Monday, December 14, 2020

Christmas in My Home Town Charlie Pride—Murfin ’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                            Christmas in My Home Town by Charley Pride.

Word came Saturday the Charley Pride, the first Black singer to carve out a long and successful career in country music died of complications of the Coronavirus at the age of 86.  Some other performers have speculated that he might have been exposed at the Country Music Association Awards (CMA), which were held indoors at the Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee, on November 11 and where he was presented the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Although the CMA said it screened attendees for the virus and “took precautions” social distancing was not practiced and few, if any, wore masks.  Several acts had to cancel appearances when they or members of their bands or crew tested positive including Lee Price, Lady A, Rascal Flats, and Florida Georgia Line.  Pride was reported to have tested negative “multiple times” after returning to his Dallas, Texas home, but those tests might have been conducted after he had become exposed but before he was symptomatic.

Charley Pride's performance on the CMA Awards show in November was his last major public appearance.

Despite the pandemic, 2020 had been a career crowning year for Price.  In addition to his CMA Lifetime Achievement Award he was at long last inducted into the Country Music Hall of FamePrevious honors included three American Music Awards, four Grammys including a Lifetime achievement award, the Academy of Country Music Pioneer Award, and three previous CMA Awards for Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year.  He was one of just three Black members of the Grand Ol’ Opry along with harmonica whiz DeFord Bailey and Darius Rucker.

Country music roots were tangled inexorably with Black folk music, each influencing the other.  African slaves brought the banjo and Scotch-Irish fiddling was adapted to Black dancingBallads like John Henry, Frankie and Johnnie, and House of the Rising Sun were sung and adopted by both.  European hymns became Black gospel music and showed up again in White churches in the new form. Field calls and shout and response laid the foundation of the blues.  Delta bluesmen introduced the slide guitar style that would become a backbone of country music and Western Swing on the electric steel pedal guitarLouis Armstrong played on Jimmer Rodgers’ famous Blue Yodel #9 recording.

According to Patrick Huber, a history professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology in his 2013 essay Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932, hillbilly featured a higher frequency of integrated recording sessions than any other genre except vaudeville blues. Nearly 50 African-American singers and musicians appeared on commercial hillbilly records between those years because the music was not a white agrarian tradition, but a fluid phenomenon passed back and forth between the races.  Black and white musicians often played the same barn dances even in the Deep South.

DeFord Bailey with a megaphone strapped to his harmonica at the WSM microphone.  He was a founding member of the Grand Ol' Opry and the last until Charley Pride.

But by the early 1930’s recording companies were splitting their record labels and marketing into white hillbilly music and “race music.”  Only occasionally on the vaudeville stage were a handful of African-Americans allowed to perform with white acts as comic relief and usually adopting minstrel show stereotypes and even blackface.  DeFord Bailey was the only performer from the cross-fertilization period to finally allowed to join the early WSM Grand Ol’ Opry. But Bailey’s race was mostly hidden from his radio audience, and when he did go on tour with the Opry, he was forced to find separate accommodations in a segregated South. “He was a mascot—he was very much treated paternalistically,” Huber said. Bailey was fired unceremoniously in 1941 and spent the rest of his life shining shoes

As hillbilly music, cowboy music, and western swing blended together in post-World War II America as country music it was as whites only as a Mississippi drinking fountain or lunch counter.

Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was a smash hit on the Country, R&B, and pop charts, but it was an anomaly. 

Rhythm & Blues (R&B) star Ray Charles first breached the wall in 1962 with his phenomenally popular Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music which included his hit I Can’t Stop Loving You.   Not only did he top the R&B and Country Charts but also crossed over to pop chart success.  The album was so successful that it helped boost all of country music to a mainstream audience. Charles went on to make a follow-up Vol. II, but afterwards turned from country music to play bluesy jazz and soul music and to take a career hiatus while he battled heroin addiction.

That was the world Charlie Pride found himself in when he tried to break into country music in the mid-1960

Pride was born on March 18, 1934, in Sledge, Mississippi, the fourth of eleven children of poor sharecroppers.  He came by his love of country music because it was all he heard on the radio.  By his teens he was noodling around on an old guitar and trying to imitate the twang of his heroes like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and Ernest Tubbs.  

A baseball card from Charley Pride's time with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League.

But his dream was to follow his older brother into baseball.  In 1952, he pitched for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. In 1953, he signed a contract with the Boise Yankees, the Class C farm team of the New York Yankees. During that season, an injury caused him to lose the mustard on his fastball, and he was sent to the Yankees' Class D team in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  His career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army in 1956. After basic training, he was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, where he was a quartermaster and played baseball team which won the All Army championship. When discharged in 1958, he rejoined the Memphis Red Sox.  As a Negro League player he was a two-time All Star and tried out with the Major League Angels and Mets in the early ‘60s but failed to make either team.

He was out of baseball and working construction in Helena, Montana when he was recruited to play for the semi-pro East Helena Smelterites where most of his earnings were from a job reserved for players at local Asarco lead smelter.  That was grueling, hot work and exposed him to all of the hazards of toxic lead.  But his seemingly dead-end baseball career open a door to another possibility when Pride’s manager heard him singing in the locker room and hired him to sing for 15 minutes before home games.  He was paid $10 for each performance, the same as he was paid to play.  Soon he was playing around Montana covering country music favorites with his rich baritone voice and authentic twang.

Before he even left Montana Price was trying to get Nashville interested in his music.  He was encouraged by some important singers like Red Sovine and Red Foley,  But in several trips there he found doors shut in his Black face at record labels.  Finally guitar legend and producer/executive Chet Atkins submitted a demo tape to the company without identifying him as Black.  The label signed him in 1966 and he released his is first two singles with little fanfare or support but they got behind the third, Just Between You and Me, received the full support of the label’s A&R team.  Copies were brought to disc jockeys with promotional brochures calling the artist Country Charlie Pride but the customary photo was omitted, as was any mention of Price’s race.  The song reached #9 on Hot Country Songs list in 1967 and was nominated for the Song the of Year Grammy the next year.

Charley Pride in the 1960s.  His first singles were sent to DJs without promo photos like this.

Pride race was not a total secret.  He and a back-up combo had played club dates in Montana, Tennessee, and Texas, but most radio listeners and record buyers were still unaware.  He had a hard time booking major venues or joining packaged tours of country star until he got a shot at a show at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. The Motor City was the home of a large Appalachian diaspora community attracted by the auto industry and World War II Defense plants.  Since no biographical information had been included with his singles, few of the 10,000 country fans who came to the show knew Pride was Black until he walked out on the and only discovered the fact when he walked onto the stage.  Enthusiastic audience applause trickled off to silence Pride later remembered. “I told the audience, ‘Friends, I realize it’s a little unique, me coming out here—with a permanent suntan—to sing country and western to you. But that’s the way it is."  His strong show won them over.

About the same time after 10 years in Montana, Pride moved his family to Texas where he could more effectively pursue his career.  Not moving to Nashville was intentional.

He never became involved in the Civil Rights Movement or made political statements, which helped the country audience eventually accept him as a “good Negro.” He was criticized for this by some Black leaders, but it was the only way his career could thrive.  Even so some of his appearances in the Deep South drew protests and occasional threats.  The public support of some of the biggest names in the business like Johnny Cash gave him some protection.

Pride’s career really took off with several singles charting over the next few years, his albums selling well, and he was booked on national TV shows.  In 1967, he became the first Black performer to appear at the Grand Ol’ Opry since founding member DeFord Bailey, who had last appeared in 1941—but he was not invited to officially join the Opry until 1993,

Between 1969 and 1971, Pride had eight singles that reached #1 on the US Country Hit Parade and also charted on the Billboard Hot 100 culminating in his 1971 crossover hit Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ which became his signature tune and most honored song.  In 1969, his compilation album, The Best of Charley Pride, sold more than one million copies, and was awarded a Gold Record. Elvis Presley was the only artist who sold more records than Pride for RCA Victor. 

He continued to chart hits through the ‘70s and early 80s.  Eventually, like most other older country stars he was banished by the new tightly formatted country radio stations that favored hot younger acts with a rock-influenced style.  But a loyal fan base continued to attend Pride’s concerts.

In the first two decades of the 21st Century Pride was re-discovered by young country artists.  While the genre remained white dominated, he paved the way for Darius Rucker, the former front man of the pop group Hootie & the Blowfish and now a handful of new artists including Mickey Guytonr, Rhiannon Giddens, and even rapper Lil Nas X.  He was also showered with career capping honors.

Today we will turn to Charlie Pride’s title song from his 1970 RCA Victor album Christmas in My Home Town.

No comments:

Post a Comment