One of the greatest country stars of all time has fallen victim to the COVID 19 pandemic.
Country Music Hall of Fame member Charley Pride, 86, died in Dallas on Saturday (Dec. 12) as a result of complications from the disease. The Grand Ole Opry star was honored last month in Nashville with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the CMA.
During his six-decade career, Pride placed 67 titles on the country charts, including 52 top-10 hits and 29 No. 1 Billboard successes. His standards include “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “All I Have to Offer You Is Me,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Mountain of Love” and “We Could.” He holds 12 Gold Record awards.
He will forever be remembered as country’s first Black superstar, dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of country music.” As a former baseball player, himself, he was honored by the comparison with the man who broke the color barrier in major-league baseball.
Born Charley Frank Pride on March 18, 1934, he was the fourth of 11 children raised by sharecroppers near Sledge, Mississippi. Pride said that the lyrics of his 1974 hit “Mississippi Cotton Pickin’ Delta Town” closely reflected his upbringing. The song was written by Sledge native Harold Dorman, who also penned Pride’s 1982 smash “Mountain of Love.”
Charley Pride’s father was a devoted listener of the Grand Ole Opry. Inspired by the country music he heard on the broadcasts, the youngster taught himself to play guitar at age 14.
But sports were his main focus. Pride left Sledge at age 16 to pitch and play outfield in what was then called the American Negro League. One of teams he played for was the Memphis Red Sox.
While in Memphis, he met cosmetologist Rozene Cohran. They married in 1956 while he was serving in the Army. She became his business manager, as well as his wife.
In 1960, they moved to Helena, Montana, where Pride worked in a smelting plant near the iron mines. He also began singing locally. Backstage at a Red Foley concert in Helena, he played some songs for the country legend. Both Foley and his concert co-star Red Sovine urged Charley Pride to go to Nashville and audition at Cedarwood Music.
Instead, he decided to give baseball one last shot. He travelled to Clearwater, Florida in 1963 to try out at the New York Mets summer training camp. Mets manager Casey Stengel turned him away.
En route back north, Pride stopped in Nashville. Cedarwood’s owner was country star Webb Pierce. After hearing Pride sing, Pierce directed him to manager Jack Johnson.
Johnson funded a recording session that included Pride singing “Snakes Crawl at Night,” penned by Cedarwood songwriter and future singing star Mel Tillis. Johnson played the tapes for maverick producer Jack Clement, who agreed to work with the aspiring singer.
Clement recorded Pride and took the result to Chet Atkins at RCA Records in 1965. Atkins always believed he would be forever remembered as the man who signed Charley Pride to a recording contract.
Pride broke through on the country charts with the Jack Clement compositions “Just Between You and Me” (1966) and “I Know One” (1967).
Opry star Bill Anderson gave the newcomer his first television exposure by inviting Pride to be a guest on his nationally syndicated TV show. On Jan. 1, 1967, Charley Pride made his debut on the Opry, introduced by Ernest Tubb. He was invited to join the show’s cast in 1968, but had to decline because he was suddenly too busy to become a show regular.
The Hank Williams classic “Kaw-Liga” became a substantial hit in 1969 and was followed by Pride’s first No. 1 single, “All I Have to Offer You Is Me.” This was the first of six consecutive chart toppers, including 1970’s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone.”
His 1971 performance of “Did You Think to Pray,” co-written with Johnson, won Pride a gospel Grammy Award. That same year’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” took home the Grammy for Country Song of the Year for its writer, Ben Peters.
Charley Pride was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1971 and its Male Vocalist of the Year in both 1971 and 1972.
In 1972, Pride sang “All His Children” as the theme song for the Paul Newman movie Sometimes a Great Notion. It was nominated for an Oscar, and Pride sang it on the Academy Awards international telecast. In 1973, his album Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs won a Grammy Award.
In 1975, he became the first Black artist to co-host the CMA Awards, appearing alongside Glen Campbell.
By the mid 1970s, Charley Pride was outselling the other artists on RCA, at times even outpacing Elvis Presley. His string of smash hits continued with such classics as “Amazing Love” (1973), “We Could” (1974), “Hope You’re Feelin’ Me (Like I’m Feelin’ You)” (1975), “My Eyes Can Only See as Far as You” (1976), “She’s Just an Old Love Turned Memory” (1977), “Someone Loves You Honey” (1978) and “Where Do I Put Her Memory” (1979).
As a Nashville businessman, he formed the Music Row song publishing company Pi-Gem Music with producer Tom Collins. This gave him ready access to such top-tier songwriters as John Schweers (“Don’t Fight the Feelings of Love,” etc.) and Kye Fleming & Dennis Morgan (“MIssin’ You,” etc.). The latter team’s 1981 Pride hit “Roll On, Mississippi” later became a state song.
The Prides made their home in Dallas. There, he formed the management and booking company Chardon. This firm helped launch the careers of Dave & Sugar, Janie Fricke and Neal McCoy, among others. Pride was also heavily invested in Dallas real estate and banking.
His 1978 hit “Burgers and Fries” (again penned by Ben Peters) earned Pride another Grammy nomination. In 1980, he issued There’s a Little Bit of Hank in Me, a tribute album to his idol, Hank Williams. It spawned back-to-back chart toppers with his revivals of “Honky Tonk Blues” and “You Win Again.” He also revived the Johnny Rivers hit “Mountain of Love” (1982), the George Jones classic “Why Baby Why” (1982) and the Webb Pierce standard “More and More” (1983).
Other disc successes of the 1980s included “I Don’t Think She’s in Love Anymore” (1982), “You’re So Good When You’re Bad” (1982) and “Night Games” (1983). His last top-10 hit was 1988’s “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This.”
But he was far from idle in the 1990s. He finally took the Opry up on its open-ended invitation to join the cast by becoming a member in 1993. The following year, he opened his 2,200-seat theater in Branson, Missouri and published his acclaimed autobiography, Pride. Admirers Travis Tritt, Joe Diffie, Hal Ketchum and Marty Stuart joined him on a 1994 CD.
In 1996, he performed for the Clintons in the White House, accepted the Trumpet Award from Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta and scored a No. 1 hit album in Australia. He holds attendance records at a number of Canadian venues and has also appeared in Japan, Guam, New Zealand, Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, Fiji and a number of other countries.
By 2000, his record sales exceeded 35 million. That was the year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Neal McCoy has always cited the superstar as a mentor. In 2013, he issued the tribute album Pride. Other stars who received career boosts from the legend include Ronnie Milsap, Trini Triggs, Exile, Janie Fricke, Brad Paisley and Steve Wariner.
Some of them have recorded with Pride, as have such country greats as The Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton.
In 2016, Pride was one of the artists featured in the No. 1 country single and video “Forever Country.” The event, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the CMA won the Video of the Year award and became a Gold Record.
Charley Pride was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy in 2017. The Nashville Association of Talent Directors banquet also saluted him that year, with Bobby Bare presenting the NATD’s Career Achievement honor.
Last year, Pride was honored with the PBS American Masters bio-documentary, Charley Pride: I’m Just Me, narrated by Tanya Tucker. The CMA’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to him by current Black country hit maker Jimmie Allen during the 2020 CMA telecast on Nov. 11.
Jimmie Allen is part of a brigade of contemporary Black country artists who owe their careers to Pride’s breakthrough. Others who have come through the door he opened include Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Chapel Hart, Rissi Palmer, Darius Rucker, Reyna Roberts, Willie Jones, Shy Carter, Blanco Brown and Tony Jackson.
Charley Pride came on the country scene during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. He faced prejudice, insults, discrimination and racial barriers with grace, humor, perseverance and dignity. His character exhibited the same warmth and class as his singing voice.
He is survived by his wife Rozene and by children Kraig, Dion and Angela, as well as by siblings Harmon, Stephen, Catherine and Maxine, plus five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Pride’s family and close friends will hold a private wake and memorial in Dallas this week, with future plans for a public celebration of life memorial ceremony to be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to The Pride Scholarship at Jesuit Preparatory School, Saint Philips School & Community Center and/or The Food Bank.