For country music legend Charley Pride, the death of longtime friend Muhammad Ali is a deeply felt blow. The 82-year-old will head to Louisville on Friday for the funeral. The Observer caught up with him backstage in Nashville, shortly before his appearance at a Darius and Friends show at the Wild Horse Saloon.
“I’m seeing a friend of mine soon, and I love him; they’re fixin’ to have his funeral pretty quick here — Mr. Muhammad Ali,” Pride says. “Just like him, I took the hits. I was called nigger. So was he.”
As a pioneering African American in the country music world, Pride formed alliances and friendship with the boxer, who he felt was enduring a similar ordeal. Early in his career Pride’s manager, Jack D. Johnson, refused to issue publicity photos of the singer. While Ali was locked in court battles over his refusal to serve in Vietnam in 1966, Pride charted his first hit, “Just Between You and Me.”
The song earned him a Grammy nomination in 1967, the same year Pride became the first African American to perform at the Grand Ole Opry since harmonica player DeFord Bailey, who had been an Opry regular from 1925 to 1941. (Bailey, Pride and Darius Rucker are the only three African American members of the Opry.)
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“I remember what he had to go through. I never got bitter and I don’t think he ever got bitter,” Pride says. “He just used his talent and his heart and his wit.”
Pride says he admired Ali’s character to speak out despite the consequences. “He was not going to stay quiet about race and civil rights. That’s who he was,” he says. “He was a great man and a good friend. Some people objected to him at times, but overall, in the end, I think the whole world loved him.”