”), the first performer to play was black harmonica superstar DeFord Bailey, blasting his “Pan-American Blues.”
And that country sound, by way of WSM’s Opry, made its way to a farm in Sledge, Miss., a small town in the impoverished Quitman County, up north in the Mississippi River Delta. (In 1968, Martin Luther King would make Quitman County the starting place of one leg of his Poor People’s Campaign.) There Mack and Tessie Stewart Pride were raising Charley and 10 other children, eight boys and three girls, in a three-room house. They were sharecroppers. To get by, all the Prides picked cotton from a small tract of land, and tended to their cow and some hogs.
During the academic year, the kids would head to the black school in town, and in the summers, they’d help out in the cotton fields. Each day hardly differed from the last, except for Sundays. Mack was a deacon in the Baptist Church, and he wanted his children to devote Sundays to worship. But Mack Jr. and Charley wanted to play baseball. They’d take their gloves and a ball to a field a mile or two up the road. Mack would always find them, and he’d whup them later with a leather strap. Tessie talked him into stopping. “Those boys are going to play baseball,” she told Mack.
Pride had dreamed of playing for the Cubs. But then Jackie came along, and Charley, like everyone else, wanted to become a Dodger. He figured he’d set some big league records and then, afterward, he’d get around to making records.
If you’re going to take a four-hour drive through rural Texas in the backseat of a Benz with a 1970s country icon, and with his manager, John Daines, and younger sister Maxine up front, you can do no better than having the satellite radio tuned to Willie’s Roadhouse on SiriusXM, the station that serves up classic country like the ’80s never arrived.
It’s a treat to hear Pride warble along to the songs of his compatriots. On “Rocky Top” he even plucks an air mandolin. And the digressions and family chatter that the songs prompt help fill the time, since U.S. 77 has a lot of road and not a whole lot to look at. Pride is given to the occasional “senior moment,” but he has fine recall of names, dates and places. Johnny Horton’s 1960 song “North to Alaska” comes on.
Pride: “This was in a movie called North to Alaska with John Wayne, Fabian, the girl—she had one name [Capucine].”
Maxine, turning around in her seat: “That man [me] is way too young to know anything about Fabian.”
Pride: “No, he’s not! I been with him at the Rangers’ game. Don’t tell me what to think!”
Maxine (to me): “Do you know of Fabian?”
I don’t. (Fabian was a teen idol whose career ran aground shortly after the release of North to Alaska.)
Maxine: “How old are you, baby?”
Maxine (to Pride): “Fabian was like in the ’50s. Come on. Fabian.”
Pride: “But he’s familiar with John Wayne.”
Maxine: “Fabian is not on the same level as John Wayne.”
Pride: “I thought you wasn’t gonna talk!”
The conversation occasionally hiccups when it comes to discussing how daunting Pride’s mission might have seemed to him back in the day, a topic he has always been reluctant to analyze for the public. He says he hadn’t thought his quest had anything in common with Jackie Robinson’s until people suggested the overlap to him.
Pride also has a habit of parrying the obvious questions even before they’re asked. “I get asked, ‘Charley, how does it feel to be the first black country singer?’ I say, ‘People used to ask me how it felt to be the first colored country singer. Then the first Negro country singer. Then the first black country singer. Then the first Afro-American country singer.’ And I always say, ‘Feels the same as it did when I was colored.’
“And when I tell reporters that I never heard one hoot call in my whole career, their eyes get so wide, they can’t believe it. I say, ‘I’ve got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame between Gladys Knight and Leonard Bernstein. I’ve got three Grammys. They ain’t gonna give me no more for lying.’ ”
Talk turns to the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick and his pregame kneeling protest. Pride says, “That’s him. I didn’t do it that way. I did it by singing, showing my talent.”
The white school in his hometown had a gym; the black school had outdoor basketball courts. A handful of Latvian immigrants came to town in the 1940s to work at the furniture factory and pick cotton. The Latvians went to the white school. “And they couldn’t even speak English!” When one of the Latvian girls wanted to give him a lift back to his house, he said no. He didn’t want to cause a scandal. “I’m grateful I can restrain myself from anger at the way things were,” he says.
The first time someone called Pride the n-word he was still in school, and working on a job in Sledge for the F.O. James Gas Company, helping to install butane tanks. The man he was assisting asked him to get a wrench; Pride brought back the wrong one.
“N-----, don’t you know which. . . .”
“My first instinct was to stomp his head,” Pride says. “But then I remembered I’m not that n‑word. I’m Charley Pride. And so I said, ‘Sir, my name’s not N-----. It’s Charley Pride.’ And the rest of the day he was more congenial. I think he felt sorry for saying that.”
He recalls reciting the pledge of allegiance in his all-black segregated school, fixing on those closing words, “with liberty and justice for all.” His voice swells repeating them now. “Then I’d look out the window and see that it wasn’t so.”
Was he upset to be living in a world like that, where the promise of equality was manifestly a lie, even to a little boy? He doesn’t exactly answer: “Didn’t make no difference whether I was or wasn’t.”
Pride’s good looks and smooth voice were surely essential to his success, but it’s hard to imagine him getting as far as he has without his charm. He is a consummate ham, eager to play peek-a-boo with babies and to chat with strangers. One way he makes friends is by guessing zodiac signs.
Pride is an astrology obsessive. (When asked about what it was like to meet President Obama, Pride says, “He’s a Leo. I have three brothers who are Leos.”) Pride says in the 1980s, he was guessing about half of strangers’ signs right on the first try. Eventually RCA prevailed upon him to stop doing it in the presence of journalists. But he’s signed to Music City Records now, so he takes two guesses to get that I’m a Libra.
The 1980s will make for a dark third act in Pride’s movie. He left RCA—they called his bluff when he complained about shabby treatment there and threatened to quit—and the No. 1s stopped coming. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was then called manic depression. Pride writes in his 1994 book that he refused for years to take the lithium prescribed to treat his condition and at times could turn paranoid and delusional: One episode involved him hurling televisions and VCRs whenever he’d hear irritating noises. In 1989 he ended up in the psych ward of a Dallas hospital. But he is healthy now—with his illness under control and a brain surgery scare 12 years in the past—which is more than many of his contemporaries can say.
He had a residency in Branson, Mo., but now that’s over. Everything since has been a years-long valedictory, with awards from Major League Baseball and the Country Music Hall of Fame, anniversary celebrations and that lifetime achievement Grammy. He still tours, because he enjoys it and doesn’t mind the money for him and his backing band. But what he wants and feels he deserves above all is that movie.
Pride has remained steadfastly nonpartisan in his career—in 1984 he even attended both parties’ national conventions. In 2011 he cut a track called “America the Great.” It’s saturated with patriotic bromides along the lines of “Kennedy and Lincoln, they both gave their lives for us/They would never do away with ‘In God We Trust.’ ” He played it at that county fair, yards away from booths hawking bedazzled holsters and the like. That’s life performing for country fans: He deviates.
But the new Administration has pushed him somewhere he never expected to go. “I don’t know what’s going on right now,” he said when asked at Rangers camp. “I just hope that everything turns out all right. I’ve always respected the office of the president, but this is hard to swallow. He’s alienated people. He’s jumped on everybody.”
Can Pride’s message of unity, reconciliation and common ground in country music survive our turbulent present? How far can deviating go?
On the drive back from the county fair in fall '16, Daines was behind the wheel, struggling with the wipers and the defroster, as the rain had left a thick mist hanging in the Central Texas air. We three passengers could not help but keep our eyes on the road—each set of oncoming headlights on a two-lane highway brings the possibility of a drunk or a texter. But each pair passed without incident.
Ninety minutes out of La Grange, though, something appeared ahead—a raccoon. He looked as if he was about to run across the road, into the other lane, and then he hesitated. The headlights lit up his beady eyes just before he was crunched under the left side of the car, leaving a big dent in the bumper.
From the backseat, Pride said, “Well, that’s all she wrote. Nothin’ you can do.” The car speeds on into the hazy dark.
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