The freelance writer bids farewell to a legend who gave him an example of limitless opportunity.
It’s taken me longer to write this than it’s ever taken me to write anything.
The world lost a musical trailblazer last Saturday when country music’s Charley Pride succumbed to complications due to COVID-19. He was 86 years old. For 48 of those years, Pride’s life and career had a profound impact on me.
News of Pride’s death took me down for a few hours. I wept when I read a text — from my ex-wife, of all people — about his death, tossing my phone aside before even being able to read that the coronavirus had taken him out.
Over a week later, sitting here to write this, I’m still wiping away tears.
I won’t waste time expressing my frustration and anger at the Country Music Association, for holding an indoor, largely mask-less event in early November, during which they gave Pride a LONG overdue Lifetime Achievement Award. As Pride might have said, I’m as mad as a wet hornet about it.
But it was another first in his career: he was the first Black artist to ever receive it.
I also won’t waste time giving an overview of Pride’s career achievements. I’m sure you’ve read about them somewhere else over the last week.
Suffice it to say that Pride almost singlehandedly integrated country radio and become RCA Records’ second best-selling artist. Only Elvis Presley sold more, and Pride himself told me, in 2014, that he was very…proud of that accomplishment.
Instead, I’ll tell you what Charley Pride did for me.
Every lucky kid gets to hear, from someone, that they can be anything they want to be. I was certainly one of those lucky kids. It’s one thing to hear that, but it’s another thing to be shown the way.
With his deep baritone paired with his unmistakable country timbre and phrasing, Pride gave me an example of a black man blazing his own trail, independent of what the world told him that he could do.
I recall listening to Pride’s A Sunshiny Day album for the first time with my mother, when I was all of six or seven years old. First and foremost, I loved Pride’s voice. I still do.
Looking for all the world as if he could have been a member of The Temptations or The Four Tops, Pride instead sang songs like “Back To The Country Roads” or “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” always providing a sharp contrast between his “permanent tan,” as he once famously joked, and the country music he was born to sing.
In doing so, he gave me permission — and courage — to buck bigotry and tradition, becoming one of a very few black students on a Wisconsin college campus in the early 1980s, and the first black employee of a traditionally racist Michigan municipality in 1987, and to strike out on my own in the 90s in Logan, Utah, where I worked for a country music radio station!
Pride, quite inadvertently, gave me permission to love country music as I grew up in a suburban Detroit suburb. If Charley was singing it, I could, too.
I had the great honor and privilege of interviewing Charley Pride twice, first in 2014 when he gave me a quote that I’ll never forget. Upon asking the legend about the mettle it took for a black man to forge a career in country music in the 1960s, he said “Don’t ever tell me what I can’t do.”
Me, either, Mr. Pride.
Two years later, when an independent label began reissuing Pride’s classic albums on CD, I spoke with the singer about it. He was as gracious and kind as he’d been earlier, but at the end of the interview he asked me to help him connect with the label that was reissuing his projects. He wanted to look into whether he was due royalties from the releases, or whether he might be able to buy his own master recordings back.
I got a rare look into the eyes of the businessman behind the country icon.
To this day, I listen to Pride’s music almost weekly, but I’d not heard him in a few weeks, as I’m enjoying Christmas music and am just becoming familiar with his excellent Christmas In My Hometown. When I heard of his death, I recalled that I’d last heard Pride when I watched that CMA Awards show that some believe introduced him to the virus that took his life.
I’m tearing up, again. Let me turn to one of my go-to’s, the title track to the aforementioned A Sunshiny Day album. For me, there is no better recorded musical pick-me-up:
If I wake up in the morning / When I look outside, it’s storming / And it seems the whole world’s covered by clouds of grey
I don’t really mind the weather / Baby, long as we’re together / In my heart it’s gonna be a sunshiny day
So let the howling winds start blowing / Let the raindrops keep on flowing / Every time they touch my face, just kiss them away
Even with the clouds above me / Long as I got you to love me / Every day is gonna be a sunshiny day
The same album includes another song, “It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer,” that pretty much sums up how I’m feeling about Charley Pride today, over a week after his death:
It’s gonna take a little bit longer / For me to ever get you off of my mind
It’s gonna take a little bit longer / ‘Cause I’ve been loving you a long, long time.
A LONG, long time, Mr. Pride. 48 years, to be exact. And there will never be another like you.
Rest In Peace, Charley Pride.