Charley Pride Takes His Place in History

The Smithsonian’s upcoming African-American history museum will include donated items from Charley Pride, a Black country musician many often forget.

When most people think of important African-American musicians from history, the list is long and varied, including everyone from Muddy Waters to John Coltrane to Jimi Hendrix to, nowadays, Jay-Z. Black people have a lot to be proud of when it comes to our contributions to America’s musical tapestry. But every now and again an icon gets lost, and Charley Pride has been lost too many times.

Born in Sledge, Mississippi, to a family of 11 children in 1938, Pride initially had his sights set on a career in baseball. But after people started bearing witness to his musical talents, Pride decided to go to Nashville, Tennessee — the capital of country music — to try his hand at music.

Even today, an African-American getting into the country music scene is a rarity, but in Pride’s day it was like he was some sort of unicorn. Nevertheless, despite the era and country’s deep roots in the South, Pride says he was welcomed with open arms by fans throughout his career. He recently shared with the Associated Press’ Jamie Stengle the one moment in his early career in which his race seemed to be an issue, and how he solved that snag:

“I never had one iota of hoot calls from the audience," Pride said.

However, he did recall a 1966 performance when a crowd of 10,000 at Detroit's Olympia Stadium, the biggest audience of his career at that point, grew quiet upon seeing that the fledgling country singer was black.

"I said, 'You know, I realize it's a little unique me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan.' When I said that there was this big old applause — saying exactly what they were thinking," Pride said.

He told the crowd he would play his three singles and maybe a hit from another singer, but that "I ain't got time to talk about pigmentation all night."

After the show, fans lined up to get his autograph. "That's the way it's been for the last 40 some years," he said.

With that sense of humor as his guide, Pride has since played hundreds if not thousands of shows all around the world. He still plays to this day, at the age of 78, though you might not know it considering the lack of attention he gets compared to other musicians who came up during his time, like James Brown and Miles Davis. Nothing against either of those musicians, but Pride deserves his place of, well, pride in the black musical canon as well. Which is why it’s exciting to hear that the Smithsonian’s forthcoming African-American history museum is going to include several Pride relics in its permanent collection. Because, while it’s certainly not easy for a rapper like Kanye West to get where he has, it’s also quite difficult, admirable and groundbreaking for a man like Charley Pride to take the risks he did to push black culture forward.

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(Photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

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