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Country Music Gets Some Color.

New books show superstar Charley Pride is not the first and only

Throughout the twentieth century, Charley Pride has been considered the apex of the black presence in country and western music. But a look back reveals that he hasn't been the lone historical presence--nor the only star. Pride's rule throughout the mid-1960s and continuing through the 1980s, can't be denied. However, as far back as the early 1900s the twang of the black voice, singing of honky-tonks and heartbreaks existed in the music.

One of those early voices belonged to Rufe "Tee-Tot" Payne, who frequented the dives around Greenville, Alabama throughout the 1920s as a street musician. He was working for food long before it became a manic mantra. His greatest gift to country came through whom he helped. In the 1930s he began teaching guitar to a little boy named King Hiram Williams, who went on to wear the crown of country music as Hank Williams. Even now, some 40-plus years after Williams was found dead in the back seat of a Cadillac, many don't know that he was schooled by a black man.

A contemporary of Payne was Bellwood, Tennessee's, DeFord Bailey, who can rightfully be called country music's first black star. A phenomenal harmonica player, by the age of 26, he joined the cast of WSM Radio's Grand Ole Opry around 1926. Within two years, he was making up to twice the number of appearances as other acts on the radio show. He was touring cities across the south and the midwest. But somewhere along the line, because of jealousy, money or disgruntled management, he was suddenly let go. In a biography titled DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music, by David Morton with Charles Wolfe (University of Tennessee Press, $27.95, January 1993, ISBN 0-870-49798-0), Bailey explained his dismissal. "They'd seen the day was coming when they'd have to pay me right and they used the excuse about me playing the same old tunes."

By the time Pride arrived on the country music scene, the biggest concern of his management team wasn't what tunes he played, but that he would be the one playing them. The race-conscious south wasn't ready for a black face in country records, which is why Pride's first release in 1966, "Snakes Crawl At Night", didn't include a photo of him. In fact, it wasn't until 1967 when his third release "Just Between Us" was burning up the charts that audiences began to see the man behind the songs. The opportunity to tour with established acts like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard came with that hit song, and Charley Pride was on his way to being an official, bonafide country and western superstar. Pride would go on to notch 29 number one records on the Billboard charts, including his signature smash "Kiss An Angel Good Morning."

Now, 16 years after Pride's last hit, one of the hottest rising stars in country music today is a black man named Trini Triggs. Now signed with a major label, Curb Records in Nashville, Triggs scored with two singles "Wrecking Crew," and "Straight Tequila." He blew everybody away at Nashville's New Faces talent showcase--the place to get a break for up-and-coming country singers. He has even performed for Vice-President Al Gore.

Also on the scene is Wheels, a group under contract with Warner/Asylum and being hyped as "the first black country band with a major label." Add Cleve Francis who charted with Capitol Records in the early 90s, and Yale-educated Mary Cutrufello--and all of a sudden the gaping hole of blacks in country music fills with heretofore little-known talent.

Some critics would posit that this is as it should be since country music, like much of America's music, owes its existence to the original creativity of black folks. Author Pamela Foster makes this not-so-obvious point in her self-published book My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage (January 1998). Foster documents some interesting facts about the black roots of country rhythms. For example, country music is immensely popular in African and Caribbean countries from Kenya to Jamaica; the banjo was invented by blacks; the first American steel guitar recordings were by the talented, sightless musician Blind Lemon Jefferson; over 400 country hits were created by black singers, songwriters, musicians, record label owners or producers; and, as noted with the aforementioned Hank Williams, a large number of early white country stars were taught, schooled and influenced by blacks.

Foster's book is broken into three sections: a historical context of blacks in the industry; a who's who and a who's been who in the genre; and a detailed listing of singers and songwriters who have made the Billboard country charts from 1944 to present. According to Frankie Staton--a black woman with 17 years experience as both a performer and writer of country music--the time has come for white people to deal with blacks singing, writing and getting merry with country. "Black people have always been able to sing country music. We just haven't been able to get the opportunities," said Staton, who founded the Black Country Music Association, an organization geared to support, encourage and champion the talents of African Americans. "It's as much as ours as it is theirs."

Rhythm & More Books ...

These books strike a cord at the heart and soul of African American musical history. Swing by and pick up a copy!

Been Here And Gone: A Memoir of the Blues by David Dalton William Morrow, May 2000, $25.00, ISBN 0-380-97676-5

A highly personal panorama of the century as seen and experienced by one of the more remarkable figures in recent music history. At once a wildly inventive epic, a heartfelt testament to the people and places of a vanishing era, and an invaluable contribution to the literature of music and popular culture.

The Brothers by Aaron Neville, Charles Neville, Art Neville, Cyril Neville & David Ritzby (ed.) Little, Brown and Company, September 2000, $24.95 ISBN 0-316-73009-2

Each Neville alternates telling his story, from their childhood in segregated New Orleans through their involvement in crime and drugs to their solo careers to the eventual decision, in the mid-seventies, to start performing and recording together. An inspiring tale of soulful sounds, the importance of heritage, and the powerful bonds of family.

Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus by Gene Santoro Oxford University Press, June 2000 $30,00, ISBN 0-195-09733-5

A well-told story of Charles Mingus, one of the most innovative jazz musicians of the 20th Century.

Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940's by Sherrie Tucker Duke University Pressm, June 2000, $29.95, ISBN 0-822-32485-7

Tucker presents firsthand accounts of more than a hundred women who performed during this era and complements their stories with thorough archival research.
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Article Details
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Author:Imani, Dunkor
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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