Charley Pride: At 74, he’s still playing good old country music

Over the past 40 years, Charley Pride has consistently been ranked as one of the Top 20 bestselling country artists.

In fact, when it comes to total sales for the former RCA Music Label, he ranks second, behind only Elvis Presley. With an astounding 36 Number One hits and more than 70 million albums sold worldwide, Charley Pride is set to bring hits like “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” to Casino New Brunswick, and will play to a sold-out house tomorrow night.

Becoming an internationally renowned country star wasn’t always on Charley’s radar however. As a younger man, his primary talent was the game of baseball.

“Every kid has a dream and my dream was to make it to the major leagues,” a vibrant Charley recalls. “I wanted to go in and break old records and make new ones. At the time though, they only had 16 clubs in the major leagues and you had to hit over .260 to get in. Getting into the major leagues was potentially big money too compared to the Negro league where you earned $100 per month and had $2 per day for lunch. It was still better money than picking cotton, though.”

Charley says that his mother had signed him up to play with the New York Yankees in 1953 while he was still a teen. Fate would have other plans for the aspiring baseball star, however. He ended up hurting his back and part of his right shoulder, ultimately ending his dreams of becoming a major league baseball player.

But he looks back upon the hand that he was dealt in a philosophical way. “I truly believe that the injury just made sure that I ended up becoming what I was destined to be, a singer.”

It was famed Sun Records producer Jack Clement who would play a key part in helping Charley secure his record contract with RCA. According to Charley, Jack brought a recording of one of his songs to a meeting, playing the track for everyone in the boardroom without showing anyone a picture of the musician to ensure that race did not play a part in determining his fate.

“They listened to the song and once Jack knew that everyone liked the track, it was only then he passed around a photo of me. Everyone in that room said that they could have cared less about his colour but that they did indeed like what they heard.”

Though Charley acknowledges that it is not uncommon for people to assume that getting his footing in the music business was a constant uphill battle, he says it really was anything but.

“I think there are a lot of preconceptions about what my life was like then,” he says. “Keep in mind that my career was right in the middle of the civil rights march. I never had it really hard but I realize that it is a little hard to believe.

“I was very fortunate in that I never encountered any roadblocks because of my colour in those early days. In fact, other musicians and people at the label truly went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I think a big part of them having embraced me is that they viewed me as the underdog.”

Now 74, he still plays an average of 40-45 shows each year. Charley says he still enjoys travelling, touring and meeting his fans. While many at his age are long retired, Charley says he relishes the opportunity he is given to perform all over the world including shows throughout the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

“I don’t begrudge the travelling part of the life I live. We are fortunate in that we fly everywhere that we go, making sure that we do not have to travel more than 200 miles to a city once we land. It is more expensive to fly, of course, but it just makes it so much easier when it comes to doing shows,” he says.

Charley is eagerly anticipating his return to the Maritimes and to Moncton specifically, one of three shows he will perform in the region.

“One of the first times that I came to Canada was with Bill Anderson and Faron Young. It’s been too long since I have been to the East Coast though. It is so easy to get wrapped up in a month’s worth of shows in Ontario alone. I believe it would take a year to play all the towns where my fans would like to see me. At my age, I’m not able to sustain that but am definitely looking forward to returning to sing for my fans in Moncton.”

Article published May 9, 2011 edition of the Times & Transcript