Country music legend Charley Pride is a smooth singer with a hint of a Southern lilt who has always stood out in his field – both for his talent and for being an African-American who broke the color line in an overwhelmingly white genre.
Now he has reached a new personal and career high: He is featured in a display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening Sept. 24.
Pride, 78, is originally from Mississippi but has lived in Dallas since 1969. Asked if he considered himself a Texan, he told McClatchy, “oh, definitely, a Texan.” He is a part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team – he spends spring training with the team every year – and has set aside time from touring this fall in order to be able to sing the national anthem at the Rangers’ play-off games.
Despite his age, Pride is on the road frequently and has a concert Saturday in Wisconsin. As a result, he will miss the museum’s grand opening, featuring President Barack Obama. The building itself is striking, sitting next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall, decorated with glimmering bronze tiles that have designs inspired by the decorative ironwork done by slaves in the South.
He has, however, a great deal of, well, pride, in being included in the museum. “I thought it was wonderful to be included with all the people who are participating,” he said. When Pride was told the case showing his memorabilia is next to one of the late blues singer B. B. King, he was delighted and said, “We were born about 40 miles apart in Mississippi.”
I was going to be a baseball player. But I was always singing and some friends who liked my voice told me, ‘You can make more money making records.’
Country singer Charley Pride
Among the artifacts in Pride’s display is a denim outfit he wore on an album cover and his 1971 entertainer of the year award from the Country Music Association.
“He was really a transforming figure,” said Bill Ivey, a folklorist and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts who is a senior policy fellow at Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. “For a black man to be a star in country music was unheard of. He was unique at the time. Many people became fans of his before they knew he was African American.”
Pride’s record label issued his records without his photo and he became popular on the radio, but when he began performing in larger and larger venues, the white fan base suddenly realized he was black.
To deal with what he described as the “shock” of the reaction to him, Pride said that before a large 1966 concert in Detroit, he came up with a line: “I realize it’s a little unique me coming here on this show with my permanent tan,” he said he told the audience. “I have three singles and I’ll do those and I hope you like those. I ain’t got time to talk about pigmentation.”
And although he ran into promoters who didn’t want to book him because of his color, he persevered and with such hits as “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Pride soon became an Grammy award-winner and has had 29 number one country hits in his 50-year career.
“He doesn’t speak openly about many of the things he must have faced on the road,” said Peter Cooper, a country music expert at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, which also has a Pride exhibit. “It was a different time.”
“People were singing along to him without knowing his race,” said Cooper.
In the history section of the African-American museum, which starts downstairs, there is a flow of exhibits, from the enslavement of men, women and children in Africa through the history of slavery in the U.S. and then freedom. There are small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln issued in 1863 freeing slaves in the Confederate states, that Union soldiers carried in their knapsacks.
There is a very Texas flavor in the Freedom Gallery, which recognizes Juneteenth, the celebration of June 19, 1865, the day that word reached Texas, a Confederate state, that slavery had ended. Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston and read the proclamation – two and a half years after it was issued and several months after the Civil War ended.
“Juneteenth is featured in the interactive in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition,” Smithsonian museum curator Nancy Bercaw told McClatchy in an email. “An image also appears in Defining Freedom, Defending Freedom,” another exhibition.
Opal Lee, a nearly 90 year old Fort Worth woman, is making what she calls a “symbolic” walk of a few miles a day to Washington to urge Congress to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. It is a state holiday in Texas.
“The celebration has to have a different connotation,” Lee said in an interview. “It’s a unifying thing. We need to not just think of it as a black holiday.” She said that several years ago she went to the Smithsonian and gave curators some information she had written about Juneteenth as the African American museum was just starting up.
University of North Texas Regent’s Professor of History Randolph Campbell said in an interview that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 slaves in Texas at the time. “Juneteenth marked the official end of slavery in Texas,” he said. “It’s an important part of the history of slavery which everybody in the United States should know about.”
The culture exhibitions are in the upper floors and Pride is in the “Musical Crossroads” gallery. A Smithsonian Institution press release describes the gallery as “where history and culture intermingle and where music serves as the crossroads between musical traditions and stories of cultural and social development.”
Pride also played baseball in the Negro Leagues and watched Jackie Robinson break the color line in the major leagues.
“I was going to be a baseball player,” Pride said in a nearly hour-long interview with McClatchy. “But I was always singing and some friends who liked my voice told me, ‘You can make more money making records.’”
Pride said that he planned to do both. “My intention was to go to the major leagues and break all records and then sing at 35,” he said. “When I saw Jackie Robinson, I said, ‘Here’s my chance.’” Robinson began playing in the then-segregated sport in 1947.
In the early 1960s Pride was playing semi-pro ball in Montana and making extra money singing before the game - $10 for playing and $10 for performing. By 1966 he had a record deal.
And his “pigmentation,” as he calls his skin color, is a theme in his life, but one he wears lightly.
“When I first started out I was ‘colored,’ then it was ‘Negro,’ then black, then African-American. The reason I’m saying that is that I didn’t realize the significance until I got in this business, the consequences of it. My dad always told us to be American. That’s the way I grew up. I feel the same way as when I was ‘colored.’”