By CRYSTAL SCHELLE
10:55 AM EDT, October 5, 2012
Country music legend Charley Pride never intended on breaking color barriers when it came to country music.
He wanted to a break a different kind of record.
One of 11 children who was born to sharecroppers in Sledge, Miss., Pride had dreams of being a baseball player. He said he believed that one day his name would be mentioned alongside the names of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
"I was going to go the Major League and break all the records, and make new ones by the time I was 35 or 36," Pride, 74, said during a telephone interview from his Dallas home. "Then, if the voice was still there, I would sing."
Baseball, he said was his dream.
"I think every kid has a dream, even if they don't realize it, what they want to do," he said. "And once I saw Jackie Robinson go to the Major Leagues, I thought, 'This is my chance to get out of these cotton fields.'"
He left the cotton fields for good when in the 1950s he was part of the Negro American League's Memphis Red Sox. He was living in Montana with his wife, Rozene, playing ball, working at a local plant and playing in clubs that "I was too young to be in."
"I'd go up and sing and people would say, ‘Hey you sing pretty good.' You'd get $2 a day eating money and $100 a month. You'd make a lot of money singing,'" he said. "But I'd say, ';But I want to go to the Major League and break all the records.'"
But after a tryout with the New York Mets didn't lead to a Major League Baseball career, Pride stopped in Nashville, Tenn., where he met Jack Johnson who would be eventually become his manager.
A year later, Pride returned to Nashville, and the rest is musical history.
Fans can listen to Pride at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, at H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa.
Pride said singing just came naturally for him.
"I thought everybody could sing," Pride said. "We lived in the country, and we listened to the radio. My brothers and I would emulate songs we heard. I was never in a quartet, I was never in a choir. We just singed."
When he returned to Nashville, Pride met Jack Clement who asked him to cut two songs, "The Snakes Crawl at Night" and "Atlantic Coastal Line." The demos got into the hands of RCA Records head Chet Atkins who immediately signed Pride to the label.
In 1966, Pride had modest hits with "The Snakes Crawl at Night," followed by "Before I Met You."
His first No. 1 hit came in 1969 with "All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)." That first record catapulted Pride into being part of the elite group of one of the "best-selling country artists of all time." One of his biggest hits was "Kiss An Angel Good Morning," which helped him win the County Music Association's Entertainer of the Year in 1971 and Top Male Vocalist that same year. He took home Top Male Vocalist again in 1972. When Pride's last No. 1 hit in 1984, "Every Heart Should Have One," Pride was second only to Elvis Presley in sales at RCA. Not bad for a guy who just wanted to play ball.
Although Pride has been recognized time and again over the years by the country music industry, he didn't accept the Grand Ole Opry's invitation to join until 1993, making him the first black artist to perform there. He's received the Academy of Country Music's Pioneer Award in 1994, and was given his own Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 1999.
But of all the awards, the one that meant the most to Pride was his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
He said the Hall of Fame had just been relocated from Music Row to its location beside the Cumberland River and Pride was invited to speak.
"I thought I was there to speak about how it feels for the old Hall of Fame being moved to the new Hall of Fame," he said.
His wife, grandsons and his booking agent were in the audience — they knew why Pride was there and had known for nearly a month before.
Pride was onstage, preparing to speak about the Hall of Fame. Bud Wendell, who at one time was manager of the Grand Old Opry, was onstage and started talking about singer-songwriter Faron Young, known for "Hello Walls" and other hits.
"I realized Faron was getting inducted into the Hall of Fame," Pride recalls.
But Pride said he still thought he was still just going to talk about the new Hall of Fame. Country music legend Brenda Lee was also onstage. And Pride had noticed that both Wendell and Lee were given pieces of paper to read from, Pride thought maybe someone forgot to give him one, too.
"But Brenda said, ‘Oh, they just want you to speak from your heart and just mention how you feel about going from the small Hall of Fame to the big Hall of Fame,'" he said. "She said, 'You don't need no piece of paper.' I thought, 'well, I guess not.'"
But Pride soon learned what was written on Lee's piece of paper. When she started reading about a man who grew up in Mississippi, bought his first guitar at age 14, Pride started to realize maybe something else was going on.
"Just telling you it now, I got chills just comin' over me," he said.
His grandsons stood with him onstage when it dawned on him that he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. He said he was in complete shock and couldn't think of anything to say.
"I was just overwhelmed," he said. "I just wept."
He said later when he received the plaque about his induction, he wept again.
Darius Rucker and Cowboy Troy are two modern-day black country artists, but Pride said there should be more black musicians in country music.
For Pride though, country music wasn't a black or white thing. For him, he said, it's been about the music he cut his teeth on.
"I'm country. I'm a traditional country singer," he said. "That may be a reason why many haven't made it as far into it as I have."
He said when he was signed by RCA, they didn't say anything about the color of his skin. It was about the music, he said.
That might be one reason why Pride himself brought artists to RCA such as blind singer-songwriter Ronnie Milsap, who had his own successful run with RCA.
For Pride, music continues to cross barriers and has found legions of fans across the world. One place Pride is loved is Ireland because during the Troubles, the unrest that was from the 1960s to 1998, he went to Ireland to play his music when other musicians didn't.
He said he had no choice to perform in Ireland, with four dates and they were sold-out shows.
"They tried to ask me ‘What do you think about the Protestants.' I told them, ‘Don't ask me. I'm just singing for my fans,'" he said.
Pride's legacy will live on. He recently donated items to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian museum which is set to open in 2015.
He also has plans to turn his life into a major motion picture along the vein of "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Walk the Line."
"Every movie done by a country music artist — or in that vein ... there's been an Oscar," he said with a laugh. " ... and I think I have a story to tell."
If you go ...
What: Charley Pride
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11
Where: H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University, 1871 Old Main Drive, Shippensburg, Pa.
Cost: $49 to $64.
Contact: Call 717-477-7469 or go to www.luhrscenter.com.
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