Welcome to “TV Take,” Variety’s television podcast. In this week’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV, Daniel Holloway, talks with Charley Pride, the subject of the new “American Masters” documentary, “Charley Pride: I Am Just Me,” which premieres Feb. 22 on PBS.
Pride was one of country music’s biggest stars in the ’60s and ’70s, and is the genre’s most famous African-American performer. In a trailblazing move, Pride released his first record “The Snakes Crawl at Night” through RCA in 1966, and went on to become the record company’s best-selling artist since Elvis Presley.
The documentary explores the legendary artist’s career, which kicked off “smack dab” in the middle of the civil rights movement. However, Pride says that the only resistance he ever faced during his career was from promoters and to this day, he has never received a cat-call during a performance because of his race.
“Once they heard me, they couldn’t care whether I was pink or green,” Pride says. “That’s the way it’s been for these 50-some years.”
Pride recalls the meeting when fellow country singer and producer Chet Atkins decided to take a chance on the budding musician and play his recordings for the RCA “big wigs in Monterrey.”
“Chet said I was colored, and I think he showed a picture too, and they all looked at each other and unanimously they said, ‘Well we’re still gonna release it, but we ain’t gonna say nothing about no color,'” Pride says. “They decided to let the record speak for itself.”
Born in Sledge, Miss., Pride grew up with seven brothers, three sister, and two passions in life: music and baseball. As a young boy, Pride listened to whatever music his father could get over the family radio. He says he was influenced by any and all music he heard as his father “twisted the knobs any which way.”
The young Pride dreamed of breaking records out on the baseball field and hitting more home runs than Babe Ruth. However, after coming up through the “negro leagues” with iconic players like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, and trying out for multiple teams across the country, Pride’s career in baseball never quite reached the heights of his ambition. He attributes this partly to the quota which was in place at the time which limited each team to only two black players, and partly due to the fact he was just coming out of the army with a wife and kid, and managers weren’t willing to negotiate with teams on his behalf.
Pride recalls one of the most significant nights of his career as his performance after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. He was on tour at the time, and his touring partner pulled out of the gig because of the news, but after phone calls with his wife and his manager, Pride decided to go ahead and perform.
“I took a cab to the show, and the driver said, ‘Hey they got him, that Martin Luther King, and I’ve got another one that I’m driving to a show right now,’ so I got things like that,” Pride recalls. “But when I got on stage I said nothing about what happened. I did my show, probably one of the finest shows I’ve ever done, and I got a standing ovation.”
When asked if he is surprised by the lack of breakthrough African-American singers in the country genre, Pride replies, “No, because I’m unique.”
Later in the show, critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke discuss ABC’s “Whiskey Cavalier,” and FX’s “Better Things.” Finally, reporter Joe Otterson helps break down the cloud of news surrounding the arrest of “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, who is being accused by Chicago PD of falsely reporting a hate crime.