“I am,” says Charley Pride, “the whole ball of wax: Elvis Presley, Ernest Tubb, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra all combined into one. I’m the epitome of American music.” There may be braggadocio in that declaration, but with any less self-assurance, a singer part black and part Choctaw like Pride would never have become a country music superstar. A dozen of Charley’s 37 LPs have gone gold, and, by 42, he has won three Grammys, been voted the Country Music Association’s best male vocalist twice and its Entertainer of the Year in 1971. His latest single, Honky Tonk Blues, and the follow-up LP, There’s a Little Bit of Hank in Me, both elbowed into No. 1 ahead of Nashville’s other big crossover, ex-rocker Kenny Rogers. As a result, Pride’s road and recording haul now averages more than $4 million a year.
Not surprisingly, the journey from Mississippi sharecropper’s son to fiercely independent C&W hero has made Charley proud. “I think everybody is here for something,” he says. “The same for me as for Moses, JFK, Johnson and Carter. We’re not puppets on a string. We all have our free will, and somewhere along the line I decided not to be afraid.” Pride tested his will as a teenager when he set out to conquer his first love—not music, but baseball—as a heavy-hitting, 6’1″ outfielder and pitcher in the Negro American League. “I wanted to break every record by the time I was 35—and then start singing.”
Eventually he found the hits easier to come by in studios than stadiums, thanks to his rich and twangy baritone. “I was blessed,” believes Charley. “My voice affects people. Music is a product like any other and it has to be sold. A certain feeling of sincerity has to be put into the lyrics.” Perhaps even more important for Pride was overcoming what he calls the “skin syndrome hang-ups” as the Jackie Robinson of the Rhinestone Cowboys. “My color says I’m supposed to shine shoes and sing the blues, but I don’t fit that image, you see, because I’m Charley Pride, the man,” he explains. “I’m not a black man singing white man’s music. I’m an American singing American music. I worked out those problems years ago—and everybody else will have to work their way out of it too.”
Pride grew up to work, the fourth of 11 children, on a cotton plantation in Sledge, Miss., 60 miles south of Memphis. He bought himself a guitar at 14 to memorize the Opry tunes crackling over Nashville’s WSM. But when he quit school at 17, he soon found himself pitching semipro ball with the all-black Memphis Red Sox—for $100 a month plus $2 a day meal money. He once lost a 2-1 squeaker to the powerhouse Willie Mays All Stars in 1956—a team that included Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. “I had ’em 1-0 in the ninth,” Charley recalls. “I almost cried.”
After the Army and a brief tryout with the Los Angeles Angels in 1961, Pride worked at the Anaconda mining smelter in Helena, Mont, and sang in local bars at night. Then the late country singer Red Sovine saw his act in 1963 and urged a Nashville audition. After a detour for one last shot at the majors with the New York Mets, Pride bused to Music City and caught the ear—and eye—of his first manager, Jack Johnson. “I just thought it was time for a black guy to make it in country,” says Johnson, who is white. Two years later Nashville patriarch Chet Atkins agreed and signed Pride to an RCA contract. Johnson, however, didn’t dare send out Pride’s PR photos until his first release, Snakes Crawl at Night, became a hit. Within a year he had made the Top 10 with Just between You and Me. Though some DJs boycotted his music, Pride became in 1967 the first black singer to appear at the Grand Ole Opry.
Nowadays, some 10 million LPs and 5 million singles later, Pride lives in a 12-room suburban Dallas home with his wife of 24 years, Rozene, a former cosmetologist, and their three children: Angela, 15, Dion, 18, and Kraig, 22, a Memphis State running back with pro football ambitions. To keep close to his old 190-pound playing weight, Pride runs wind sprints in the backyard and eats only one meal a day. Still one of the boys of summer at heart, he bats and shags flies with the Texas Rangers every spring training. He plays tennis on his home court, and shoots golf in the high 80s (he runs the annual Charley Pride Golf Fiesta in Albuquerque). Though he drinks “a little bourbon,” he doesn’t “mess with pills” or other road-aholic aids. “We Pisces are prone to getting addicted,” Charley notes, “and should never take stimulants.”
Pride has dropped his onetime plan to buy a ball team (“Skyrocketing salaries make it a risky investment”), but has become a majority stockholder of the First Texas Bank in Dallas, and owns or co-owns several radio stations and companies specializing in song publishing, production and management. He’s also acquired thousands of acres in Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi, including the 125 his father once worked for $6 a day. (Charley has settled his dad on a farm of his own 16 miles from Sledge.)
“The more you try to achieve,” he finds, “the more it’s like getting on a merry-go-round. There’s no way to jump off.” But there are still some jolts, as last summer when Dallas’ exclusive Royal Oaks Country Club rejected Charley for membership. But suggestions of prejudice bring a shrug from Pride. “I could,” he says, “buy my own country club if I wanted.”