From a Cotton Pickin' Delta Town

From a Cotton Pickin' Delta Town

Author: Noah Kennedy White (@mainly_discus)

The American Dream has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion recently; whether or not it’s achievable, and whether it was ever truly achievable for large swaths of the American populace. While the realities of anyone born into poverty are far from a dream, it would be hard to argue that Charley Pride didn’t live something close to an American dream. 

Pride was born in 1934 to sharecroppers in Sledge, Mississippi. Charley grew up working the fields with his parents, and used his earnings from picking cotton to buy his first guitar when he was only 14 years old. Pride had a lifelong passion for baseball, which developed into professional aspirations and led him to leave Mississippi for Memphis to pitch for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues. While not quite a five-tool player, Pride was known for having a useful curveball. 

Two years later, Pride stopped pitching to join the U.S. Army for a short stint of military service. In 1958, Pride was discharged from the army and married his wife, Rozene. The couple moved to Montana where Pride continued chasing his dream of playing professional baseball. Pride worked at a smelting plant in Helena while playing semi-pro ball on the plant’s team. Despite not seriously pursuing music yet, Pride began singing before games to make a few extra dollars. He was eventually noticed by two country singers, Red Sovine and Red Foley, who convinced him to aim for a career in music. 

Pride initially had little success, but in 1965, producer Jack Clement supervised a session of Pride’s and helped get him signed to RCA. Initially, RCA hid his race, sending tapes of his recordings without the regular publicity photos that are normally included in demo packages. Pride’s third single, “Just Between You and Me,” was his first success, releasing in 1967 and reaching the country Top 10 charts. Over the course of his career, Pride would go on to record more than 60 top 10 tracks in his career, cementing his place as country music’s first Black superstar. 

In an overwhelmingly white genre, Pride gained respect from radio and industry standard-bearers. 1971 was a banner year for Pride, when “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” netted him his 8th country no. 1 single, as well as contributing to his winning Male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year from the Country Music Association. He also was awarded two of his three career Grammys that year. In 1993, Pride was made a cast member of the Grand Ole Opry, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2008, he and his brother, Mack, were made honorary draftees of the MLB, along with 28 other past Negro League players. Toward the end of his life, Pride’s achievements and contributions were formally acknowledged. Pride received a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2017 and was granted the same honor from the Country Music Association in November of 2020. Unfortunately, Charley Pride died in December of 2020 from complications due to Covid-19. 

Charley Pride lived a thoroughly full life. He came from the cotton fields of Mississippi and ended the same century being ushered into the pantheon of greats in a music genre dominated by the whims of white gatekeepers. He is a cornerstone of the story of Black musicians in America, and he should be noted as such. 

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