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Southern pride

Legend: Charley Pride collecting the Pioneer Award at the Country Music Awards in 1984

SOMETIMES interviews fall in your lap, other times, you have to seek them out. This one was the latter.

Following a conversation with a colleague, where I recalled my mum’s love of country music – and childhood memories of mum ironing whilst listening to her favourite Charley Pride records – the thought occurred to me: I must interview Charley Pride.

A quick internet search and the subsequent sending of emails soon led me to the star, who is, quite simply, a country music legend.

Revered for being one of few black singers to find fame in a genre predominantly represented by white stars, Mississippi-born Pride has found fame with his unmistakable baritone vocals, which have laced hits including Crystal Chandeliers, Kiss An Angel Good Morning and Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger.

Speaking to me from his home in Dallas, Texas, the 74-year-old was chipper as I introduced myself and said I was calling from London.

“I noticed you don’t sound like you’re from Boston,” he chuckled in his strong Mississippi ‘country’ accent.

One of 11 children, Pride came from humble beginnings, born to poor sharecroppers in the American South.

After a stint as a baseball player with the Negro American League’s Memphis Red Sox, and two years serving in the military, Pride went on to embark on a music career and change the face of country music, which was previously regarded by many as an exclusively white genre.

Though Pride acknowledges that a black performer was a rarity in the country music industry, he reveals that he never experienced any racism or animosity from anyone.

“No, I didn’t have any problems like that,” he confirmed. “When I say that, a lot of people say ‘what?’ They find it hard to believe, but it’s the truth. The beginning of my career was right at the same time as the Civil Rights movement, but I never had any problems in my career. I was born and raised in the segregated south – in Mississippi. But my dad always taught us to be proud of who we were and we always were."

“People often think I must have had a difficult time when I first started. In the beginning, even my sister used to say to me, ‘what are you singing their music for? You ain’t gotta get nowhere with that.’ But I’ve bought her a few SUVs since then!”

Indeed, Pride has enjoyed remarkable success in his 40-year career, racking up awards and number one records. Does he feel like a pioneer?

“I guess you could use that vernacular; ‘pioneer’. Jackie Robinson was the first black Major League baseball player and after that, he used to put other black players on the field. So I guess he was a pioneer in that respect too."

“But as I said, I never had that problem; I never had people hoot-calling at my shows or calling me any bad names or anything like that. I know I shocked a lot of people, but once I started singing, they didn’t care [that I was black]. It wouldn’t have mattered if I was green. They just wanted to hear me sing.”

Amongst the legions of fans who love to hear Pride sing is his wife Rozene.

Married for 55 years, the couple has two sons and a daughter, and as Pride speaks about his wife, he sounds like a man who is truly talking about the love of his life.

“We’ve been married 55 years,” he says. “We married on my dad’s birthday, December 28 [in 1956]. We didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. I was in the army and I came home for Christmas so we got married around that time, before I had to go back to the army. So we got married in December, and then when I left, I didn’t see her again ‘til March. That’s the longest we’ve been apart since we’ve been married.”

But surprisingly, Rozene – who Pride says “runs the show” in their home – doesn’t consider her husband a romantic.

“I don’t think she thinks I’m a romantic,” he laughs heartily. “But she really does like my singing. She’ll listen to my music sometimes, but she doesn’t go overboard!”

With an active touring schedule, Pride’s career is still going strong and it appears that retirement is not on the cards.

“I’m still doing shows. My voice is still in good shape and I still get standing ovations.”

Long may it last.

For more information on Charley Pride, visit www.charleypride.com

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