A few years ago, my friend Paul Willis invited me to play in the Harmon Killebrew Invitational Golf Tournament. At the time Killebrew served as spokesperson for Paul’s company, Cypress Systems.
Harmon and his wife, Nita, founded the Harmon Killebrew Foundation to raise money for worthy charities and he hosted the golf tournament for that cause. He recruited professional athletes and celebrities to play in the tournament and I found myself surrounded by Hall of Fame Major League ballplayers that I had idolized growing up. I felt like a kid in a candy store. All the pros and celebrities were genuinely nice people, which I think was because the host, Harmon Killebrew, was a genuinely nice person.
One of the celebrities who played in the tournament was Charley Pride. Charley performed a few of his songs at a reception during the tournament. Getting to meet him was just as exciting for me as meeting any of the Major Leaguers. One of his greatest hits was, Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone? I told Charley that I had a friend in junior college who was from Freedom, Oklahoma so whenever that song was playing on the radio we sang along but changed the lyrics from, “Is anybody going to San Antone or Phoenix, Arizona” to “Is anybody going to San Antone or Freedom, Oklahoma.”
He laughed and said the original lyrics were, “Is anybody going to San Antone or Fargo, North Dakota.” His manager was given a demonstration tape of the song but rewrote it, changing the chords, lyrics, and arrangement. Fargo, North Dakota became Phoenix, Arizona in the rewrite. And now you know, as the late Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.
Memories of that conversation came back to me when I read of Charley Pride’s passing. First impressions are rarely wrong, and my impression was that Charley Pride was as down home as the songs he sang. Even though he was a country music superstar, visiting with him was no different than visiting with a good friend.
I think a lot of that had to do with his journey to stardom. He was the son of a Mississippi sharecropper. He bought a guitar when he was 14 and taught himself to play and sing while listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He played baseball in the Negro and minor leagues. After serving a two-year hitch in the Army, he played semi-pro baseball while working at a smelter in Montana. All the while he honed his musical skills performing in venues as diverse as churches and honky-tonks. Eventually the sound of his voice carried him to Nashville.
Charley Pride never considered race to be an issue in his career. “They used to ask me how it feels to be the ‘first colored country singer,’” he told The Dallas Morning News in 1992. “Then it was ‘first Negro country singer;’ then ‘first black country singer.′ Now I’m the ‘first African-American country singer.′ That’s about the only thing that’s changed. This country is so race-conscious, so ate-up with colors and pigments. I call it ‘skin hangups’ — it’s a disease.”
So, how did Charley Pride want to be remembered? “I’d like to be remembered as a good person who tried to be a good entertainer and made people happy, was a good American who paid his taxes and made a good living,” he said in 1985. “I tried to do my best and contribute my part.”
Of course, I’ll always remember Charlie Pride from our visit at Harmon Killebrew’s golf tournament. The tournament was held, ironically, in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a chilly November day. And it rained the whole time we played. I’ll always think about that day every time I hear Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone? It starts with this verse, “Rain dripping off the brim of my hat, it sure is cold today…” I can hear Charley singing it now.
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