Charley Pride, a country music superstar who was one of the first Black men to break into the genre, died Saturday of COVID-19 complications in Dallas, Texas. He was 86.
He was born in 1934 to a sharecropper family in Mississippi, according to his publicist. He thought baseball would be his ticket to stardom — but it was his voice that took him to Nashville in 1963.
A couple of years later, producer Jack Clement teamed up with Pride, and their collaboration on “Just Between You and Me” became a country music hit in 1967.
Over the next two decades, Pride wrote more than 50 Top 10 country hits. He was the first Black man to co-host the CMA Awards, in 1975, alongside Glen Campbell, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. He won three Grammy Awards.
Pride’s publicist notes that the singer was not the first well-known Black country musician — DeFord Bailey was a popular Black performer on the Grand Ole Opry starting in 1927 — “but Pride was a trailblazer who emerged during a time of division and rancor.”
From baseball to music
Pride’s musical ability was apparent early, but while trying to break into entertainment, he played baseball. Pride was an all-star pitcher in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, as well as a minor-league prospect in the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds systems. An injury put an end to his professional baseball career, and he began working as a smelter in Montana.
He continued to play for a semi-pro team on the side. Taking note of his singing ability, the team began paying him if he would perform before games. Eventually, he came to the attention of RCA, which signed him in 1965.
Pride’s final performance was in Nashville on Nov. 11. He sang “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’ ” during the CMA Awards show with Jimmie Allen.
“To say Country Music has lost a trailblazer is an obvious understatement, but in fact one of the biggest losses is Charley’s definitive Country voice,” said Sarah Trahern, the association’s CEO. “He was a trailblazer in so many ways.”
CMA has also issued a statement defending its decision to have an in-person awards show as the pandemic surged across the U.S. It says everyone involved “followed strict testing protocols outlined by the city health department and unions,” including taking multiple COVID tests before and after the event.
“Out of respect for his family during their grieving period, we will not be commenting on this further,” the association wrote.
Update: This story has been updated to include more of Pride’s biography and a statement from the Country Music Association.