Classic country music star Charley Pride once played many state fairs. These days he more likely plays casinos, including the Coushatta Casino in Kinder and the Marksville casino he’s playing Friday, Sept. 2, Paragon.
“The casinos kind of took the nice pay that the fairs used to pay,” Pride said from his office in Dallas. “So that’s why we play quite a number of them. And we’re not the only ones. That’s the trend for just about every artist now.”
Wherever the 73-year-old singer performs, he’s a got vast list of hits from which to choose. Between 1967 and 1987, Pride, the first African-American country music star, released 52 Top 10 country hits, including “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” “Is Anybody Going to San Antone,” “All I Have To Offer You Is Me,” “Roll On Mississippi,” “Mountain Of Love” and “Mississippi Cotton Pickin’ Delta Town.”
The latter song is close to home for Pride, the son of a cotton-farming Mississippi sharecropper. And it was in Mississippi that the future star got his first exposure to country music.
“It wasn’t quite the going thing, but we listened to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday,” Pride recalled. “My dad liked Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. They were his favorite.”
Besides hearing Opry broadcasts from the 50,000-watt WSM in Nashville, local stations featured country music and they, too, influenced Pride.
“I just started singing country music,” he said.
But it was Pride’s talent for baseball, not music, that got him out of the cotton fields. In 1953, his parents signed a contract for their 16-year-old son to play for the Boise Yankees, a class C farm team for the New York Yankees.
Pride subsequently played for the Negro American League and minor leagues. His teams included the Memphis Red Sox, El Paso Kings, Louisville Clippers, the Negro American League All-Star Team, Missoula Timberjacks and the semi-pro East Helena Smelterites.
An ill-fated 1963 tryout for Casey Stengel and the New York Mets as well as encouragement from country stars Red Sovine and Red Foley to pursue music inspired Pride to turn music pro.
Sovine and Foley heard Pride sing “Heartaches By The Numbers” and “Lovesick Blues” in Montana in 1962.
“They said, ?I ain’t never seen nothing like this. You oughta go to Nashville,’ “ Pride recalled. “So I detoured back through Nashville after Casey Stengel wouldn’t look at me in Clearwater, Fla. Of course, the rest is history.”
It would be three years, though, between Pride’s first meeting with Jack Johnson, the determined manager in Nashville who took the singer under his wing in 1963, and success. Pride’s big break came when famed guitarist and music executive Chet Atkins signed him to RCA Records in 1966. The singer’s first hit, “Just Between You And Me,” went Top 10 in 1967.
Pride, unlike many country stars, never lived in Nashville. Dallas has been his family’s home since 1969. Centrally located, the big Texas town works well for the singer’s frequent air travel.
“You can get out of here and go anywhere in the world,” he said.
Pride had another, more important reason for moving to Dallas.
“Our kids,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in Nashville because, first of all, it was too close to where we grew up in Mississippi. The segregation and that sort of thing, we didn’t want to subject our kids to that.
“Plus, another thing, I didn’t want to be in Nashville because if you’d stick your head out there somebody’ll say, ?I gotta song for you!’ Because you reach a certain point in your career when you don’t have time for people to be hitting you with songs all the time.”
Living away from Nashville meant Pride could visit the city with a full schedule of recording or TV appearances on his agenda. Being so busy left him guilt free about having no time for overeager songwriters.
“I didn’t want them to think I was a snob,” he said. “So it worked out real good.”