DALLAS — Growing up the son of sharecroppers in Mississippi, Charley Pride developed a love of country music that propelled him into a legendary career as one of its biggest stars.
Now, items donated by Pride from throughout his life will become part of the Smithsonian's upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in 2015. A gala reception will be held Wednesday in Pride's hometown of Dallas to celebrate the museum gift, which includes a pair of Pride's boots, one of his guitars and his Country Music Association male vocalist of the year award from 1971.
"Obviously, the one thing that stands out to people is that Charley Pride was country music's first black superstar. But what he was trying to do was play the music that he liked and entertain his audiences," said Dwan Reece, the museum's curator of music and performing arts. "His links to country music are just as natural as Loretta Lynn's. This is his childhood. This is the music that he knows."
Pride said that while it was difficult to part with some of the items, it's nice to know that they will be in the museum where he can always go visit.
As the museum began acquiring its collection of items documenting African-American life, art, history and culture, Reece said there was "no question" that Pride's was an important story to tell.
"One of the things we want to express in the exhibit is that African-Americans have a history in all kinds of music," Reece said. "I'm not sure everybody would expect us to have a section on country music."
Once the museum opens, items from Pride's life will join a collection that also will represent music artists including Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Michael Jackson.
Reece said Pride's rise to fame during the civil rights movement of the 1960s is among many interesting threads to his story.
"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," she said.
Pride, who at 78 is still touring and heads to Ireland this month and the United Kingdom next month, said he never had trouble from audiences over his race. "I never had one iota of hoot calls from the audience," Pride said.
However, he did recall a 1966 performance when a crowd of 10,000 at Detroit's Olympia Stadium — the biggest audience of his career at that point — grew quiet upon seeing that the fledgling country singer 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.' When I said that there was this big old applause — saying exactly what they were thinking," Pride said.
He told the crowd he would play his three singles and maybe a hit from another singer, but that "I ain't got time to talk about pigmentation all night."
After the show, fans lined up to get his autograph. "That's the way it's been for the last 40 some years," he said.
Pride, who grew up in a family of 11 children in Sledge, Miss., first had his sights set on a career in Major League Baseball. He played in the Negro American League and Pioneer League before country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley heard him performing in Montana — where Pride was working at a smelting plant and playing for the plant ball team — and told him he needed to go to Nashville, Tenn.
He eventually made it to Nashville and recorded a demo that RCA Records liked. "They decided to sign me and there's history looking at you right now," Pride 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," he said. "People liked my singing and once they got me on record, a whole bunch of people liked me."
Pride, who has won three Grammy Awards and had dozens of No. 1 hits, also is donating albums, cassettes and CDs of his music to the museum collection. Other items, including a baseball bat and Texas Rangers uniform, are tied to his love of the sport. Pride is a part owner of the Rangers.
Pride's most popular songs include "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone," ''I'm So Afraid of Losing You Again" and the crossover hit "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'." He was the Country Music Association's entertainer of the year in 1971 and top male vocalist in 1971 and 1972.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
"My business is selling lyrics, feelings and emotions," Pride said. "Once you hear me and if you come to see my show, you'll never forget it because I sell every song.
"I hope to keep doing it because I ain't ready to quit yet."
John Rumble, senior historian for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, said that while Pride is regarded as country music's biggest African-American star, "in the history of country music, he's also one of the biggest stars."
"Audiences love him because he's an entertainer, he's a performer. They know that he's singing for them and that he appreciates their support," Rumble said.