By Bob Mehr
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
TUNICA, Miss. -- Charley Pride remembers the night well.
It was the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix during the mid-'60s. He was a relative unknown in show business then, and an oddity at that: a black country and western singer. In what seemed like a mad proposition, the fair's promoters had asked him to fill in for ailing comedian Jimmy Durante at the last minute.
"So I went out in front of these people and sang my songs, which nobody knew," recalls Pride. "Somewhere in the middle of the set, a fella in the back stood up and said, 'I've never heard of you or any of your albums, but I'm about to go out and buy them all!' "
Recalling the story, Pride, lets out a laugh. "Right then, I figured if I can win these people over, maybe I've got something that folks just like."
An aw-shucks attitude and confident determination, show biz guile and genuine love; that's the essence of Charley Pride.
It's Thursday night in Tunica, and Pride is in a reminiscing mood. He's returned to his old stomping grounds for a Grammy-sponsored celebration of Mississippi music at the Harrah's Horseshoe Casino.
Even now, some 40 years after his ascent, it's remarkable to consider that one of the most successful country stars of all time, and arguably its finest and most singular talent, is an African-American from Sledge, Miss.
With 70 million albums sold, Pride remains the second-biggest artist in the long, storied history of the RCA label, behind only Elvis Presley. And his resume -- Country Music Hall of Famer, member of the Grand Ole Opry, more than 30 No. 1 hits -- places him among the giants of any genre.
Not bad for a failed pitching prospect who once threw for the Memphis Red Sox of the old Negro League.
Pride's journey from the cotton fields of Sledge to the playing fields of Memphis to the studios of Nashville is a truly remarkable tale and one that may be coming to theater screens.
At 71, Pride still moves with athlete's grace -- in fact, he still works out each spring with the Texas Rangers baseball team -- and has a jocular air about him: One minute he's cracking jokes, another he's teasing someone mercilessly, but ultimately winning the room over with his country homilies and mega-watt smile.
Even among a group of Grammy-winning peers, which include legendary blues pianist Pinetop Perkins and Music City star Marty Stuart, Pride is the focus of attention as he works his way through several hours of press interviews and photo ops, capped by an awards ceremony and concert performance.
Early in the evening, the assembled honorees gather for a formal group portrait, and they sit waiting for Gov. Haley Barbour to arrive. A small space is cleared in the front row where a chair is placed for Barbour.
"C'mon now, the governor's gonna need more room," says Pride impishly. "He's a little wider than that."
After the pictures are taken, Pride addresses the media, holding forth on a range of topics, including baseball and music: "See, I didn't have no steroids to help me sing," he offers to one reporter.
Pride then heads to a packed VIP reception, where he spies actor Morgan Freeman among the party-goers.
Thrusting a hand out towards Freeman he says, "I'm Charley Pride, the singer.
Freeman's face lights up. "Well, I'm Morgan Freeman, the actor," he replies.
For the next 10 minutes, the two men -- born only a few months and miles apart -- engage in a spirited conversation about their shared Southern roots, and long, hard paths to success in music and movies.
As it happens, Pride soon may be looking at actors to portray his own life.
"A couple years ago I was trying to make the point that America really needed a movie about Charley Pride," says Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer. "America needs to see an artist's story that isn't like every other rise-to-fame tale where they destroy themselves with ego or self-destruct with drugs or alcohol."
Two years ago, Brewer and his production partners managed to interest Paramount Studios in the idea of making a Pride biopic. But, recently, changes in management and direction at the studio ended its involvement. Now, Brewer is looking for another company to make the film.
For Brewer, the paradoxes of Pride's life story are simply too good to ignore. "Charley rose to prominence parallel to the Civil Rights Movement, when a lot of people viewed country music with being part of the problem and not part of the solution," says Brewer. "But Charley was the true embodiment of what freedom was. Country music was in his heart and he felt he had the right to sing it. And, not only that, but he felt he had the right to love it ... and not be ashamed."
Despite the odds against any movie project getting off the ground, Brewer is confident that Pride's larger-than-life tale and persona will be enough to bring the film to fruition ultimately.
"He's got that intangible quality. You can feel it sitting down in a room with Charley. The way he speaks, you get this combination of Southern vernacular and this particular snap in his sayings, which are almost musical," says Brewer. "At the same time, when you're in his presence there is this masculine power; it's literally in his name: Pride."
At the Grammy VIP party, Barbour presents Pride with an achievement award after a glowing introduction. "I can't disagree with anything the governor just said," jokes Pride. Later, inside the ceremonies at the Bluesville Theater, Pride sings a selection of his own hits and tunes written by fellow Mississippians.
A showman at heart, he flirts with the photographers in front, cracks a few one liners and sings with both a powerful command and an easy grace. By the time he exits the stage, everyone in the audience is standing and applauding thunderously.
Just like he has for the last 40 years, Pride is still winning them over.
-- Bob Mehr: 901-529-2517
© 2009 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online