From toiling in the cotton fields of Mississippi to being enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Charley Pride’s journey out of the segregated South was fraught with adversity. In the upcoming PBS American Masters special, Charley Pride: I’m Just Me, debuting nationwide on Friday, February 22nd, at 9:00 p.m. ET, the country legend’s hardscrabble upbringing, his important role in destroying cultural stereotypes and the impact he would have on future generations of aspiring country artists are explored in depth. Pride and wife Rozene were interviewed for the film, along with fellow artists Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks. Narrated by Tanya Tucker, the film also features original interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Darius Rucker, Brad Paisley and Marty Stuart, as well as Pride’s longtime friend and steel guitar player Lloyd Green, author Alice Randall and country singer Jimmie Allen.
While those who are familiar with many of Pride’s more than 50 Top Ten country hits — and 29 Number One hits including the crossover smash “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” — may be well aware of his significance as one of country music’s most compelling, heartfelt vocalists, aspects of Pride’s personal life are revealed in detail throughout the film, including Pride’s promising career as a baseball player and his battle with mental illness.
Here are 10 things we learned from American Masters’ Charley Pride: I’m Just Me.
Willie Nelson once kissed Pride on the lips onstage at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas. While the unexpected show of affection shocked the crowd, it also demonstrated Nelson’s colorblind endorsement of the singer, causing fans to rethink their assessment of Pride, who recreates the moment on Nelson’s bus during the documentary. Planting a prolonged kiss on Nelson, Pride tells his longtime friend and supporter, “I got you back. I’ve been wanting to do that for so many years!”
As a baseball player, he tried out for the Memphis Red Sox in the Negro American League, but didn’t make it the first time.
Pride debuted instead in the Iowa State League in 1952 and would go on to play for Memphis as a pitcher-outfielder. He also played for the Louisville Clippers, the Birmingham Black Barons and Missoula Montana’s Timberjacks, as well as several other teams. While playing for Memphis in 1956, Pride won 14 games, made the All-Star team and pitched against future baseball legends Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. When Pride was drafted into the army in 1956, he served 14 months in Colorado, where he played on the baseball team and sang in the barracks.
When Pride first met his future wife, Rozene Cochran, he bought a record for her, “It Only Hurts for a Little While,” by the Ames Brothers.
“He thought I was gonna go out with somebody else,” Rozene says of their courtship, which was interrupted by his service in the army. Pride went home for Christmas and the couple married on December 28th, 1956, his father’s birthday. They recently celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.
Pride worked in a Montana smelting plant that also had a baseball team, the East Helena Smelterites, but he continued to sing in local clubs when he had the chance.
Between innings at a baseball game, his landlady heard him singing and helped him secure a gig at a club in Helena. At the Main Tavern, Pride earned about 20 dollars a day. He would soon go on to play at a nightspot in nearby Anaconda for twice that amount.
In 1962, local Montana DJ Tiny Stokes arranged for Pride to audition for country stars Red Foley and Red Sovine, but another country legend would play a major role in developing his early career.
After an unsuccessful tryout for the New York Mets, Pride took a bus back to Montana, stopping in Nashville at the then-powerhouse Cedarwood music publishing company, run by superstar artist Webb Pierce. While there, he would meet his future manager Jack Johnson and record a demo. Johnson then drove the singer to Nashville’s bus station so that he wouldn’t knock on any other publishing company’s doors that day. Pride had a contract waiting for him when he returned home. He has never had another manager during his career.
At Pride’s first show in Detroit, famed Nashville DJ Ralph Emery introduced the singer, who was initially greeted with applause, then stunned silence when he took the stage.
Emery recalls that Pride told the crowd, “I realize that I’ve got that permanent tan, but my name’s Charley Pride and I am from Mississippi, my daddy was a farmer down there. And I sing country music. I want to entertain you if you’ll let me.” Once he started singing, the applause returned.
Pride debuted on the Grand Ole Opry on January 1st, 1967, introduced by country legend Ernest Tubb.
He was the first African-American performer to appear on the Opry stage since harmonica-playing Deford Bailey debuted on the program in the 1920s. With steel player Lloyd Green accompanying him, Pride would make his network TV debut on the popular Lawrence Welk Show that same year.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th, 1968, Pride was on tour with singer Guy Mitchell, who bowed out of their previously scheduled show. Pride did the sold-out show alone in Big Springs, Texas.
“I got onstage, nobody said nothin’,” Pride recalls. “They applauded, I got a standing ovation. I didn’t say nothin’ about nothin’ pertaining to what had happened. But it was hanging there, what had happened and me the only one there with these pigmentations. You don’t forget nothin’ like that.”
At the height of his early fame, Pride received a surprising medical diagnosis.
Popular not only in the U.S., Pride took his music across the globe. As his worldwide touring schedule increased, he was hospitalized after experiencing bouts of paranoia, insomnia and confusion while entertaining military troops in Germany. He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When it came to dealing with Dolly Parton, Pride was reluctant, so his wife took matters into her own hands.
Having previously won two Grammys for the 1971 gospel album Did You Think to Pray, Pride returned to the spiritual music field in 1976 and again in 2006 with Pride and Joy: A Gospel Music Collection. When Rozene urged him to call Parton to ask about recording her song “God’s Coloring Book” for the 2006 LP, he refused. So, Rozene called Parton herself, who immediately said yes with one stipulation: She would only let him record the song if she could sing on it with him.