(December 13, 2020). When my father Charles passed away earlier this year at the age of 86, someone asked me if it was from him I had acquired my deep love of music.
I responded with a quick “no,” and explained to the friend that my dad wasn’t a big music guy. It was my mother who had exposed me to it via the many records she bought and the music she loved both during her childhood and her young adulthood (which overlapped my youth).
My dad, a Black man who was born and raised in the deep south in 1933, just wasn’t into the music that Mom and other African-Americans traditionally were: soul, blues, jazz, with some pop and even rock-and-roll thrown in the mix for good measure. Clearly, music was not the thing that connected my mother and father.
Except for those that Mom bought, there wouldn’t have been any records in our household. In fact, there might not have been any music, period, as Dad favored sports and other things that simply didn’t involve the constant backbeat of a rhythmic drum or the wail of a soulful vocal serving as entertainment. The radio and record players we owned over time were likely there to keep Mom happy.
It was just a given that, if I was going to discuss popular music or learn anything about its history, it was Mom who would be my connection and my source or knowledge…a role she, thankfully, still serves.
But I eventually discovered that there was one music genre – and one artist in particular – that my late father did favor: country music and Charley Pride.
In fact, there was one album in our house that Dad purchased – the only record he had ever bought and one in which he took great pride (no pun intended): The Best of Charley Pride – the country music legend’s first hits compilation album, released in 1969.
This was the lone country record in a house full of Mom’s Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire, and Isley Brothers albums, not to mention the many Philly Soul and Motown legends like, for example, the O’Jays and Stevie Wonder, respectively.
As I grew older and could afford it, I would later add my Parliament/Funkadelic, Chic, Heatwave and Gap Band records to the family collection along with the many rock and pop artists I came to love: Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Bee Gees, The Stones, Supertramp, to name just a few.
Even as a youngster, I came to understand that Charley Pride, the Black man whose face graced this album that was rarely played in our home, was different from the others. As a southern-born man (like Dad), Pride had the natural twang so befitting of a country artist and a strong but unassuming presence not unlike that of my father.
In fact, there were many parallels between Dad and Mr. Pride.
They were born months apart in a very segregated south – Pride in Mississippi, Dad in Georgia (raised in Florida) – and both were one of many children in very poor Black households. Dad was the ninth of ten kids, Pride the fourth of eleven.
Both men had to work the farms as youngsters just to help put food on their families’ tables and clothes on their backs: my dad the celery fields in Sanford, Florida; Mr. Pride the cotton fields of Sledge, Mississippi.
With very little in the way of formal education, Dad eventually made a life for himself in the U.S. military, fighting for a country that didn’t always fight for him or those who looked like him.
With odds similarly stacked against him, Charley Pride made his way – first through sports, particularly professional baseball, which itself was also divided between the races – and later through country music, a genre with a deeply segregated history whose roots were seeded by an intentional exclusion of black artists before Pride famously broke through its racial barriers in the late 1960s.
These connections, loose as they were, were likely not the reason for Dad’s love of Charley Pride’s music. I believe my father’s love of country came honestly from having been raised in the deep south and not being exposed to a lot of traditionally “Black” music.
It’s a love that I wish I had explored more while Pops was here, for even I – this so-called open-minded person who, in my youth, was as likely to have an Olivia Newton-John record on the turntable as I was a Chaka Khan one – couldn’t understand my dad’s appreciation for country music to the exclusion of any other form, or why only Pride’s album met the extremely high bar to become the only album a man would purchase in 86 years of living.
Dad must have known that country music wasn’t “for Black people,” or it wouldn’t have been relegated to the radio dial of his pickup truck, which we would only discover when we got in it and he’d turn the ignition, unwittingly revealing the country station he’d last selected as his listening choice.
Pride’s album was the permission Dad apparently needed to have country music in the house – not that my father needed permission for anything, he was clearly in charge of his own home and it was we who fell in line.
But it was a testimony to my father that he didn’t impose his musical will on the rest of us, especially this country music – Black man status notwithstanding – being sung by Pride. It’s a humble trait my father owned that I admittedly lack, especially when it comes to music I feel so passionately about – either for or against.
Black Women in Country: Check out these six Black women who have made strides.
Still, it would have been nice to know whether Dad truly appreciated the historical context of his chosen favorite artist, like the fact that Pride was the second African-American (after DeFord Bailey) to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, or that he would later become a member of that legendary institution.
My dad didn’t likely know (or care) that Pride just happened to be on the same label in the late 1960s – RCA Victor – that had made Elvis Presley famous a decade earlier, the irony there being that Pride had become the first Black superstar in an all-white country music genre just as Presley had become the first white artist to dominate the largely Black R&B charts in the 1950s.
Dad certainly didn’t know that Pride had 29 No. 1 singles between 1969 and 1983 on the Billboard country charts – 30 including a 2016 collaborative single titled “Forever Country” billed under the name Artists of Then, Now and Forever. No, the Billboard charts were my domain, and I was the only one in my family who geeked out over that type of stuff.
Maybe Dad knew that his favorite artist was in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and surely Dad was aware that Pride was to country music what Jackie Robinson had been to Pride’s favorite sport of baseball, or what the Williams sisters would later become to the world of tennis – all of these groundbreaking icons opening doors that had previously been closed to our people.
Dad likely didn’t know who Darius Rucker was – the only other Black singer since Pride to be admitted to the Grand Ole Opry, owing to country music’s continued slowness in diversifying (although it’s made strides in recent years with Black stars like Kane Brown and Jimmy Allen topping the country charts).
Despite those recent strides, the stereotypes about (and barriers within) country music still prevail. For instance, there hasn’t been a Black female superstar in country in the genre’s entire history, although six African-American women were name-checked in an impromptu tribute by new star Maren Morris at last month’s CMAs where Pride made his last appearance.
And the resistance to country goes both ways. In our own household, for example, the deep-rooted appreciation for the music was limited to one person: Dad.
Yes, my brother and I eventually came to know and appreciate several (white) country artists, albeit mostly through their mainstream crossover successes (Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Alabama, Garth Brooks, Eddie Rabbit and Shania Twain, among them).
And maybe we were influenced slightly by our father.
But I would be challenged to name a song by Darius Rucker, Kane Brown or Jimmy Allen, which is a shame because Charley Pride broke down these racial barriers more than half a century ago.
Maybe it all just comes down to one thing: whether one has a genuine love for the music, regardless of race or genre. And there’s no doubt that Dad simply loved country music and Charley Pride, in particular.
Eventually, the career my dad chose and a war he fought in Vietnam from 1968-69 proved fateful. He lived a long life but developed an illness tied to a chemical he was exposed to in Vietnam, one that took his life in February at the age of 86.
Dad’s passing occurred just before the Covid-19 pandemic engulfed a nation that has been struggling to get it under control ever since. My family and I were fortunate to give my father the proper funeral and celebration of his life before social distancing restrictions made such things unsafe.
Dad didn’t live long enough to see Pride honored just last month at the Country Music Association awards with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, followed by his last public performance of the classic “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’” in a duet with Allen.
And now just a month later, also at the age of 86, Charley Pride has succumbed to the coronavirus after making that last public appearance at the CMAs.
Both men – my dad and his favorite singer, Charley Pride – dead at 86 in a rough year that will soon be an indelibly harsh memory.
We can only hope that the similarities end there and that Pride didn’t die because he, like my father, was doing something he loved and to which he had devoted his life, particularly with that last public appearance.
Speculation abounds about how and when Pride might have caught the virus, but the groundbreaking country music icon would likely not want us to dwell on that, except to take the measures we need to prevent the next person from getting it.
Rest In Peace, Charley Frank Pride (March 18, 1934 – December 12, 2020).
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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