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One of the most telling parts of Ken Burns’ sprawling 2019 PBS documentary “Country Music” was the section devoted to Charley Pride, who was billed as country music’s first Black superstar. In the segment, Pride, who died on December 12 of COVID-19 complications at age 86, tells a story that perfectly illustrates what it was like to be a Black man during the Civil Rights era singing what was — and, to many, is still — considered to be white man’s music. It also perfectly illustrates what it was like back then to be a Black man trying to make it in a white world.

Pride recalls his early days as a newcomer to Nashville in the mid-’60s and being introduced for the first time to Faron Young, the superstar who recorded the 1961 classic “Hello Walls.” Young was sort of the town quarterback, and, as Pride’s manager at the time told him, if you could win over Faron Young, you were on your way; if you couldn’t, well, better luck next life. According to Pride, that first encounter, the beginning of a friendship that would last until Young died in 1996, went something like this:

“He would sing one, and I would sing one. He would sing one, and I would sing one, And finally he said, ‘Well, I’ll be! Who would ever have thought I’m sitting here singing with a jig and don’t mind?’”

That Pride could laugh about being called what was then considered a kinder and gentler substitute for the N-word and still take it as a compliment shows us why he was able to survive and thrive as a Black man in country music at a time when Blacks may have been even less welcome in country music than in much of the United States. Armed with talent and extraordinarily thick skin, Pride, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper and the fourth of 11 children, beat the odds to become RCA Records’ best-selling artist since Elvis Presley and the third most-successful country act of the ’70s, behind Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard.

He amassed 29 No. 1 Billboard country singles between 1969 and 1983 and scored a total of 52 Top 10s, while becoming the first Black act to win a Grammy in a country category, best country vocal performance, male, for his 1971 album “Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs.” His career was a succession of firsts: the first Black artist to have a number-one country single, the first artist of any color to win the Country Music Association’s male vocalist of the year prize twice in a row (1971 and 1972), the first Black performer to win the CMA’s coveted entertainer of the year award (in 1971), and, in 2000, the first Black artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Without him, it’s hard to imagine that Darius Rucker would be enjoying life after Hootie & the Blowfish as a successful country music singer. There’d probably be no Jimmie Allen, the rising Black country star with whom Pride performed his signature 1971 crossover hit “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” at the November 11 Country Music Association Awards, where he received Lifetime Achievement honors. And we almost definitely wouldn’t have Mickey Guyton, the singer-songwriter who recently became the first Black woman to be nominated for a country Grammy since the mid-’70s with her best country song contender “Black Like Me.”

 

But Pride, the man who, through my mother’s old 8-track copy of his 1969 “The Best of Charley Pride” album, helped kick off my life-long love affair with country music, was so much more than his skin color. A former minor-league baseball player, he would not have broken country music’s unspoken color code to excel in the genre, both commercially and critically, without exceptional talent.

But in the ’60s, it took more than exceptional talent for a Black man to become a country music star. In 1962, pop and soul legend-in-the-making Ray Charles released his landmark “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” an album whose first single, a cover of Don Gibson’s 1958 Nashville standard “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” hit No. 1 on the pop and soul charts (as well as in the UK, Australia, and Norway) without troubling the country charts. Although Charles would continue to occasionally record and perform country songs throughout the ’60s and ’70s, he didn’t become a regular on the country charts until the ’80s, and his belated success in the genre probably wouldn’t have happened if Pride hadn’t paved the way for it.

Pride’s debut single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” actually followed “Modern Sounds” by four years, and his label, RCA Victor, released it to radio stations under the name “Country Charley Pride” without a photo in order to guarantee the young singer a fair shot in a genre that still had the fingerprints of Jim Crow all over it. In the end, though, it didn’t really matter. Once his identity and race were revealed, Pride rose through the ranks anyway, and by the end of the ’60s, he was en route to becoming one of Nashville’s biggest stars.

Even today, if you close your eyes and listen to any song by Charley Pride, you don’t hear Black. His rich baritone transcends race, and in some ways, it even transcends genre. On any of his hits, even ones as disparate and decades-spanning as “All I Have to Offer You Is Me,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Amazing Love,” “You’re My Jamaica,” and “Roll on Mississippi,” what strikes you first is his immaculate delivery. It’s a perfect blend of hard country and pop polish that owes as much to the rugged honky tonk blues of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell as it does to the smooth urbane countrypolitan tones of Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves.

Pride could bring you to your feet with a rousing live rendition of Hank Williams’s “Kaw-Liga” (a top-three 1969 hit), take you to church with the gospel albums “Did You Think to Pray” (which went gold the year before Aretha Franklin’s landmark “Amazing Grace” and brought Pride two more Grammys) and “Sunday Morning with Charley Pride,” and break your heart with detailed, exacting country-pop ballads of love found and lost, without even seeming to switch gears. He was a master of nearly every country subdivision, demonstrating a fluency and versatility that with rare exceptions  —  Dolly Parton and his longtime friend Willie Nelson  —  went unmatched in the genre.

He was, to be sure, an Aretha Franklin for country music, not just because of their shared race but because, like Aretha, he was a pioneer who created a new blueprint for ascending to the status of royalty in his field. In doing so, he inspired a generation of Blacks like me to never let brick walls and glass ceilings hold us back or keep us down. The dream that may seem just out of reach is actually ours for the taking.

Five Essential Charley Pride Songs

“Just Between You and Me” (1966): The first of his 52 top 10 hits, it kicked off a string that would be broken just once over the next 18 years.

“I Know One” (1967): It takes a strong, strong singer to assume complete ownership of a song that was previously a hit by the late, great Jim Reeves, but that’s exactly what Pride did with his second top 10 single.

“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” (1971): His signature song and first and last top 40 pop hit, this won him his only country Grammy and helped lay the groundwork for his chart dominance over the rest of the decade and into the early ’80s.

“Where Do I Put Her Memory” (1979): A tear-jerking post-mortem contemplation on love and loss, his final ’70s chart-topper is every bit as haunting and timeless as George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” would be one year later.

“You’re So Good When You’re Bad” (1983): On one of his final No. 1s, Pride crafted a slice of country rhythm & blues that was more soulful than anything Lionel Richie or Diana Ross were doing at the time.