Charley Pride, whose rich baritone voice and impeccable song-sense altered American culture, died today (December 12, 2020) in Dallas, Tex., of complications from Covid-19. The country music legend was 86.
Born a sharecropper’s son in Sledge, Mississippi, on March 18, 1934, Pride emerged from Southern cotton fields to become country music’s first Black superstar and the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Pride was a gifted athlete who at first thought baseball would be his path from poverty, labour, and strife. But his musical acumen was more impressive than his pitching arm or his hitting skills, and he emerged as one of the most significant artists at RCA Records, with chart-topping hits including “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and “Mountain of Love.” He won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1971, its top male vocalist prize in 1971 and 1972, and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.
His final performance came on November 11, 2020, when he sang “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’” during the CMA Awards show at Nashville’s Music City Center with Jimmie Allen, a modern-day hitmaker who counts Pride among his heroes.
Watch Pride in that final performance
“I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away,” said Dolly Parton.“It’s even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you. Rest in peace. My love and thoughts go out to his family and all of his fans.”
“Heartbreaking,” wrote Loretta Lynn. “He was one of the very best things that ever happened to country music.”
Charley Frank Pride was not the first Black artist to make important contributions to country music — DeFord Bailey was a star of the Grand Ole Opry from 1927 through 1941 — but Pride was a trailblazer who emerged during a time of division and rancor.
“No person of colour had ever done what he has done,” said Darius Rucker in the PBS American Masters film Charley Pride: I’m Just Me.
After a stint in the Army, time working at a Missouri smelting plant and some unsuccessful attempts to break into big-league baseball, he came to Nashville in 1963 and made demonstration recordings with help from manager Jack Johnson.
Those recordings languished for two years until Johnson met with producer Jack Clement, who offered songs for Pride to learn. On August 16, 1965, Clement produced Pride at RCA Studio B, and the results of that session impressed RCA’s Chet Atkins, who signed Pride to a recording contract.
In 1967, Pride’s recording of Clement’s “Just Between You and Me” broke into country’s Top 10, and Pride quit his job as a smelter. Iron ore was behind him, and platinum records lay ahead.
Between 1967 and 1987, Pride delivered an astounding 52 Top 10 country hits, won Grammy awards, and became RCA Records’ top-selling country artist. His musicality opened minds and superseded prejudice.
Watch Pride perform his first country #1 single, 1969’s “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” with Marty Stuart and his band
“We’re not colour blind yet, but we’ve advanced a few paces along the path and I like to think I’ve contributed something to that process,” Pride wrote in his memoir.
Pride escaped the cotton fields, where labour hurt his hands, back and knees. He transcended and ascended through connection. Through fortitude and artistry, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry and a beloved American icon.
“Charley Pride was the Jackie Robinson of country music and his name was perfect. He was proud, brave and a hell of a singer,” said Don McLean. “I worked with him once and he sang the heck out of the old Hank Williams song Kaw-liga. His voice was large and pure. He belongs in centerfield where the monuments are. He was a great one.”
While Pride never made it to the major leagues – his last year in the minor leagues was 1960 – he did attend spring training as a guest of the Texas Rangers in 1974 and singled off future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer in an exhibition game.
“Charley Pride has been a cornerstone of country music and a wonderful part of my life for so long,” said Crystal Gayle. “I loved his music before I came to Nashville and I loved Charley as soon as I met him.”
The singer had been booked to appear in Nashville on Feb. 22, 2021, for Volunteer Jam: A Musical Salute to Charlie Daniels.