Charley Pride is tired of being asked about how tough it was. The three-time Grammy winner, who broke Montgomery County's color line by dining at Conroe's White Hut following a now-legendary 1967 performance at Pat's Longhorn Ballroom, says it wasn't like people imagine.
"People never believe me, but in my entire career, I've never heard one hoot from the audience that was meant in any kind of negative way," says Pride from a deli in Oklahoma, where he's grabbing a quick sandwich. "It wasn't country music fans that resisted me, it was the promoters and club owners who always had a reason to not book me when we were getting started."
A resident of Dallas since 1969, Pride recalls times when caution and fear kept him from getting gigs at important venues like JD's in Phoenix, the storied club where Waylon Jennings put his patented sound together. Pride had already had some success on radio, but RCA had chosen not to send out any publicity photographs of the singer, so audiences were generally unaware that Pride was different from the everyday Nashville cracker.
8 p.m., Thursday, April 26, Stafford Center, 10505 Cash Rd., Stafford, 281-208-6900
"J.D. said he wanted to book me but that it was 'too early,'" Pride recalls. "We got the same resistance in Chicago. That fellow finally said he'd book me, but that he wouldn't advertise the shows. That's what I was up against when we were trying to build this thing up."
A two-nighter was arranged, and on the opening Friday Pride drew only 80 people. But the show went well and there were no incidents, so the owner put Pride's name on the marquee for the Saturday show. An audience of more than 800 showed up.
It included Lucky Moeller and Smokey Smith, two of the most influential promoters in the country. Pride repeated to Moeller his mantra that the promoters and club owners were the ones holding back, not the country-music fans.
Pride's longtime manager Jack Johnson told him there would be some people in Nashville he would have to get around to be accepted. One was country star Faron Young.
"When I heard that, I told Jack, 'Let's look him up as soon as we get to Nashville and get that out of the way,'" Pride laughs.
Not long after, he was on tour with Young when Young took him aside.
"He says, 'Charley, I heard you told Lucky Moeller it was the promoters holding you back,' and I said, 'I sure did.' That's just one example of how things can come back to you. But I think Faron started looking at me a little different after that."
Pride went on to have 39 No. 1 singles. With sales in excess of 70 million records, he is RCA's second-largest-selling artist ever behind Elvis Presley. He proved to be too hot and too legitimate a country singer to be held back by anyone, and within years was an international star.
"I went down to Australia and did a tour," he says. "At that time there were only 13 million people in the whole country, and we sold 275,000 records."
In his recent biography Willie, Willie Nelson tells the story of helping Pride get started, taking Pride out on the road as part of his package shows. Nelson always closed the shows, but often had Pride on just before him.
Nelson is quoted in the book as saying, "All of a sudden I was following Charley Pride. The crowd was screaming and yelling for Charley halfway through my set."
As another part of breaking down prejudice, Nelson once kissed Pride onstage at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas during Pride's first appearance at the storied venue. Pride hasn't forgotten.
"Willie was always doing crazy stuff," Pride chuckles. "But I got him back. We were recording a gospel song not too long ago, and I told my assistant to take a picture when Willie came in. When Willie got there, I just walked up and kissed him good. But I don't think the photo was any good."
With supporters like Nelson, Young and Johnny Bush, it wasn't long before Pride had built himself up to a point where he was able to give a hand up to newcomers like Janie Fricke, Dave and Sugar, and Neal McCoy. Honky-tonk legend Gary Stewart and Ronnie Milsap both played piano for Pride and opened shows with backing from Pride's band.
Pride remembers a show in Philadelphia where Milsap got a standing ovation.
"People shot up out of their seats like they were on fire," Pride recalls. "One of the people putting the show on asked me why I let my band back up an opener and make him look so good. It just seemed the right thing to do, to me, to make the people around you, ones you're trying to support, look as good as you can."
At 74, Pride remains a very busy man. He's got a theater in Branson, still plays select road dates and is part owner of the Texas Rangers. But aside from golf, his current focus is a biopic of his life set to star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
"That project has had some false starts, so I'm trying to stay very hands-on about it, push it forward," Pride explains. "That's a big focus right now. That's going to be a representation of my life on the screen, so I want it to be right."
Pride, who last released an album about six years ago, hopes to get two records he recorded for RCA finally released.
"Way back there I cut an entire album of B.B. King covers," Pride reveals. "And I've got another one that is nothing but Brook Benton covers. One is ready to go, the other will require a bit more work, but I hope we can get both of those out. They mean a lot and I think my fans will like them."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Pride is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and other honors continue to roll in. The Mississippi State Historical Association erected a marker featuring Pride along Highway 3 in his hometown, Sledge, last year. A portion of the highway between Sledge and Memphis was designated the Charley Pride Highway.
A pitcher who played minor-league baseball and had two major-league tryouts, Pride is known for staying fit, even making annual trips to spring training "to work out and stay in shape."
"I still go down to spring training, still love baseball," effuses Pride. "We have an owner's game down there every year. I hit a line shot this year, but I could barely make it to first base. My legs are gone."
But not his voice, one of the most incredible instruments ever to sing a country song.