Charley Pride, the country music legend, has died, and the cause of death is complications of COVID-19, according to CMT Newsand CBS Dallas.
The country music news site reported that Pride died on Saturday, December 12, 2020. He was 86 years old. WKRN-TV journalist Julia Palazzo also tweeted the news, writing, “Country music legend and Hall of Famer, Charley Pride, has died in Dallas, Texas of complications from Covid-19 at age 86.” CBS local reported that Pride’s representative has confirmed his death and that it’s requested that fans donate to The Pride Scholarship at Jesuit College Preparatory School, St. Philips School and Community Center, the Food Bank or other charities, in his memory.
Pride was a breakthrough artist in country music who achieved a string of successes. The CMT site called him “country music’s first African-American superstar,” who scored an amazing 29 number one hits and was a member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry.
Mayor Mark Boughton, the mayor of Danbury, Connecticut, wrote, “RIP #CharleyPride a legend of country music.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Pride Was Raised in a Sharecropping Family & Overcame Discrimination
Charley Pride, Country’s First Black Superstar, Dies of Covid-19 Complications
According to CMT, Pride was born into a sharecropping family in Sledge, Mississippi. He grew up in the segregated south and once described walking four miles to his segregated grade school while white children were able to ride school buses.
He overcame discrimination to become a country music pioneer and legend, growing up listening to the Grand Ole Opry because his father didn’t like blues music, CMT reported.
According to his website biography, “Becoming a trailblazing Country Music superstar was an improbable destiny for Charley Pride considering his humble beginnings as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Sledge, Mississippi. His unique journey to the top of the music charts includes a detour through the world of Negro league, minor league and semi-pro baseball as well as hard years of labor alongside the vulcanic fires of a smelter. But in the end, with boldness, perseverance and undeniable musical talent, he managed to parlay a series of fortuitous encounters with Nashville insiders into an amazing legacy of hit singles and tens of millions in record sales.”
Growing up, the bio says, “Charley was exposed primarily to Blues, Gospel and Country music. His father inadvertently fostered Charley’s love of Country music by tuning the family’s Philco radio to Nashville’s WSM-AM in order to catch Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. At 14 years of age, Charley purchased his first guitar—a Silvertone from a Sears Roebuck catalog—and taught himself how to play it by listening to the songs that he heard on that radio.”
Pride Wrote Recently About ‘Riding Out the COVID-19 Pandemic’ at Home
Pride had last posted on Facebook on December 8, writing, “We had a stash of new, shrinkwrapped vinyl LPs from my RCA and 16th Avenue Records days over at my office. I autographed a bunch of them along with some books while riding out the Covid-19 pandemic at home this summer. My website team has made everything available on my revamped website at https://www.charleypride.com! Check it out if you have a moment!”
Pride Was Also a Talented Baseball Player Growing Up
It wasn’t only music that Pride excelled in. According to his website, by the age of 16, Charley Pride “began emerging as a talented baseball player. He first played organized games in the Iowa State League and then professional games in the Negro American League as a pitcher and outfielder for the Memphis Red Sox. In 1953, he signed a contract with the Boise Yankees, the Class C farm team of the New York Yankees.”
“But during that season a shoulder injury hampered his pitching. He was first sent to the Yankees’ Class D team in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and then released. Over the next several years, Charley rejoined the Memphis Red Sox, moved to the Louisville Clippers and then was sold, along with another player, to the Birmingham Black Barons in order to fund a replacement for the Clippers’ broken-down team bus,” it says.
“He also played for the El Paso Kings and the Yaquis in Nogales, Mexico. Upon rejoining the Memphis Red Sox in 1956 he won 14 games as a pitcher and earned himself a position on the Negro American League All-Star Team. It was during the 1956 season that Charley transitioned into a knuckleball pitcher—he had cracked a bone in his elbow early in the season but had managed to recover quickly enough to rejoin the team during the latter half of the season.”
Pride also served in the U.S. Army.
Pride Started His Singing Career in 1958
According to his bio, Pride’s singing career started in 1958. “Charley dropped by 706 Union Avenue in Memphis with his guitar and cut a professionally recorded demo at Sun Studio. Several takes were recorded on a song titled ‘There’s My Baby (Walkin’),’ a thinly disguised adaption of the 1957 pop hit ‘The Stroll’ by the Diamonds. For better or worse, Charley was still trying to find his voice as a singer and the demo didn’t prove very helpful in furthering his aspirations as a music artist at the time,” the bio says.
In the 1960s, Pride was still playing baseball but was also developing a singing career on the side. “In 1962, with the help of Tiny Stokes, a local disc jockey, Charley was introduced to Country singers Red Sovine and Red Foley and invited to perform “Lovesick Blues” and ‘Heartaches By The Number’ during one of their shows. This brief initial encounter with Red Sovine would turn out to be crucial in laying the groundwork for Charley’s future music career,” the bio says.
Pride tried out for the Mets, but it didn’t work out, so he turned to singing. He met a man named Jack Johnson, “who had been actively searching for a promising black Country singer,” the bio says.
“In Nashville, Johnson ran into significantly more resistance than he had anticipated as he shopped around the crude demo recording that he had made of Charley to the record labels,” it says. But in 1965, a breakthrough came.
“Charley returned to Nashville and Johnson introduced him to producer ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement. Clement gave Charley seven songs to learn and within a week they cut two of these songs – ‘The Snakes Crawl At Night’ and ‘Atlantic Coastal Line’ – during a split studio session with top-notch session players,” according to the bio.
Eventually, Chet Atkins signed Pride to RCA. “Atkins took Charley under his wing, nurtured his talent and spearheaded a shrewd promotional campaign that addressed the racial challenges of mid 1960s America,” says the bio.
By 1967, his song “Just Between You and Me,” broke into the top 10 and earned him a Grammy nomination. “What happened next is Country Music history. Charley Pride quickly became Country Music’s first black superstar. Between 1967 and 1987, he amassed no fewer than 52 Top-10 Country hits and went on to sell tens of millions of records worldwide,” says the bio.
“Many of Pride’s other honors clearly underscore his impact on American Music. In 1994, he was honored by the Academy Of Country Music (ACM) with its prestigious Pioneer Award. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And in 2017, The Recording Academy®, renowned for its GRAMMY® awards, honored Charley with a Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Tributes Flowed in for Charley Pride
Tributes flowed in for Charley Pride as news of his death spread.
People shared news of Pride’s death, remembering meeting him and quotes he uttered.
“No one had ever told me that whites were supposed to sing one kind of music and blacks another — I sang what I liked in the only voice I had.” — #CharleyPride, a groundbreaking Country Music artist & a great man. #RIPCharleyPride pic.twitter.com/9K79JbntZA
— David Wild (@Wildaboutmusic) December 12, 2020
“Sad to share the news that Charley Pride died today in Dallas due to complications from Covid-19 at age 86. Charley is country music’s first Black superstar and the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame,” wrote Kurt Bardella.
Sad to share the news that Charley Pride died today in Dallas due to complications from Covid-19 at age 86.
— Kurt Bardella (@kurtbardella) December 12, 2020
David Carroll wrote, “RIP #CharleyPride, who was 86. I will always believe the fact that this man dominated country music in the 1960s and 1970s was one of the greatest entertainment achievements in history. Incredibly, no one ever made a movie about him.”
Pride was the subject of false death reports in the past, but this time, sadly, the news is real.