BAY RIDGE — Who would have imagined that a sharecropper’s son with dreams of becoming a professional baseball player would ultimately become one of country music’s greatest entertainers?
Country Charley Pride, as he was affectionately called when starting out, would go on to earn 29 No. 1 hits on the country chart, 12 gold albums, be named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1971, become only the second African-American artist invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, and be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
Pride’s incredible talent allowed him to break the color barrier in country music and become not only the most successful African-American performers in country music but one of the most successful performers in country music history.
Legendary guitarist and record label executive Chet Atkins signed Pride to a recording contract with RCA Records in 1965. The label released Pride’s first single, “Snakes Crawl At Night,” without a publicity photo, fearing that radio programmers at the time would be less likely to support an African-American country artist. That song and his next single, “Before I Met You” did not chart, but they did gain Pride a small but growing fan base.
His third single “Just Between You And Me,” managed to crack the country Top-10 in 1966, as did all of his singles during the following two years. It also won Pride his first Grammy Award for Best Song Of The Year. In 1969 he reached the pinnacle with “All I Have To Offer You (Is Me),” the first of 29 songs to reach number one, including his now-classic signature ballad, “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’ ” in 1971.
Pride’s first album, “Country Charley Pride,” made it to number 16 on the Billboard Country Albums chart in 1966, and in 1967 his album “The Country Way” reached number one, the first of 12 albums to reach the summit. In 1971 and 1972, he was named the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year, and he was voted Entertainer of the Year in 1971. He won three Grammy Awards, for Best Country Vocal Performance for his 1972 album “Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs,” Best Gospel Album in 1971 for “Did You Think To Pray,” and Best Gospel Performance for the song “Let Me Live” also in 1971.
Charley Pride was born one of 11 children in Sledge, Mississippi, on March 18, 1938. Pride grew up working on his father’s small cotton farm and dreaming of a better life. He always loved music, and when he was 14 he got his first guitar and began to teach himself to play.
Like many other country stars, including Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Pride’s first love was the gospel music he heard in the local Baptist church where his father served as a deacon. Pride was born into a Protestant Christian home where his mother instilled a deep sense of spirituality. As a result, throughout his life, he supported and performed for various Protestant and Catholic charities.
Pride recorded two successful gospel albums that featured traditional Christian hymns alongside deeply spiritual ballads: The first was “Did You Think To Pray,” which reached No. 1 on the country album chart and was certified gold. He followed it up four years later with “Sunday Morning with Charley Pride,” another stellar collection of old and new gospel tunes.
These two albums paint an indelible portrait of Charley Pride as the consummate entertainer, performing the songs he grew up singing while working in the hot, sweltering cotton fields in Sledge, Mississippi. “Did You Think To Pray” included four gospel standards and six new inspirational recordings, and “Sunday Morning With Charley Pride” focused on more contemporary Christian ballads.
Highlights of “Did You Think To Pray” include the award-winning “Let Me Live,” a devotional gem written by Ben Peters, who also wrote Pride’s smash “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin.’ ” It’s an incredible performance of a song that finds the singer pleading to live in the light of God’s love. It starts slow and sacred and then picks up the chorus’s tempo, making for a top-notch modern-day spiritual.
The album’s title song, “Did You Think To Pray,” also made the country chart, reaching No. 70 as the B-side of “Let Me Live.” Over the years, this song became one of Pride’s most beloved gospel recordings, as he explores the importance of prayer and implores us not to forget to pray and thank God for all that He has given us. He offers sage advice when he sings, “Oh, how praying rests the weary, prayer will change the night to day; so when life feels dark and dreary, don’t forget to pray.”
The four standards featured on “Did You Think To Pray” are Albert E. Brumley’s soaring “I’ll Fly Away,” the yearning “Angel Band,” a stunning rendition of “Whispering Hope,” and a truly outstanding cover of “The Church In The Wildwood.” Album producer Jack “Cowboy” Clement contributed the heartfelt plea, “Jesus, Don’t Give Up On Me,” that finds the singer admitting that he has failed God, but seeking redemption when he sings, “I’ve let you down, Jesus, that’s not hard to see; but Jesus, oh Jesus, don’t give up on me.”
“Sunday Morning With Charley Pride” was released in 1976 and featured ten new compositions that sound as if they were written especially for Pride. The album, which features the Jordanaires backing Pride up on half the tracks and the Nashville Edition on the others, peaked at No. 14 on the country album chart.
The song “Little Delta Church” is a standout track that lets Pride incorporate the hymns “Amazing Grace,” “In The Sweet By And By,” and “Precious Memories” into the fabric of the song, which finds the singer reminiscing about the happy memories of his childhood attending church with his family. And “Brush Arbor Meeting” carries a similar theme of nostalgia, with Pride yearning for his childhood days when his family would gather outside to pray because they did not have a proper church to congregate in. Other standout selections include the touching ballad “Without Mama Here” and the confessional “I Don’t Deserve A Mansion.”
These two milestone country-inspirational albums remain among Pride’s finest recordings. Less than a month before his passing on December 12, 2020, Pride received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 54th Annual Country Music Association Awards Show to recognize his being a true trailblazer in country music. He was invited to perform on the broadcast, an honor rarely given to older country artists. But Pride’s towering legacy could not be ignored.
Pride’s career is a testament to the fact that you can stay true to your roots while blazing new trails in country and gospel music. He has been called the “pride” of country music, and country music is all the richer for having had Charley Pride among its ranks.
On a personal note: I had the pleasure of producing “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ — The Legendary Charley Pride,” a career-spanning box set of Charley Pride’s hits for Reader’s Digest Music in 2011. Four years later, I wrote the liner notes for “The Charley Pride Gospel Collection” which combined his two gospel albums on one CD.