'As I began singing Crystal Chandeliers in Belfast, I thought about those who had come to see me amid all the violence. I got so emotional... and I don't do fake tears'
Country singing legend Charley Pride has thousands of fans across Northern Ireland who will be able to see him play live at the Harvest Festival in Enniskillen on August 26. He talks about his tough upbringing and how promotor Jim Aiken flew to the US to persuade him to brave the Troubles and come to perform here.
Charley Pride is imitating Chuck Berry's flashy guitar licks and chuckling about the last time he saw the recently departed rock 'n' roll legend in concert. It's not often you get to speak to one musical icon about another, but having Charley at the other end of the line is not unlike chatting to an old friend of your father's.
Except this is the guy who sang Crystal Chandeliers on our old record player and the car cassette player so often in the mid to late Seventies that I can still remember every single word.
The spry Mississippi-born country superstar is getting ready to appear on The Late Late Show in Dublin, ahead of a busy schedule of American and Canadian gigs right up to November. At 83, his former baseball career and training sessions with the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball club, which he part owns, have obviously kept him fit.
"I don't run with the team now - you can't run far after 80 - but I can walk and I can still jog," he drawls cheerfully.
"I got some aches and pains. Water on my knee or somethin' like that. Yeah, I reckon the baseball has stood me in good stead, and I grew up on a farm where there was always something to do - milkin' cows and drivin' mules.
"I walked four miles to school and back, too. A healthy diet? No. I eat the same as I've always done - eggs, bacon, sausages, steak. Plenty of it." To this day Charley has legions of fans here, including many who saw him play Belfast's Ritz Cinema in November 1976, when most musicians and sports teams didn't come Northern Ireland. Back then Charley's manager had sold a 40-date tour package to a United Kingdom booking agent, who onward sold four dates to the late Belfast-based music promoter Jim Aiken. Determined to bring the singer here, Jim flew to a concert in Ohio to persuade him.
"I didn't realise what I was getting into - I had no idea there was a difference between Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland," Charley recalls, that smooth baritone raising a notch.
"Jim Aiken, he flew out from Belfast to look me in the eye at one of my sell-out shows and he said: 'I'm Jim Aiken and your Belfast gigs are sold out. We love you - you gotta come!' He told me how much the people there loved me, and that nobody would hurt me.
"Well, I said to him: 'What do you mean?' I had no clue."
The late Mr Aiken managed to persuade the star to make the trip.
"I did Dublin first and I remember somebody there saying: 'You don't have to do Belfast'," he continues. "I said: 'Why? It's only 150 (sic) miles up the road'.
So, I get to Belfast with the band and there's a checkpoint, and I'm in a Jaguar with Jim, and they stop us, and Jim says: 'This is Charley Pride!'
"Then we go and check into the Europa Hotel. I know nothin' about the place, so I said I was goin' to take a walk down town and look around, and Jim says: 'You're not going any place!'
"But I did see soldiers riding along with guns stickin' out those little things, and by the third show I had a better grasp of the politics. I remember I sat on a stool to sing Crystal Chandeliers, and I got to thinkin' about the people coming to see me when there was all this trouble going on, and I got very emotional. And I don't do fake tears. I sing songs, and I like it that it can bring people together."
Crystal Chandeliers was subsequently released as a single in the UK and Ireland and Charley became a hero to both sides of the conflict for breaking the effective touring concert ban here and enabling Aiken to book further acts into Northern Ireland. Our situation, he says, was significant to him, as he'd had his own experience of intolerance in the past. When he moved with his wife Rozene and two eldest daughters in 1967 to white, conservative Montana to work in construction, he "stood out like neon".
Although he speaks fondly of his 10 years there, the family experienced a few racist incidents: they were refused service in a restaurant, and an estate agent declined to show them a home.
"My own kids were born around the time of the civil rights movement and I didn't want them subjected to what I grew up with," he says. "We moved to Dallas then - I could fly anywhere in the world from there. But my hometown was Sledge, Mississippi."
From a family of 11, Charley Frank Pride grew up in a poor sharecropping household, sharing a bed with four of his seven brothers and waking up every morning with pair of feet in his face. "We all sang - my younger brother has a better voice than me," he says. "My mother and father sang at church. I'll never forget, early on, I was on a stage and my father, he was nearby, and I heard him sayin': 'I could do that'. He didn't know I heard him."
After a short but illustrious baseball career, Charley went on to became the best-selling performer for RCA Records since Elvis Presley. During the peak years of his recording career (1966-87), he garnered 52 Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, 29 of which made it to number one.
He has appeared with country music star Brad Paisley and was featured in the 2016 CMA Awards. One of the few African Americans to have had considerable success in the country music industry, and one of only three to have been a member of the Grand Ole Opry, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
One of his good friends during the course of his career was fellow country star Glen Campbell (left), who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is confined to a nursing home.
"Glen's visits are just kept to the family now - I appreciate that they couldn't let me see him," he says.
"We used to play golf together a lot. It's hard for me to see him like that - and to think of all the people gone before me, like Tammy Wynette and George Jones and Merle Haggard.
"Glenn was a good picker on the guitar, too. I remember we did this charity golf tournament in North Carolina and we went on stage and sang El Paso together, and he took off on the guitar, pickin' dee-dee-dee-doo-doo-doo-da.
"He was good. I watched his film The Last Goodbye - he still could pick and he was real good, but he was getting worse and worse. Some people, they can't eat any more and they just stare, in a haze. It hurts."
A Hollywood writers' strike in 2008 stood in the way of a biopic being made of Charley's life but he hopes the project will be reinstated some day.
"It was gonna be filmed by the same people who did the one about Johnny Cash," he explains. "Terence Howard was gonna play me and they were tellin' him, this is gonna get you an Oscar. Sissy Spacek was gonna be in it, and Jamie Foxx, and that one who played June Carter… Reese Witherspoon.
"I hope to still get it done. A big agency CAA want to sign me up - I said I will if they get my movie made. A lot of people in that world don't like artists to be good businessmen."
He says that he's done "pretty well" from his career but doesn't count his cash.
"I don't know how much money I have. My wife and her sister take care of all that in the office in Dallas, and my attorney.
"I don't care about money but if I need a car or if we see a house we like, it's good to have a big wad of cash to get the things you want. When we were young, we had to make do with fish and beans if we wanted to go to the cinema.
"After I left the army I said to my wife: 'I'll make the money and you take care of it'. She's pretty tight with the money. She's from a family of four girls - her daddy wanted them all to be able to take care of themselves in case they ended up with some hokey and a bad marriage. He did a good job."
These days he likes nothing better than spending time with his three-year-old granddaughter. "One of my sons remarried - my wife had something to say about that, but it brought us a new granddaughter and we wouldn't give a whole world of gold for her," he says.
Before he's called into the RTE studios, he tells me the secret behind such a long, happy marriage.
"I have to give my wife the credit for that. She's more stable than me. She tells me I'm an idiot, a fool! Maybe it's because she takes care of the money.
"I wasn't supposed to be with her at the start," he adds. "She's Aquarius and her sisters are Virgo, Taurus and Scorpio. I'm Pisces - my birthday's on the day after St Patrick's Day.
"But we got together and I got the best one. What sign are you Oooona (as he pronounces Una)?"
"Yes, we wouldn't have made it! But you come to one of my gigs. I'll look out for you Oooona."
Charley Pride plays the Harvest Festival, Enniskillen, on August 26. The event runs across two days, August 26/27 and the headline artists are Miranda Lambert and Nathan Carter. Tickets via Ticketmaster outlets, 24hr credit card bookings, tel: 0844 2774455 or go to www.ticketmaster.ie