That same year saw the introduction, however, of a single man who would sit upon a lonely throne for decades as the only black man to ever appear on Country music’s première talent showcase, the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast.
WSM Radio went on the air in Nashville in October 1925, and it was the voice of that city. Childhood polio survivor DeFord Bailey and his harmonica had been a regular guest on another station in town, one that had started but a few months before WSM. While working as an elevator operator his playing was heard and he was invited to move from his old station to WSM.
There is proof, though, that Cleve Francis’ too-generous opinion about Country-music fans is way off the mark. Darius Rucker, former lead vocalist and frontman for pop/rock band Hootie & the Blowfish, has taken steps in recent years to recast himself as a Country musician. The man does have talent and a voice suited for Country. However, after a recent performance at The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville a typically racist Country music fan sent a message to the musician via Twitter: “Leave the country to white folks.” Rucker responded appropriately with, “Wow! Is this 2013 or 1913? I’ll take my Grand Ole Opry membership and leave your racism. Wow!” In response to Rucker’s tweet a tiny-minded white female (not the original racist but a new one) simply tweeted, “nigger”.
Meanwhile, Charley Frank Pride lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife of nearly 57 years, Rozene. Their three children are grown (the two boys going into the music business, but unlike their father, not into Country music). 1933) learned his guitar technique from black laborers he worked with. Hank Williams learned to play his guitar from a black musician who was a fixture in one of Hank’s many boyhood hometowns, Georgiana, Alabama. This man, Rufus Payne (d. I mean, we do have a reputation for singin’ and dancin’.”
The ploy may have worked. Charley re-recorded “The Snakes Come Out at Night” (one of the songs he’d gotten from Jack Clement and used as a demo) for RCA. In turn, RCA released it as a single in January 1966. The tune garnered some airplay but made no moves toward longevity, failing to chart. His next single, “Before I Met You”, likewise drew some buzz on the airwaves but no chart appearance followed.
1967 was a break-out year. He was invited to sing at the Grand Ole Opry auditorium, making him the first black face the show’s theater had seen trod its boards in 26 years. He also sang on ABC’s hugely popular, The Lawrence Welk Show. [Welk was born in America in 1903 in Strasburg, ND. The villagers there, by design, spoke only German, thus accounting for his heavily-accented English. Welk also broke many social taboos early on in his show's history, featuring black performers and hiring black singers and dancers as part of his regular showcase crew.]
And though many may denigrate Charley Pride’s breakthrough success (perhaps with the balm that “the white man helped him”) it does not explain why there are no other successful, black Country musicians today. Nor does it explain why the few that do get contracts almost invariably fail. Johnson (whom he’d met a year earlier) up on his offer to take Charley under his wing. He was introduced to record producer, Jack Clement, who was impressed enough with Charley’s musical presence that he handed over a few songs for him to learn.
And then in 1971, Americans who maybe hadn’t heard of Charley Pride got a huge dose of him in a big hurry. Charley had built major momentum with 1970′s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” in terms of his style (this is probably one of his best “Charley Pride” songs, archetypically infectious).
The Academy of Country Music presented Charley Pride with its Pioneer Award in June 1994, and in January 1996, in recognition of his outstanding achievement as an African-American, he was given Turner Broadcasting’s Trumpet Award.
At the same time the Carter Family was getting started in 1927 (in response to a print ad placed by a talent scout) blacks were singing the “white man’s blues” in dives on the chittlin’ circuit. The first known integrated musical group in recording history was Taylor’s Kentucky Boys. They cut their first hillbilly music sides in 1927.
Right or wrong, he did not own broadcast rights to the material he wanted to perform on live radio, the songs for which he was best known. His material was copyrighted (and it was his material) under ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers). ASCAP required a licensing fee (that had doubled by 1941) for broadcasting any material under its wing.
As national radio feeds only filled a few hours per day (mostly in the evening) local radio stations developed their own shows. WSM Radio in Nashville, sensing an opportunity to create something popular (at least with the rubes), came up with a program called Barn Dance. It was broadcast live from Nashville and, as its name readily implies, the show was filled with hillbilly and sped-up or spared-down blues-based music. It was based on a similar, and very successful, program broadcast by Chicago’s WLS.
This let listeners know that what they would hear was nothing so refined as what NBC had proffered. This was going to be the music of the people. DeFord Bailey was brought up to the mic, introduced, and did his number, “Pan American Blues”. He was not only the first guest; he was the first black man to appear as part of Country music’s most venerated institution, the newly-christened Grand Ole Opry.
by the author
Meanwhile, in December 1927, in keeping with what national radio programmers believed Americans wanted to hear on the air, the NBC network (still alive today as a television programmer, though owned by General Electric) broadcast an hour-long show of classical music with an uninspired name, Music Appreciation Hour, to its affiliates.
Almost all other musical forms have produced men and women of color who were exemplars of the style or superstars within the genre. The black men who have influenced or succeeded in pop music are almost too numerous to list: Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole, Ike Turner, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, and others were pioneers, paving the way for Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Billy Preston, Prince, and Ice-T.
By July 1941 NBC had reached a settlement agreement with ASCAP, ending the boycott; DeFord had cost himself dearly by not playing along for that short time. [Chances are good the conflict over the licensing issue devolved into something nastier than a mere business disagreement. DeFord could have done other material; he was talented enough to have composed new tunes for BMI licensing. Certainly, singing or blowing harp on public domain tunes was also an option. His take on the situation was he was ordered by WSM to play his ASCAP standards. Another issue revolved around the Opry becoming more refined and turning increasingly "white" in both its national appeal and desires to appease white listeners and sponsors. His firing resulted from a complex set of social dynamics and business issues, probably culminating in an altercation over the licensing matter, whether verbal or physical is irrelevant.]
In the late 1920s, when the Carter Family was cutting its first sides, Alvin Pleasant Carter (a fairly young man but in broken health) did not write songs. Instead, he found it more expedient to record public domain tunes. He put to work the insanely-fretted twangy guitar of sister-in-law, Maybelle (whose guitar playing on these recordings can still amaze), and the country whining vocals of his wife, Sara, making these familiar songs uniquely theirs.
Great men and women often rise to greatness despite the most horribly humble beginnings. Charley Frank Pride was no exception. His early life would have been a goldmine of material for any songwriter. And what a birth–Charley (whose name was supposed to be the strangely-truncated “Charl” but was misunderstood and misspelled on his birth record, yielding “Charley”) was one of an astonishing eleven children his mother produced.
Frankie’s take on Charley Pride’s success tends to show what many believe, that he could not have made it had he not been “protected” early in his career:
Country music, stemming from its earlier recordings known as “hillbilly”, was not (and is not) a racially integrated music, although historically blacks have played major roles in its evolution. The artists and fans were not known as racially sensitive or particularly enlightened in matters of race relations; in many proven cases (as in Country records clearly using slanderous racial epithets) there was not only intolerance of African-Americans but downright hostility toward them.
Charley Pride had become a fan and supporter of the Texas Rangers (his home by then was in Dallas, Texas, and had been for years). He was “drafted” by his beloved Texas Rangers; his brother, Mack, went to the Colorado Rockies (an expansion team that hadn’t existed in the Pride brothers’ ball playing days).
Charley Pride managed to cut the two tracks in the time allotted, “The Snakes Crawl at Night” and “Atlantic Coastal Line”. Johnson signed Charley to a management contract, and he started shopping Charley’s demo sides around. . They put out this album by a brother and nobody knew he was black.”
White Man’s Blues
Neither the Angels nor the Mets signed Charley Pride onto their rosters. He resigned himself to staying in Helena, Montana, where he took up construction work and played baseball for the home team, the Helena Smelterites.
Thus, it is both the movers-and-shakers and the fans who perpetuate the racism seen in today’s Country music scene.
A Revolution of One
Oh, but there was more. In 1971, RCA released Charley’s monster, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” (with its follow-up line, “And love her like the devil when you get back home”, sung in Charley’s rich baritone with just enough leer behind it, making the song very sexy indeed). The song was a smash, and shot through the million-sales mark rapidly. The track was also yet another crossover hit for Charley Pride, breaking into the pop Top 40 at #21. It made the Top Ten on adult contemporary charts.
He brought his guitar with him on team road trips. He played and sang for his teammates on the bus and in the motels (that catered to blacks). He had a great “country” voice, a richly textured baritone with which he sang folk-based hillbilly tunes, some bluesy things, and the more up-tempo, rough-edged material starting to find its way into pop culture.
Charley got an acoustic guitar from Sears-Roebuck when he was 14 years old and using radio shows broadcast from Memphis as his backdrop he taught himself to play. Though he loved the hillbilly music he’d heard as a kid in Mississippi, it was the newer sounds evolving with the likes of Hank Williams in the late 1940s to early 1950s that grabbed him. These were gritty, home-grown, blues-based laments about honky tonkin’ and love gone bad. There was honesty to this music, a roots appeal that struck a chord with the teen Charley.
“I was so excited about singing before a black audience for once in my life, and after three numbers, man, they just got up and walked out. Out of five hundred people, there were maybe fifty left. Afterward, many of them told me, ‘It’s nothing against you, I just can’t stand the image Country music is associated with.’ Notice, they weren’t talking about the way I sounded.”
White rappers (jokes in the music industry, for the most part) have managed to carve out a niche by usurping, emulating, and co-opting “black” culture in their “music”. Such artists, however, are tolerated (if not embraced) in that world and many of them (Beastie Boys or Eminem, for example) sell millions of dollars’ worth of product.
His baseball past came back to pleasantly haunt him in June 2008. Thirty Major League teams wanted to belatedly recognize the overlooked (and often stellar) performances of the Negro Leagues. Its players had been denied access to The Show thanks to racial segregation starting during Reconstruction and lasting throughout the Jim Crow years (until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, opening a floodgate). Instead, these black men had slogged around, playing ball where they could.
The saving factors of living in this crack in the world’s buttocks, though, were two things: 1) downtown Memphis, Tennessee (with its more urbane attractions) was only about 50 miles due north, and 2) there was baseball.
Growing up in rural Tennessee meant drudgery and poverty for blacks. Radio shows from the big city of Nashville were escapist forms of entertainment. Such programs also provided a spark of hope for budding musicians–many shows, in the days of radio’s populist infancy, needed talent to fill broadcasts. Itinerant musicians and others looking for a break in show business could many times drop in on a radio studio and get air time just by being able to sing passably well or play an instrument. .
His arm had been injured and was not up to his pre-Army flex, but he played for a short time with a farm team in the godforsaken badlands of Montana in 1960. The experience was worthwhile simply because this team, the Missoula Timberjacks, was a farm team for the major league Cincinnati Reds. He also got his first paying singing gig in a Montana bar.
And listening to old hillbilly and “race” records (and the song included in this article by Lead Belly proves the point) shows clear assimilation.
Consequently, for his first outings Johnson insisted that no references to Charley’s race be made. Furthermore, his photograph was not to be submitted in press-release packets nor would his image appear on the record sleeves of promo copies sent to deejays for preview. Taking the charade one more step, Johnson had printed up “Country” Charley Pride as the performer on those early deejay copies before sending them out. That way, the bloated beer-guzzler behind the mic at the local radio station would at least give the single a spin and judge it on its own merits rather than by the dusky face on a picture sleeve.
Taking his love of the Rangers one step further he became a minority share-holder of the team in 2010, buying in as an investor. That year he also sang the National Anthem before Game 5 of the World Series (between “his” Rangers and the San Francisco Giants). He sang the anthem again at the opening of Game 2 of 2011′s American League playoffs between the Rangers and Detroit’s Tigers.
“Jesse [Mitchell] and I may have the distinction of being the only players in history to be traded for a used motor vehicle.”
Bizarrely, a lone black man in America (to date, the only one of significance) decided early in his career to buck the system. His love of the easy, laid-back twangy stylings of hillbilly music led that African-American man, against great odds and possible danger to his life, to embrace and insert himself into a culture that not only distrusted blacks in America but also hated them.
Many people who heard him during these impromptu sessions (and he sometimes sat in with a house band if the team stayed in one place long enough to go out and enjoy themselves at a local juke joint) encouraged his musical inclinations. Walking in the shoes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and countless others, Charley Pride went to Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1958. He sang several songs of which only one survived on Sun’s taped archives, a track called “Walkin’ (the Stroll)”.
Charley Pride continued racking up the hits in the 1970s (among them, perhaps, one closer to his heart and home, “Mississippi Cotton Pickin’ Delta Town”). He plowed through the Seventies with consistency, winning more music awards as well as netting more hits.
The Major Leagues selected a cadre of 30 living Negro League players, among who were Charley Pride and his brother, Mack. Each of the 30 was “drafted” in honor of the historical significance of the Negro Leagues and to also credit the on-field performances of many bygone players, many of whom outshone their white contemporaries in the Majors.
And their songs reflected their hard scrabble lives: they were keening the white man’s blues. Country music, particularly in the 1950s to the mid 1960s, was filled with real white folks with real white-folk problems: hard drinkin’, cheatin’ spouses, truck drivin’, divorces, and cowboys filled track after track. The performers referred to themselves as singers, or as guitar players or banjo pickers. The era of the pre-packaged, heavily-marketed, slickly-produced “artist” had not hit yet.
Charley Pride may have known little or nothing about DeFord Bailey (or that he’d been the only black man ever to appear on the show), but he knew of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, having heard the broadcast countless times before diving into music himself. The program took root on television and, for Country artists, getting a spot on the program carried the weight of a Grail Quest. For Charley Pride, the former minor-league baseball player, a guest spot on “the Opry” was as desirable as getting to play ball in the Majors.
Radio changed that insular fine arts’ snobbishness. With radio sets affordable and with skyrocketing sales of units in the 1920s, mass appeal programming developed right alongside more high-brow fare. Johnson, perhaps overly protective, thought Charley’s dark skin might cause problems with listeners.
– Cleve Francis, African-American and Country artist, 1997
Chet Atkins, a premier guitar virtuoso and esteemed member of Country music’s elite, also happened to be a producer and executive at RCA, Elvis’ record label. Johnson brought Charley’s demo disc for Atkins to hear. Atkins, in turn, liked the sound enough to wrangle an RCA recording contract for Charley Pride in 1965.
His genteel manner and his slight physique (a consequence of his childhood polio) made him unthreatening to white audiences, so his race was overlooked in his public appearances. And the man could play well in addition to being a good on-stage entertainer, with banter, asides, and jokey harmonica runs. However, the money he made was insubstantial, and as early as 1930 he took up shoe-shining, and he opened a barbecue stand to help support his family (he and his wife would have three children). He also rented out rooms in his house to make extra money.
DeFord refused to toe the line and played his old ASCAP-protected material on the shows he was allowed to participate in. His lack of coöperation during the boycott of ASCAP did not sit well with WSM, NBC, or the creative management of the Grand Ole Opry. WSM fired DeFord Bailey in May 1941.
None less Black
Charley dug into these tunes and played them back for Clement. His live audition was sufficiently impressive that Clement asked him if he could work up a couple of the stronger songs and cut them in two hours. [For anyone who has ever spent time in a recording studio this is a ridiculously restrictive request. Two hours of studio time can be filled easily with setting up gear, tweaking mic levels, etc. Two hours might produce one rough demo.]
In what has to be one of the strangest swaps in baseball’s quirky history he and another player were traded by the Clippers to the Birmingham Black Barons for a bus the team needed. Of this slightly humiliating experience, Charley wrote in an autobiography decades later:
The “protectors” (ASCAP) of DeFord’s songs had prevented him from legally performing his material on the show (unless he was granted permission, which of course meant paying the hefty licensing fee). He did not, however, want to compose new material under BMI just to play on-air; that meant his back-catalog could never be affordably played in a radio broadcast, and those were the tunes that had made him famous. Pride (his name says it all).
Sing like a White Man
Charley Pride sounded “white” enough to be popular. His perceived problem was his face: one look at his African-American mug would irrevocably shatter the illusions held by any po’ white trash redneck enjoying one of Charley’s songs on the radio.
DeFord Bailey, Country music’s other black man, was resurrected briefly in 1974. The Grand Ole Opry had developed a concept, now an annual affair, its “Old Timer’s Show”. One of the guests invited to appear and perform was none other than DeFord Bailey. He put whatever animosity he felt toward the Opry behind him and did the show. Johnson and RCA, Charley Pride could keep his African-American face a secret no longer.
Therefore, and perhaps not surprisingly, Elvis’ first significant airplay came on radio programs that catered to black audiences, usually slotted for the late hours of the night. Black listeners, not knowing otherwise, thought they were hearing a black man. Surprise was the first reaction when black fans found out Elvis was white. Some embraced the cross-over aspects of his singing; others condemned him for usurping “their” style.
Because Country’s roots were in the poor areas of the Deep South, African-Americans influenced the genre from the start. It was blacks who brought the earliest form of the banjo–a staple instrument of Country music–from Africa. Familiarly, their field singing transcended the toil of picking cotton and became a genre itself, the blues.
Boy of Summer
Country music, as an entity, is not inclined to break molds or upset the comfort of a perceived status quo, either. Cleve Francis, a black Country recording artist (who had been a practicing cardiologist before signing to a recording contract) argues that the problem isn’t with the fans but the industry itself, and it is studio execs who won’t let a black man merely cut and play Country songs without wanting to promote him as a black man first, creating an almost freak-show quality to marketing efforts.
Almost at the end of the old millennium on October 4, 2000, Charley Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Texas Cultural Trust presented him with its Texas Medal of Arts in March 2003. The same month, Country Music Television (CMT) produced a list, 40 Greatest Men in Country Music: Charley placed at #18. In 2003 and 2006 he released full-length discs for his newest record label, Music City Records. His home state presented him with a lifetime achievement award in January 2008, sponsored by the Mississippi Arts Commission. Licensing issues arose for the WSM studio, now broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry nationally over the NBC radio network.
DeFord Bailey was the grandson of slaves. He was born in 1899 in rural Smith County, Tennessee (the county seat of which is just under 70 miles due east of Nashville). He lost his mother to illness when he was a year old, and his father placed the boy in the care of a younger sister of the senior Bailey.
For anyone alive back then this song was everywhere. It could be heard on car AM radios, in homes, in stores, and more importantly on TV. The song topped the Country charts and held the top spot for 5 weeks from late 1971 to early 1972. The year of its release, Charley Pride–the Lone Black Ranger of Country Music–earned the Country Music Association’s most coveted award, Entertainer of the Year. He was also bestowed Top Male Vocalist honors (he won this award again in 1972). And in 1972, he won a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male (for his LP Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs).
RCA had also thrown its efforts into developing and promoting newer talent. Charley Pride recognized almost too late that “old timers” such as he weren’t part of RCA’s new business model. Despite the tons of money the company had made off his record sales his contract was allowed to lapse when it came up for renewal in 1986.
Now that “The Secret” was out, Jack D. the people at the top. These guys determine how it’s marketed, and they make like it’s all white, and all these white people wear hats and boots.
The Country music buying public is very conservative as a rule and very resistant to change. For example, the genre was the slowest to embrace the newer technology of the compact disc. Country music fans had made 8-track tapes (the worst music format in the history of recording) their preferred delivery method. Country music group Alabama released an 8-track in the mid 1980s, despite the embracing of CD technology by almost every other genre by that time. The band holds the dubious record of having released the last 8-track on a major label in American music.
But more than he loved music, Charley Pride loved baseball.
So, radio stations were playing his records before they discovered his ethnicity and, at that point, how do you get off the record? How do you pull it without labeling yourself a racist? So, it was kind of shrewd on RCA’s part because once they’re on it, they can’t just jump back out.”
The world of rock ‘n’ roll was an open door for race relations almost from inception. Black musicians and vocalists cozied up to white recording artists at the top of sales’ charts in the form’s earliest years. [Although some artists' recordings, such as those by Little Richard, were considered too "racy" by white bread America and were ripped off and re-recorded, notoriously by Dot Records, by "safe" WASPs. Pat Boone's toned-down rendition of the rollicking "Tutti Frutti" stands as a hilarious monument to such sanitizing. Even Fats Domino came in for the Dot Records treatment with Boone's version of "Blueberry Hill".]
Charley Pride’s problem wasn’t his voice, though. He sounded every bit the country-ass hayseed that most Country & Western stars of his earliest days were. Many performers were from the mountains of Appalachia and other poor parts of the US, and had been housewives, farmers, and truck drivers before making it as songwriters and singers. As a point of comparison, the very genteel Nat King Cole had been attacked and beaten during a concert appearance in Alabama in 1956, sustaining back injuries from the assault. Six white men, all members of a local racist group styling themselves “The White Citizens Council”, had taken it upon themselves to pound on him.
With his 1967 Top Ten Country single “Just Between You and Me” Charley Pride was a hot commodity. Whitey may have been surprised at the first exposure of Charley’s dark skin on television, but the plain truth is the man had talent, and talent can make up for a lot of prejudice. His singing voice and phrasing, with just enough twang, was perfect for Country (and the developing “Countrypolitan” style that would dominate the genre in the late 1960s through the mid 1970s).
Country music culture, though, remains defiantly (and proudly) white, despite the fact one of its key demographics is (perhaps surprising to many) black women aged 18 to 44. This is a fan base not being catered to. Country music has yet to nurture and embrace a black female artist, and it never will as long as it remains “comfortably” white with the “nigras” knowing their places.
His career as a minor star was over with his termination by WSM. He set himself up in the shoe-shine business full-time, opening what became an elaborate parlor with nine shine chairs. Despite the racism they may have encountered the two collated an amazing catalog of songs, many of which the Carter Family and others recorded. Tom Roland (a columnist in Nashville) explained:
Thus, by early 1967, two years after signing with Jack D.
“Charley Pride made it because Chet Atkins stood up for him. They didn’t put his face on his album covers. Johnson, an agent and talent manager, and auditioned for him. Johnson liked Charley’s style. However, not knowing what to do with him at that moment Johnson let him go back to Montana, saying if he could he’d like to be Charley’s manager.
DeFord Bailey probably did not know he was making history that day. He spent time the next year cutting eight sides for Nashville’s Victor Recording Company. Three of these Victor pressings were issued on disc by Victor as well as different record labels, among them RCA (the two would merge later into RCA-Victor).
When he was three he contracted polio. He spent the next year confined to a bed, only able to move his head and arms. Mostly through sheer dumb luck he not only didn’t die, he was also spared the debilitating paralysis most children suffered. However, it stunted his growth and left him with a slight hunchback. During this convalescent period, the wunderkind worked on his harmonica playing and developed character in his instrument’s voice.
A perceived problem arose in marketing and promoting Charley Pride’s ambitions, however. His was the lone black face in a musical genre informed by the ingrained Jim Crow racism of the Deep South, where residents behaved as if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to them and their kind.
The 1990s held many surprises, some pleasant, some not so much. The Grand Ole Opry, which had fired its last black “member” in 1941, invited Charley Pride to join its permanent roster on May 1, 1993. Though he had appeared as a guest performer many times he was not yet an official associate. He accepted that honor, making him the show’s first regularly scheduled entertainer of color in many decades. Perhaps thinking the Opry honorific might have signaled a high-point in his life, he chose 1994 to co-write the story of his life, Pride: The Charley Pride Story, with help from another author.
Queries later led him to discover that blacks thought there was something fundamentally wrong with his embracing Country music. His disillusion cannot be overstated.
He was born on March 18, 1938, in Sledge, Mississippi (a sleepy hamlet of less than 400 people at the time in the extreme northeast tip of Quitman County). He learned hard knocks as a way of life. His father was a sharecropper in one of the most racist states in the Union, one that remained staunchly and proudly segregated well into the years that its native son, Charley, was an established superstar.
However, Elvis’ first demo records met with banning by some deejays when given sides to spin on their shows. Previewing the singles, many jocks told Phillips that they didn’t play music by “nigger singers”. From sound alone, they had concluded Elvis was a black man.
And though cracker emcees might have gritted their teeth when introducing him on-stage back when, Charley Pride is that one black man with the big country cojones who pursued what he loved in an all-white arena.
The hits just kept coming, and by 1986, Charley Pride had racked up an impressive 39 #1 songs. His achievement was second only to Elvis on RCA’s roster in terms of both #1 records and global sales. However, Charley’s former golden touch wasn’t working well at RCA any longer.
Elvis fit that description; he had grown up steeped in black gospel and rhythm and blues, and his then-peculiar singing reflected that heritage.
One of Country music’s greatest institutions got its start following an off-the-cuff remark by a radio host in 1927 in the presence of DeFord Bailey. Bailey and his harmonica had, in the past few months, managed to garner a minor hit with one of his bluesy/hillbilly harmonica tunes, “Pan American Blues” (the song became a hallmark of his).
Despite the negativity directed at Charley’s road to success–and the man clearly has talent or he could not have sustained his popularity for nearly 5 decades–he has influenced others in recent years. Garth Brooks, early in his career, made much of claiming he’d been more influenced by Led Zeppelin, ELO, and Kiss than Country artists. But one listen to “Friends in Low Places” says otherwise–the vocal take is pure Charley Pride, intended or not.
“All I Have to Offer You” hit the Number One slot on Billboard on August 9, 1969. In the wake of that success he did a guest spot on Johnny Cash’s music variety show on September 6. He did a medley of Hank Williams songs with Johnny. The outing was classic television, with a black man and The Man in Black creating magic with Hank’s alternately joyous and depressing songs. Also that year, perhaps prematurely, RCA released a compilation, The Best of Charley Pride. Regardless of timing, the LP was a million-seller.
Cleve Francis was never put on a tour package with other major Country acts; despite his first two albums’ charting, and having a breakout video hit CMT’s Top 10, he was dropped by his label after his third full-length set.
Finally, “Country” Charley Pride made a splash with his third single for RCA, “Just Between You and Me”. It was released in December 1966; three months later it cracked the Country charts’ Top 10 at a respectable #9.
Killer career overview up to 2006
The music that the city became best known for, Country, was once considered beneath the tastes of Nashville’s art crowd. In fact, it was reviled. Hillbilly music was the music of poor white trash and black sharecroppers, neither of whom could understand Aïda or Pagliacci, nor see the symbolism in the outré Dada art movement. In the 1920s, hillbilly music reflected all the undesirable rustic qualities that Nashville had shed decades before.
Black women, likewise, early on excelled on many musical fronts: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Dinah Washington (a cross-over jazz/blues belter, she also had pop chart hits), Darlene Love, Diana Ross, Sylvia Robinson (through her record label, Sugar Hill), and scores of others all helped shape the sounds of Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Oleata Adams, or the mash-ups of Missy Elliott.
Though black artists in Country music today (what few there are) recognize Charley Pride as a pioneer they may not appreciate or respect how he made his way early on. Others tend to agree.
“You cannot tell me that you can shake the Country music tree, and in seventy-five years, only one black man fell out.
DeFord became a sort of fixture on the Grand Ole Opry radio show. He was popular enough with the Tennessee hillbillies whose ears were reached by the show. Later, when the program gained national attention reaching a wider audience, he still made appearances. His popularity with both WSM and its listeners was stressed later in his run with WSM when he was invited to join barnstorming package tours that featured up-and-coming Country stars including Bill Monroe (who had started playing professionally as a 16-year-old in 1927) and Roy Acuff (who made the much-recorded “The Wabash Cannonball” his signature song).
DeFord had a back-catalog of songs under his belt and several of these were “signature” outings for him. A long association with both WSM and its now-nationally famed program, Grand Ole Opry, came to an acrimonious end after 14 years for DeFord Bailey.
Cleve’s quote about “shaking the Country tree” is spot on, however. Going back into the history of the music blacks and whites swapped guitar licks and lyrics, at least back in the 1920s and 1930s. The influence of blacks on white artists is immeasurable. Jimmie Rodgers (d.
Big Time Charley
When Sam Phillips of Sun Records made his classic statement in the early 1950s about wanting to find a white man who sang like a black man, he wasn’t talking about finding someone who “sounded” black. What he was talking about was finding a white man who used the stuttering, trilling, hiccupping, and start-stop vocal histrionics of many “race” artists of the late 1940s and early 1950s (the style of R & B singing that evolved into rock ‘n’ roll vocalizing). Hay, flippantly remarked on-air (as a segue before introducing DeFord Bailey), “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from grand opera, but from now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry’.”
In 1963, he went back to Nashville, hoping to take Jack D. . This young aunt basically raised him. Instead of a rattle to play with she gave the toddler a harmonica.
Though believing Charley Pride (in the more forward-looking 1960s) would surely fare better than Nat King Cole had, Johnson took no chances. First, he needed to protect RCA’s investment, Charley Pride, from harm. Secondly, RCA needed to be able to generate sales from Charley’s records, something they wouldn’t be able to do if the buying public took umbrage to the new singer’s heritage.
He arrived for his segment on December 10, 1927, and he was the first guest of that show’s broadcast. The program aired that night immediately after NBC’s stuffy Music Appreciation Hour. The last composition heard on the NBC show was a classical piece emulating the sounds of a locomotive. The host of Barn Dance, who was also WSM’s station manager, George D.
One of the songs he recorded was a take on the folklore hero, John Henry. This record was released by RCA in two different categories (printed on the record’s label itself, a common practice up until the mid 1950s). To show how close the blues and hillbilly music were to each other in the 1920s the same song was released carrying two different category labels, “race” and “hillbilly”. Both blacks and whites liked it and bought the record, blacks thinking of it as a “race” record and whites embracing it as “hillbilly” music.
Charley Pride, while the first successful black man in Country music, was not the first black man in Country music.
Hat’s off to you, Mr. To combat ASCAP’s stranglehold the broadcasters boycotted performances of songs registered with ASCAP. To also ease the chokehold people in the music industry, among them WSM and other radio broadcasters and musicians, created a new organization, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). Unfortunately, to take advantage of the new system artists had to create new material to perform on air under BMI’s aegis to avoid paying ASCAP’s exorbitant licensing fees.
Charley Pride (who early in his career could not even put his picture on his singles’ sleeves or LP jackets over concerns of a racist backlash) not only gained acceptance within the hostile racism of Country music and its fans but he was successful, selling over 70 million records and having many hits. To date, however, he is the only black superstar Country music has ever produced.
He was a touring man as well, and his boyhood dream had been to see the world. He logged concert hours all over the US and later in many countries around the world. He did USO tours, too, entertaining the troops wherever he was asked to appear. The performance by Lead Belly could easily have come out of the mouth and twelve-string guitar of almost any hillbilly act worth his salt in the 1930s. The record clearly crosses over color and culture lines. And it is only one example (the songs of the Carter Family, the Stoneman Family, Jimmie Rodgers, et al) are reflections of the commonalties and not the differences between poor rural whites and poor rural blacks.
“They didn’t send out any publicity photos, which is unusual. The idea, I’m sure at that time, that an African-American artist might even be trying was absurd. He was really country, particularly when he started. He was called ‘Country’ Charley Pride the first few records. And, in fact, though Jack Clement was producing him, they put the names of four different producers on the records, the first couple of albums, just so people would know that there were a number of high-powered executives who all believed in this performer.
For a black man from rural America living under the draconian (and mostly unwritten) Jim Crow segregation “laws” of the Deep South he was more fortunate than most men in his circumstances. However, in the fast-and-loose world of music recording and publishing, with no protections for material he may have written or composed music for, DeFord Bailey was just like any other black musician then: a nigger to be overlooked or exploited.
In search of more material, he combed the Appalachian region of their home state of Virginia, “collecting” songs of the people living in the “hollers” and on the ridges (as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution would do in the 1930s, “discovering” such talents as Huddie Ledbetter (1885-1949), more familiarly known as “Lead Belly”).
In 1970, he sang the main song for the Paul Newman film, Sometimes a Great Notion. The movie curried two Oscar nominations in 1972, one of which was for Charley’s rendition of the soundtrack tune, “All His Children”.
Cleve claims he had no race-related problems during his performances, and he holds the average listener or CD-buyer or song-downloader blameless for his failure–he reported being invited by beer-guzzling rednecks to hang out with them, etc., during his times on the road for Capitol Records. The consumer isn’t the problem. He thinks the setback of no successful black acts in Country music, other than Charley Pride, lies with whom he calls “nouveau rednecks”:
There have been black women in Country music, of course, but none achieved success, measurable in dollars and name recognition. One such African-American Country musician was a woman named Frankie Staton. As a result, young urban blacks have grown up seeing this as segregated music. The marketing these people do just reinforces that by creating an artificial separation.”
In support of this belief he cited a show in 1994 when he was to perform in Texas at an all-black function. He was crestfallen at the response he received:
Alvin Carter’s partner on these song treks was a close friend of his and an African-American. Sometimes the pair “got in trouble”: in that part of the country in those times a white man palling around with a black man was suspect.
Charley moved on to an independent label for which he scored a Top 5 hit almost immediately, with a few minor chart placers following.
He continued bouncing around, pitching for other minor league teams before the US Army temporarily brought his baseball career to a screeching halt. Charley was needlessly drafted (as Elvis Presley was). He did his two-year hitch and returned to the baseball circuit, still trying to make it to The Show.
DeFord was given air time at WSM on June 19, 1926, for its Barn Dance broadcast, and he became a weekly regular thereafter. He proved to be very popular with listeners; interestingly enough his race was never mentioned on air, despite the fact that the show wanted to attract “colored” listeners (the founder of WSM was an insurance company that specialized in policies for the poor, whether they were black or white).
Vocal cord surgery was needed in 1997 to remove a tumor; his voice completely recovered. Offsetting the bleakness of that time, in July 1999 he was given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Country music, thanks to the heavy cross-culture impact of crackers forced to live side-by-side with their darker brethren, evolved from a pidgin of black and white common experiences as sharecroppers, down-and-outers, and generally disenfranchised people. The rawer sounds of the blacks’ blues and the twitchier mania of the “white man’s blues” went hand-in-glove. Many recordings of the 1920s show this cross-cultural borrowing from both groups.
Dwayne Johnson (wrestling’s “The Rock”) was in development as the producer and (oddly) the star of a movie about Charley Pride (Johnson’s ethnicity does not completely mirror Charley’s African roots). The announcement to make this movie was in April 2011–where the project sits currently is unknown. [And though many blacks in the Nashville area knew he was black they never "outed" him.] Though the show often featured other black performers DeFord Bailey was the only regular African-American member of the cast.
The music industry had changed much since he cut his first RCA sides. Continued success became one of exposure–publicity, whether positive or negative, spurred record sales. Unfortunately, for Charley Pride, he wasn’t that interesting. He was never seen drunkenly staggering around in public like cross-over Country singer Kenny Rogers. He was married to the same woman he’d hitched his wagon to in 1956 (and wasn’t cheating on her). His only “problem” was manic-depression (which he’d suffered with for years), and that certainly wasn’t good enough for RCA’s marketing department to use as sales fodder. Performing and writing songs for two decades in Nashville by the late 1990s (with little recognition) she was frustrated by the lack of industry support for budding Country artists of color. She started an organization, The Black Country Music Association. Her efforts, while admirable, proved largely fruitless though the Association did help wide-eyed naïfs, new to the industry, with the “business” part of the “music business”.
1969 marked the start of a streak for Charley Pride. He placed eight singles at Country music’s #1 spot over the next two years. Many of these enjoyed crossover airplay with Top 40 AM pop radio playing Charley Pride songs (he was one of the early Country crossover artists in the late 1960s alongside Glen Campbell, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash). He was invited to appear in Nashville for another live broadcast of WSM’s Barn Dance specifically to play that tune.
The genre has also not produced another Charley Pride. Though not his intent (he just wanted to sing good songs and see the world), it seems he is destined to be the “token” black man raising his baritone voice on high among a sea of white folks.
At 14 years old, learning the guitar on his own wasn’t enough of an accomplishment by itself. He tried out as a pitcher for the Negro American League team in the music Mecca to the north, the Memphis Red Sox. His pitching arm was good enough to get him a contract in 1953 with the Boise (Idaho) Yankees, the big-league New York Yankees’ farm team.
In the world of musical entertainment many artists sometimes find a love of a musical type outside their cultural sphere.
Still dreaming of a big league baseball career, he tried out in 1961 for the California Angels. In 1962, he pressed on and tried out for the New York Mets. His trip back home to Montana routed him through Nashville, Tennessee. He met Jack D.
Second to One
Many people with no hand in writing songs pirated and copyrighted material. John Lomax (1867-1948) and his teenage son, Alan, had traveled around the country “collecting”‘ songs starting in the early 1930s. The senior Lomax was responsible for “discovering” Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and Lead Belly, among others. However, Lomax cheated these men by taking songwriting credits for material he had clearly not written. [For example, there is no way Lomax--who had attended Harvard--or his boy wrote Lead Belly's "In New Orleans (House of the Rising Sun)" or "Black Betty". These are but two among many Lead Belly tunes that credit the Lomax name.]
Charley Pride was honest with himself and realized his baseball career would probably never be anything more than what it was right then: a small-town player on a small-town team. With a family to tend (he and his wife would have three children, two boys and a girl) he needed something more than full-time construction work and part-time baseball.
Black like Me
He jacked his pitching arm his first season and was dropped to the Yankees’ D-class team in Wisconsin. Working his arm back into service he then pitched for another Negro League baseball team, the Clippers (of Louisville, Kentucky).
In 1927, Bailey cut some 78-rpm records of his harmonica musings, combining the gutbucket blues of the slave tradition with the trembly warbling of hillbilly. The label for which he recorded was New York City’s Brunswick Records, then a great purveyor of what it (and other labels) called “race” records. He continued to guest on WSM’s Barn Dance.
That Gal o’ Mine
Like all good male athletes on the road, Charley Pride had an eye for the local female talent. Playing ball in Memphis he met a girl named Rozene. They married in 1956. Charley continued playing baseball and touring with his team. 1939) shaped the sound of The Lonesome One. Johnson waited for the expected racist backlash. There was none. Charley Pride went on and kept making records and began performing live, something he had been prohibited from doing (by order of RCA and Johnson). He had an engaging stage presence, and it was genuine, not an act. He was courteous and seemed damn glad to be wherever it was he happened to be. His fan base grew exponentially. [He died in obscurity on July 2, 1982, in Nashville where he is buried.]
Nashville in the mid 1800s began re-inventing itself from a frontier town. It moved forward, modeled on ancient Greece. Much of its early architecture recalled Greek temples and civic buildings. The city was very cultured, embracing opera, legitimate theater, and orchestral performances. Its fine arts’ leanings were cultivated; major art centers elsewhere in the US recognized Nashville as a kindred soul. Its nickname was “The Athens of the South”