You probably already know who Charley Pride is; after all, the country music industry has broken its arm a few times patting itself on the back for his accomplishments as the only major black star the style has yet produced. Those achievements are considerable, too: 29 No. 1 hits and 52 Top 10s, outpacing such folks as Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Hank Snow, Willie Nelson and plenty of others.
It’s too bad, then, that so little of what established him with the hard-core (and racially challenged) country audience has been available on CD; instead, an assortment of shoddy compilations has given his early years short shrift while repackaging over and over again his later, more soft-shell hits. Even RCA’s 1997 Essential compilation comes up short in this respect. In Person, however, is a whole different story, one of the best live country albums ever made.
When Pride and a lean backing band cruised into Ft. Worth’s Panther Hall to record this 1968 release, he was barely two years past his first single, the Jack Clement-produced-and-written “Snakes Crawl At Night”, and had yet to score his first No. 1. The set list reflected his need to display an unrelievedly country style; aside from two of his three Top 10s (“Just Between You And Me”, “I Know One”), it consisted of numbers popularized by the likes of Hank Williams (a stellar “Lovesick Blues” and “Kaw-Liga”, which reached No. 3 as a single in early 1969), Bobby Bare (“Streets Of Baltimore”), Conway Twitty (“The Image Of Me”) and Dave Dudley (“Six Days On The Road”). Pride’s performances were convincing, both emotionally and stylistically, supported by prominent steel guitar from Lloyd Green and not much else; the show was all Charley’s, and, ex-baseballer that he was, he knocked the pitch out of the park.
Pride’s closer was a solid turn on Lead Belly’s “Cotton Fields”, prefaced by a comment that he liked to do it as a reminder of what he never wanted to go back to. That was about as close as he got to acknowledging that he was, as the original liner notes say, “something else.” What he was, was country; “Country Charley Pride,” his original moniker, might have originated as a response to a marketing problem, but it was also right on the money.