Charley Pride has donated several personal items to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in 2015, reports the Shreveport Times. The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, Charley’s love of country music helped propel him to become one of country music’s biggest stars.
“Obviously, the one thing that stands out to people is that Charley Pride was country music’s first black superstar,” Dwan Reece, the museum’s curator of music and performing arts, said. “But what he was trying to do was play the music that he liked and entertain his audiences. His links to country music are just as natural as Loretta Lynn’s. This is his childhood. This is the music that he knows.”
Among the items Charley is donating are a pair of boots, one of his guitars and his Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year award from 1971. While he had a hard time choosing what memorabilia to part with, he said he likes knowing he’ll be able to ‘visit’ them whenever he’d like.
Items from Charley will go alongside memorabilia from Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Michael Jackson. Charley’s rise to fame during the Civil Rights Movement is part of what makes his story particularly interesting.
“He’s a great example of a man transcending the barriers of race who was accepted by audiences because he was a good country singer,” Dwan Reece said.
Charley, who is now 78 and still touring, says he’s never had trouble with audiences over his race. He does remember a performance in1966 performance when a crowd of 10,000 at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium, the biggest audience of his career at that point, went quiet, surprised to learn he was black.
“I said, ‘You know, I realize it’s a little unique me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan,’” he said. “When I said that there was this big old applause — saying exactly what they were thinking.”
Charley told the crowd he’d play his three singles and a cover song but “I ain’t got time to talk about pigmentation all night.” After his set, fans lined up for his autograph. “That’s the way it’s been for the last 40 some years,” he said.
One of 11 children, Charley originally planned to play Major League Baseball and spent time in the Negro American League and Pioneer League before country signers Red Sovine and Red Foley heard him performing in Montana where he was working at a smelting plant and playing for the plant’s ball team. They encouraged him to go to Nashville. He did and recorded a demo that RCA Records liked.
“They decided to sign me and there’s history looking at you right now,” Charley said. “I’ve been singing all my life. I heard a song I’d like, I’d just sing it, not realizing that I was preparing myself for this, but here I am. People liked my singing and once they got me on record, a whole bunch of people liked me.”