Charley Pride: Country music pioneer with a special connection to NI fans

The weekend death of iconic American country singer Charley Pride has evoked fond memories of the silky baritone among his great legion of fans in Northern Ireland.

Charley Pride was enormously popular throughout a 60-year career
Charley Pride was enormously popular throughout a 60-year career

Charley, aged 86, died at his home in Dallas, Texas, with an illness related to the Covid pandemic.

With country music followers on these shores, Charley Pride literally “walked on water” and his immense popularity dates back to his four shows at the former ABC Ritz venue on Great Victoria Street in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in November 1976.

The shows went ahead due to the persistence of Belfast promoter the late Jim Aiken, who was rightly convinced that Pride would wow the Belfast audiences. Charley’s management was a bit apprehensive about travelling to Belfast at such a difficult time, but they should not have worried. Charley took to the stage in the packed cinema to phenomenal applause at all four shows, and, right away, got his fans in the mood with his sparkling No 1 hit ‘Crystal Chandeliers’.

I attended one of the shows and managed to get backstage to grab a few words with the ‘Big Man’. He said how delighted he was to be in Belfast, particularly at a time when “a fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter had just been elected United States president”.

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    Since 1976, Charley’s visits to Belfast have been frequent; he even did concerts in Londonderry and Enniskillen. He was a guy with a jovial personality, straight-talkin’, and a modest, common touch approach to life, and was always open to meeting folks off stage.

    I had the pleasure of getting several more interviews with him for the News Letter, both in Belfast and once on a visit to Nashville. He was always forthcoming, chatty, with a wicked sense of humour, always with a smile on his face.

    Born in Mississippi in 1934 but a long-time resident of Dallas with his beloved wife of 64 years Rosene, Charley’s touring schedule in recent years was, because of age, curtailed. His last concert in Belfast was at the Waterfront Hall in April 2015 and again it was a sell-out, with Charley spending more than a hour after the show to sign autographs for the fans.

    He had 52 top 10 country hits and 29 No 1s, distinctively warbling his way through songs like ‘Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’’, ‘Snakes Crawl At Night’, ‘Just Between You And Me’, ‘All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)’, ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You’, ‘Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone?’ and of, course, ‘Crystal Chandeliers’.

    Charley conquered racial prejudice very quickly after emerging on the Nashville country scene in the mid-1960s. He was a black singer in a strongly conservative white musical genre, but by being just himself and singing the style of music that he loved – he was greatly influenced by the music of Hank Williams – Charley conquered all.

    And several weeks ago, he reached the pinnacle of his 60-year career when awarded the Willie Nelson 2020 lifetime achievement award in Nashville by his contemporaries.

    The award came with the citation: “Charley Pride is the epitome of a trailblazer. His distinctive voice has created a timeless legacy that continues to echo through the country music community today.”

    In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he was RCA Records’ second best-selling artiste, after Elvis Presley.

    Dolly Parton, who sang with Charley on the duet ‘God’s Coloring Book’, has remembered her great friend in a tweet. She said: “I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away. It’s even worse to know that he passed away from Covid-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you.”