‘Kiss an Angel Good Mornin”: The Life, Times and Music That Made Charley Pride’s Greatest Hit
“Charley Pride had to be the best every time he stepped in front of a microphone. It was his burden and his gift.”
When asked what makes Pride’s 1971 release “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” one of country music’s timeless anthems, Rissi Palmer -- another groundbreaking Black country performer -- answers with a definitive statement. However, Pride’s song isn’t just any country song by any country artist.
Digging deeper into who Pride was, what made him a standout and why it affected the way he performed is essential. Ultimately, that songwriter Ben Peters’ tune about how much he loved his newborn daughter became Pride’s signature song -- an American crossover smash that spurred 11 consecutive Canadian country No. 1 hits and immense global acclaim -- is an intriguing story with many layers.
Foremost, Pride was a sharecropper’s son who served two years in the United States Army; from 1953 through 1963, he lived in 10 different locations across America. Moreover, he was an all-star-level Negro League baseball player who played in Major League Baseball’s minor leagues just a half-decade after Jackie Robinson’s rookie season. He also had experience picking cotton in Mississippi and smelting copper in Montana to make a living.
The late country legend knew about struggle and hard work. He also knew -- long before being a country artist -- how to succeed in the face of racism, sustainably, in complicated professional settings.
Pride was an unrefined vocal talent who, before signing with RCA Records in 1966, had only recorded in a professional studio setting a handful of times. However, the legendary team of Chet Atkins as label executive and “Cowboy” Jack Clement as producer -- who also worked with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed and more in the same era -- heard something unique in Pride’s performances that made them sign Pride to a contract amid the United States’ violent movement for Black civil rights.
“[Charley Pride] had the sweetest tone, and his voice was earnest, loud and upfront,” says Palmer when asked to characterize what made the Black country icon’s voice so great. In 1981, noted music critic Robert Christgau wrote that Pride's “amazing” baritone was both “warm” and “bright.”
A smooth, sweet, warm and bright tone conveying a genuine feeling isn’t rare in country music. This sound in the voices of stars including Hank Williams and Elvis Presley makes songs such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Love Me Tender” stand the test of time.
Singing country songs may have been the most joyous occupation Pride ever had. It’s in the context of studying a man uniquely prepared for stardom, in probably the least stressful job he’d ever held in his life, where the vibes of “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” as a feel-good staple of the genre emanate.
However, It took five years for Pride to be a star able to perform to a level befitting his most famous hit.
Clement’s style as a producer for Pride was based on using his voice as a tool to infuse raw country style into country-adjacent musical lanes. After numerous attempts to find the perfect fit, he struck legendary gold with “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.”
“All the music sounded alike. And there was no real movement in it; no changes. It was all just kind of ‘sticky,’” Clement notes to Ken Burns in his 2019 documentary Country Music regarding Pride’s importance to his work. “I thought it ought to be a little more inventive. I thought it ought to move out a little bit. And it finally did.”
“Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger” (1967) was Pride’s first Top 5 Billboard country chart single; it has the elegant markings of Hank Sr.’s style: heartbroken, honky-tonk blues. By 1969, Pride’s cover of Williams’ 1953 single “Kaw-Liga” reached the Canadian country chart's top position. Williams’ original is an entertaining bluegrass swing, while Pride’s Clement-produced cover is bluegrass aided by a late-’60s era, British Invasion/mod-influenced swing. It represents a substantial evolution: By 1971, RCA was at the start of a period where Memphis and Muscle Shoals’ soul-driven, discofied and countrypolitan sounds would help the label profoundly affect country music history.
The lineage of “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” is directly between fellow RCA labelmate Elvis Presley’s 1969-released “Suspicious Minds” and Dolly Parton’s 1974 hit “Jolene.”. Unlike each of its comparatives, though, Pride’s song blends then-modern trends with an otherworldly vocal instrument. Insofar as Clement finding the sound that would make “country music move out a little bit,” this was it.
Even deeper, the musical space “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” occupies deserves consideration. “Suspicious Minds” sounds like an Otis Redding B-side from 1967. It’s proof that Reggie Young is as smoking of a lead guitarist as Booker T and the MGs’ Steve Cropper, and that Gene Chrisman is just as in the pocket as a percussionist as Al Jackson Jr. It’s also a showcase of Presley’s ability to infuse a vocal performance with grace, like how Redding’s instrument smacked arrangements with mind-blowing funk.
Comparatively, “Jolene” is the only undercover broken-hearted dance anthem that features a pedal steel guitar. The track is locked in a groove so deep that it’s in the category of anything played by Motown’s James Jamerson and Philadelphia International’s Anthony Jackson: think Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “The Sound of Philadelphia” (the theme to Soul Train), respectively, for starters.
Between these two sounds is “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'.” In easing off the soul and falling just short of a pulse-pounding groove, Pride’s voice -- that magically smooth, sweet, warm and bright instrument -- eases to the forefront. Moreover, because it’s singing a love song from a father to a child in the guise of an ode from a lover to his mate, it is an unexpected lovestruck lullaby.
An incredibly hard-working artist who has finally learned how to -- as a true professional -- be “the best every time he stepped in front of a microphone,” as Palmer notes, navigating such a delicate sonic tightrope yields incredible results. The lyrical swing of “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” feels as familiar as a lullaby -- just like hearing “Rock-a-bye Baby.” Also, the song’s off-kilter rhyme scheme (“Whenever I chance to meet some old friends on the street / They wonder: How does a man get to be this way? / I've always got a smiling face, anytime and any place / And every time they ask me why, I just smile and say …”) allows for it to worm itself into your cerebellum. In layman’s terms, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” is a song you hear once but is forever unforgettable.
In Alanna Nash’s 2002 book Behind Closed Doors: Talking With The Legends of Country Music, Pride makes a strong allusion to the mainstream blend of “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” that captivated audiences worldwide. It aligns well with a life well lived, well traveled and, against all odds, successful.
“A lot of so-called experts out there tryin' to put a format together about who's middle-of-the-road, and who's country, and who's contemporary,” says Pride. “But all those kinds of music have been borrowin' from each other for so long that I think it's time to stop punishing one another.”
His quote from before a 2019 performance in Georgia distills that notion to an essence even more vital than the nuances of his craft and the excellence of his groundbreaking legacy.
“I sell lyrics, feelings and emotions,” the icon noted at the time. “Every time I sing a song, that’s what I am trying to do.”