“Hey John! This guy interviewed me more than 20 years ago and didn't know who I was — and I didn't blow him off!” –Charley Pride telling his manager what a doofus I was as a young reporter 40 years ago when I first met him.
I'll never forget that day long ago when country music star Charley Pride didn't blow me off — even though I deserved it.
You always remember how people treat you when you're on your way up.
The great country singer who died today at age 86 from COVID, had every reason to be disgusted with me. When I interviewed him back in 1980 for my first full-time newspaper job, I broke the cardinal rule of journalism. I didn't prepare.
Worse, I had no idea who Charley Pride was. I grew up in New York City, and back then, I don't remember that the Big Apple even had a country music station.
The editor told me to hustle to the county auditorium where Pride was about to appear at a concert. I didn't even look him up in the newspaper morgue for background. I met Pride at the auditorium in between his sound checks and told him why I was there.
When we started to talk, I blabbered something about not knowing much about country music. He quickly saw that I was clueless. But what should have been the worst interview of my life didn't turn out so bad.
Looking back now, I wonder how many recording artists who have 36 No. 1 hit singles and have sold more than 35 million albums would show any patience to an idiot cub reporter like me. I bet most Hollywood stars would toss out a lazy and unprepared writer on his ear.
But Charley Pride was amazing. He started telling me what I needed to know. He was patient and kind. He wasn't put off that he had met someone who didn't know anything about him. He practically wrote my story for me.
If anything, though, he was a little too modest with the details. He didn't say, for instance, that he is considered by many to be the Jackie Robinson of country music, the black man who broke the color barrier of the previously white-only country music world.
Later, after learning a little about country music, I realized that my interview was a blown opportunity. There was so much to talk about. In the early years, his handlers didn't know what to do with him so they sold him to the public “as a voice with no face,” he wrote in his 1984 autobiography. They didn't even send out customary publicity photographs with his press packets.
“Their strategy was to slip me into the tent and downplay my racial identity until the fans and the industry became accustomed enough to my music to accept me,” he wrote. “I had no objection to that. I wanted to stand or fall on my music, not my skin color.”
If I had done my homework, I would have known to ask about that first time he appeared at a major concert before a white audience. Folks were shocked when he walked out on stage. He diffused the tension when he said, “I realize this is a little unique, me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan.”
A few weeks ago, I helped at a charity event for Alliance for Children, the Tarrant County nonprofit that helps abused children. When I showed up early at the Fort Worth Club, there was only one person there: Charley Pride!
I introduced myself and confessed my story about messing up as a cub reporter. Of course, he didn't remember.
He called to his road manager and agent, John Daines, and said, “Hey John! This guy interviewed me more than 20 years and didn't know who I was — and I didn't blow him off!” They both laughed.
Last week, I finally got to see the great Charley Pride, who lives in Dallas, in concert at Bass Performance Hall. He raised money for the Renaissance Cultural Center, which awards scholarships to high school graduates in Tarrant County. What a treat! He truly is one of the great all-time performers. He's warm and funny — with a voice like an angel.
Afterward, I asked him about our long-ago encounter.
He said, “You don't beat anybody into the ground or run over them because you were blessed maybe a little better than them. You treat everybody the way you want to be treated. That's the way I was brought up.”
What about those Hollywood stars, I asked, who don't share his patience for fools like me?
“I feel sorry not only for the person they're doing it to, but also for them,” he said. “It's easier to be nice than to be mean. Plus, it makes you feel better.”
I still don't know much about country music, but I do know that a lot of the songs are about caring for others. No wonder Charley Pride is so beloved. He is what he sings.
[This story originally ran in the May 4, 2004 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.]