When Charley Pride arrived in Belfast in early November 1976, the Northern Irish capital was at war. There were almost daily reports of shootings of civilians and soldiers on both sides of the sectarian divide. An armistice movement, the Peace People, had materialised that summer after three children were fatally struck by an IRA getaway car.
Someone else intent on restoring normality to Belfast during the bloody 70s was Jim Aiken. This enterprising former schoolteacher-turned-concert promoter wanted to turn Northern Ireland into a second home for American country music – and rightfully so, since the Ulster Scots folk tradition was an essential ancestor of the genre. Aiken had invited over artists such as Buck Owens and Tex Ritter. Next, he had his heart set on Pride, the singer who found success as a Black artist in a roots genre that had come to be dominated by white artists.
Country music was ascendant, and Pride was one of its poster children. Born to sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, he hit the US charts with a string of No 1 albums. He became such an institution that he presented an award to President Jimmy Carter in recognition of Carter’s encouragement of the genre. Having vaulted humble origins, Pride, much like his president (a former peanut farmer from south Georgia), was the American dream incarnate. The rest of the world was taking note.
To persuade this famous singer to make his way to Belfast, promoter Aiken trekked to a concert in the US midwest. Mishearing the name “Jim Aiken”, Pride reportedly understood that a Jamaican wished to speak with him after his set. Curiosity led him to summon the promoter backstage. They agreed to one Dublin gig on Pride’s next UK tour, followed by three nights in Belfast. Aiken would drive him up from Dublin, shepherd him across the border and sequester him at the hotel (to appease Pride’s wary lawyer) until showtime.
Just days before Pride’s scheduled appearance in 1976, headlines blared: “Singer Tammy Stands Down”, announcing the cancellation of a performance by another country superstar. “I am bitterly disappointed by Miss Wynette’s decision,” Aiken, who had booked her, seethed in Belfast’s biggest newspaper. “I believe she was influenced by the continuing violence here.” Yet who could blame her? Meanwhile, when he was in Dublin, Pride recalled decades later, someone pulled the singer aside and whispered, “You don’t have to do Belfast.”
When the day came, however, Pride delivered. In part, duty compelled him: “Jim flew in puddle jumpers [small aircraft] across four states to catch up with me in Waterloo [Indiana] and persuade me to play Belfast in the dark days,” he later explained. But he stayed, one imagines, for what struck him as a revelatory experience.