Great pride Father Brian D'Arcy: 'There will never be another like my friend Charley Pride'
"White racists didn't want a black man singing 'their' music. Some of the black community were angry with him for singing country songs. It seemed he couldn't win."
Charley Pride has joined the heavenly choir which must have more stars than it can cope with now. We have been robbed of so many lifelong friends in 2020, and Charley was that and more.
I first met Charley Pride at the Country Music Awards show in Nashville 1972. It was a brief meeting.
He was a massive star on RCA records, second only to Elvis Presley, and I was a star-struck fledgling journalist visiting America for the first time. He was surrounded by heavy security everywhere he went. White racists didn't want a black man singing 'their' music. Some of the black community were angry with him for singing country songs. It seemed he couldn't win.
After that every time he came to play here - well over 20 tours - we met for a chat and a catch-up. His loyal manager, John Daines, arranged it because Charley's wife Rozene insisted on it. We became good friends over the years. Rozene is a religious woman and as Charley often reminded me: "I'm depending on you and the good lady to get me into heaven."
The last time we met was for the special show he and Daniel did together in the Millennium Theatre in Derry. I had just sent their Christmas card a few hours before I heard of Charley's death. It was shocking that someone who looked so well in mid-November, receiving an award he should have got years ago, died so quickly; Covid is such a cruel virus.
Johnny Cash and Charley were the closest friends I had in country music and both of them loved coming here to meet country fans and country friends.
I remember sitting with Charley in the foyer of the Hillgrove hotel in Monaghan, in November 2006; Jim Aiken and Tony Loughman joined us.
We drank coffee, reminisced and promised to have a night out together the next time Charley toured Ireland. It is heart-breaking to think that both Jim and Tony were dead within six months. And now Charley has joined them.
Charley and Jim Aiken were more than business partners; they were close friends. In the early days of The Troubles in Ireland, Jim found it impossible to get American artists to tour Ireland. At the height of The Troubles, Charley was booked to do four dates here including Belfast. His agent cancelled all four. Jim flew to Dallas to speak to Charley himself. He convinced Charley to come, which he did.
"Because of the intense political violence, international music acts were avoiding Belfast. Pride's November 1976 appearance at Belfast's Ritz Cinema brought the community together and he became a hero to both sides of the conflict for helping to break the informal touring ban. For a time Crystal Chandeliers was considered a kind of 'unity' song here," his agent said.
I suppose Charley had endured so many death threats from the KKK that he became immune to the hatred of bigots. He never forgot the support Willie Nelson gave him in those early days. Willie was brave and forthright in fighting for Charley's right to perform anywhere, despite the death threats and opposition.
That success with Charley gave Jim Aiken the confidence to keep going as a promoter - without Charley there might be no Aiken Promotions today.
Jim's son, Peter Aiken, and Charley's manager, John Daines, ensured that Charley kept on coming. Pride was tacitly accepted as an honorary Irishman.
I remember going to that Belfast concert during The Troubles in 1976 to see Charley, who was the biggest country star in the world at the time. Nobody but Jim Aiken could have persuaded such a star to risk life and limb in Belfast. Charley was nervous that night, but not nearly as nervous as Jim Aiken was.
It was not the typical Pride show we all came to know and enjoy because he didn't quite understand what Irish audiences wanted. He was a good listener, though. A few of us took Charley aside after the show and listed the hits the Irish fans wanted to hear. After that he simply sang as many of his 30 number ones as he could squeeze into his show.
He developed young talent, too, as he introduced us to new stars like Ronnie Millsap, Dave and Sugar, Neil McCoy and Janie Frickie - all of whom remained close personal friends with the Pride family.
There was always a mutual love affair between Charley and Irish country music fans. He never disappointed.
Charley never forgot his roots. He was the fourth of 11 children born in Sledge, Mississippi. He should have been a blues singer but instead was the most commercial country singer since Jim Reeves.
He chose baseball to provide his escape from poverty to a better life. As an 18-year-old, Charley made his debut as a pitcher-outfielder for the Memphis Red Sox in 1952. Injury cut short his career, however.
It was country music which saved him. That was a miracle in itself, because the colour of his skin was a major obstacle in those bad old days.
Jack Clements risked recording a young black singer. The legendary producer and guitarist Chet Atkins had faith in Pride's ability to sing country authentically. Their faith was rewarded. He has sold 70 million albums for RCA, again, second only to Elvis Presley.
Between his chart debut in 1966, and 1989, Pride had 29 No1 country hits and over 50 Top 10 tracks.
In 1971, he was named CMA Entertainer of the Year as well as Male Vocalist of the Year in both 1971 and 1972. Pride was also the first black man to co-host the CMA Awards in 1975 alongside Glen Campbell. He became a Grand Ole Opry member in 1993 and in 2000 was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He holds three Grammy Awards and was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Recording Academy in 2017. Pride was honoured most recently at the CMA Awards with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.
No other major country star came to Ireland as frequently as Charley Pride did. No other artist was loved as much as Charley.
Charley and Rozene Pride had an enduring marriage. They were married for over 65 years and Rozene was his constant rock all his life.
Irish audiences are among the most discerning country fans outside America. They took Johnny Cash to their hearts long before it was fashionable, yet nothing matches their loyalty to Charley Pride.
When Charley came on stage, everyone knew the words and sang along with every song. Crystal Chandeliers was special and always surprised Charley. It hadn't the same appeal for American audiences.
There were many tears shed when Charley's death was announced. This has been the cruellest year ever.
The consolation is that we still have his music and the memories of countless, glorious nights singing our favourite songs with the greatest of them all - Charley Pride. We were lucky to have him as our forever friend. There will never be another like him.
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