Charley Pride, Country's First Black Superstar, Dies In Dallas At 86
Charley Pride, country music’s first Black star whose rich baritone on such hits as “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” helped sell millions of records and helped make him the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has died. He was 86.
Pride died Saturday in Dallas of complications from Covid-19, according to Jeremy Westby of the public relations firm 2911 Media.
Pride released dozens of albums and sold more than 25 million records during a career that began in the mid-1960s. Hits besides “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” in 1971 included “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Burgers and Fries,” “Mountain of Love,” and “Someone Loves You Honey.”
He had three Grammy Awards, more than 30 No. 1 hits between 1969 and 1984, won the Country Music Association’s Top Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year awards in 1972 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away. It’s even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you. (1/2)— Dolly Parton (@DollyParton) December 12, 2020
The Smithsonian in Washington acquired memorabilia from Pride, including a pair of boots and one of his guitars, for the the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Until the early 1990s, when Cleve Francis came along, Pride was the only Black country singer signed to a major label.
In 1993, he joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in Nashville.
“They used to ask me how it feels to be the `first colored country singer,‘” he told The Dallas Morning News in 1992. “Then it was `first Negro country singer;’ then `first black country singer.′ Now I’m the `first African-American country singer.′ That’s about the only thing that’s changed. This country is so race-conscious, so ate-up with colors and pigments. I call it `skin hangups’ — it’s a disease.”
Pride was raised in Sledge, Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper. He had seven brothers and three sisters.
In 2008 while accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the Mississippi Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts, Pride said he never focused on race.
“My older sister one time said, ‘Why are you singing THEIR music?’” Pride said. “But we all understand what the y’all-and-us-syndrome has been. See, I never as an individual accepted that, and I truly believe that’s why I am where I am today.”
As a young man before launching his singing career, he was a pitcher and outfielder in the Negro American League with the Memphis Red Sox and in the Pioneer League in Montana.
After playing minor league baseball a couple of years, he ended up in Helena, Montana, where he worked in a zinc smelting plant by day and played country music in nightclubs at night.
After a tryout with the New York Mets, he visited Nashville and broke into country music when Chet Atkins, head of RCA Records, heard two of his demo tapes and signed him.
To ensure that Pride was judged on his music and not his race, his first few singles were sent to radio stations without a publicity photo. After his identity became known, a few country radio stations refused to play his music.
Dallas music critic Thor Christensen says when Pride's career took off in the late 1960s he then moved to Dallas.
"He told me I grew up in a segregated society, and he didn't want to subject his three kids to that," Christensen said. "And when he thought about where you could travel around the world and not be subjected to racism... He said, you couldn't find a better place than Dallas."
Moving to Dallas was an important step in not just Pride's music career but it was a chance for him to reconnect with baseball.
The Dallas Morning News writes that when Pride wasn’t working, he could often be spotted watching the Texas Rangers – he owned a minority interest in the team – and for years, he practiced with the team during spring training. But he never stopped performing. He continued to put out new albums and tour into his 80s.
The Texas Rangers said in a statement: "The Texas Rangers join the Country Music world in mourning the loss of Charley Pride. While Mr. Pride was a legendary performer who entertained millions of fans in the United States and around the world, we will remember him as a true friend to this franchise."
"Mr. Pride was a true gentleman, and we will never forget the lasting contributions he has made to the Texas Rangers organization."
For the most part, though, Pride said he was well received in his music career. Early on, he would put white audiences at ease when he joked about his “permanent tan.”
“Music is the greatest communicator on the planet Earth,” he said in 1992. “Once people heard the sincerity in my voice and heard me project and watched my delivery, it just dissipated any apprehension or bad feeling they might have had.”
Throughout his career, he sang positive songs instead of sad ones often associated with country music.
“Music is a beautiful way of expressing oneself and I truly believe music should not be taken as a protest,” he told The Associated Press in 1985. “You can go too far in anything — singing, acting, whatever — and become politicized to the point you cease to be an entertainer.”
In 1994, he wrote his autobiography, “Pride: The Charley Pride Story,” in which he disclosed he was mildly manic depressive.
He had surgery in 1997 to remove a tumor from his right vocal cord.
He received the Living Legend award from The Nashville Network/Music City News, recognizing 30 years of achievement, in 1997.
“I’d like to be remembered as a good person who tried to be a good entertainer and made people happy, was a good American who paid his taxes and made a good living,” he said in 1985. “I tried to do my best and contribute my part.”
The Rangers said will fly the flags at half-staff at Globe Life Field and Globe Life Park on Sunday and Monday in Pride's memory.
Today, we note the passing of country music pioneer Charley Pride. To learn more and celebrate the life of this music superstar, you can now watch Charley Pride: I’m Just Me from @PBSAmerMasters, available in the PBS Video App. #AmericanMastersPBS— PBS (@PBS) December 12, 2020