Charley Pride was country-pop back when country-pop wasn’t cool.
Now many country music artists have Pride’s kind of crossover appeal — Shania Twain and Taylor Swift built their careers on having pop-flavoured country hits.
But 40 years ago, Pride was a pioneer at mixing the two musical genres.
Between 1969 and 1971, he had eight singles that reach No. 1 on the U.S. Country Hit Parade as well as charted on the U.S. Pop Hit Parade: All I Have to Offer You Is Me, I’m So Afraid of Losing You Again, I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Lovin’ Me, I’d Rather Love You, Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?, I Wonder Could I Live There Anymore?, I’m Just Me and Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.
But pop radio stations weren’t playing these “country” songs, even though some reached the Top 20 on pop charts, said Pride, who performs on Saturday, May 8, at Red Deer’s Centrium.
“When are you going to play my record?” the singer recalled once asking a radio station owner — only to receive the response, “I’m not going to play any record with steel guitar on it.”
At the same time, Pride said country radio was routinely playing easy-listening Dean Martin and Ray Charles songs. “It shows you the difference. We were playing them but they weren’t playing us.”
Many things have changed since the former baseball player picked up a guitar professionally in the mid-1960s — but not all the changes sit well with the now-72-year-old country artist.
“Music is in a bad way right now, with rap,” said Pride. “That’s not music anymore. And I don’t hear no good singers in the pop field, or whatever. It’s all swirling around, like a whirlwind.” The Mississippi-born singer hopes music settles into a place where song lyrics pack some emotional punch once again.
Not many of today’s hits produce the kind of longtime fan devotion as his 1967 single Crystal Chandelier, said Pride. “They released that song two or three times in Ireland, and whenever I play it there, you can hear the walls tremble (from fan cheers) whenever I start singing it.
“I tell people, ‘You know why I have such longevity? Because of the lyrics,’ ” said Pride. “There are feelings and emotions that I send out to my fans, just like the ones in Red Deer. And when you send emotions out, there’s an appreciation. People really appreciate it.”
Pride has a loyal following across North America and the world, including Australia, Japan — and even Fiji — and remains one of the Top 15 best-selling country artists of all time, with 36 No. 1 hits and more than 70-million albums sold. At RCA Records, he is second in sales only to Elvis Presley.
A decade ago, Pride was given the highest honour by being induced into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was the first African American to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. And there’s been talk of filming a biography of his life starring actor Terrence Howard.
All of this is far, far removed from his hardscrabble childhood.
Pride came into the world in 1938, as the fourth of 11 children born to poor sharecroppers. The family shared a three-room tin and cracked-wood “shotgun” shack, so named because a person could fire a shotgun through the front door and out the back without hitting anything.
Determined not to spend his life picking cotton, Pride honed his athletic skills, eventually playing ball for the Negro American League’s Memphis Red Sox. When injuries impeded his sporting career, he turned his talent for playing the guitar and singing on the team bus into a megawatt country music singing career that has transcended racial barriers.
Pride also achieved success in his personal life, staying married to his wife, Rozene, for more than half a century. The couple have a grown daughter and two sons — and Pride has the pleasure of performing with one of them in Red Deer.
His son Dion is a terrific country singer, said the proud pop. “Some would say he’s a chip off the old block but I don’t buy it. He’s his own person and he does it all.”
Pride laughingly recalled how Dion played the lead guitar so well while backing Fats Domino that the seasoned performer was forced to quip, “Son, this is my show!”
As to why Dion and other African Americans haven’t followed in his trail-blazing footsteps to launch their own big-time country music careers, Pride inferred that the answer lies with the music industry.
“I don’t know. Do they really want another Charley Pride? You’d have to ask the business, ‘What’s this deal about?’ ”
Who: Country legend Charley Pride
When: 3 p.m., Saturday, May 8
Where: Centrium, Red Deer
Tickets: $65.75 or $60.75 from Ticketmaster