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R.I.P. Charley Pride, Trailblazing Black Country Singer Dies at 86

on December 12, 2020, 4:57pm

Charley Pride, the trailblazing country musician who became the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has died at the age of 86.

According to a statement issued by his publicist, Pride passed away Saturday, December 12th in Dallas, Texas of complications from COVID-19.

The son of a sharecropper hailing from Sledge, Mississippi, Pride initially pursued a career in baseball and achieved success as a pitcher in the Negro leagues during the 1950s. At the same time, however, Pride moonlighted as a country singer, performing solo at night clubs in between ball games. When a team manager learned of Pride’s abilities, he paid Pride to sing prior to each game, which led to increased attendance.

Eventually, Pride caught the attention of RCA Records and was signed by the label in 1965. Within a year, Pride was nominated for a Grammy and began playing large shows for crowds as large as 10,000 people. However, as no biographical information was included with Pride’s early releases, few of his fans knew he was Black. “I told the audience: ‘Friends, I realize it’s a little unique, me coming out here—with a permanent suntan—to sing country and western to you. But that’s the way it is,” he remembered saying.

Any way you look at it, Pride was an absolute pioneer in country music. In 1967, he became the first Black performer to appear at the Grand Ole Opry. By 1971, he was RCA Records’ second best-selling artist (behind only Elvis Presley), achieving eight No. 1 singles on the US country music charts. His biggest hit, 1971’s “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'”, sold over one million copies.

Pride’s place in country was further cemented in 1971 when he was named Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year and Top Male Vocalist — the first Black performer to receive both accolades. That same year he also won a pair of Grammy Awards. An Oscar nomination followed in 1972, as Pride’s song “All His Children”, from Paul Newman’s Sometimes a Great Notion, was among the finalists for Best Original Song.

All told, Pride released 47 studio albums and achieved 40 No. 1 singles over the course of his landmark career. In 1993, he formally became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and in 2000, he became the first Black performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Just last month, Pride received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 54th annual CMAs. There, he also delivered what proved to be his final public performance, teaming with Jimmie Allen to perform “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'”.

In lieu of flowers, Pride’s family asks that fans donate to The Pride Scholarship at Jesuit College Preparatory School, St. Philips School and Community Center, The Food Bank, or the charity of their choice.