Charley Pride, who sold millions of records and was the first Black performer to become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, among many other honors, has died at age 86.
A statement posted on the singer’s website said Pride passed away in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday from complications due to COVID-19.
Pride is considered country music’s first African American superstar. He scored 29 No. 1 hits between 1969 and 1983 and charted 67 singles in his groundbreaking career. as well as the CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1971.
Charley Frank Pride was born into a sharecropping family in Sledge, Mississippi, on March 18, 1934. He recalled walking four miles to and from a segregated grade school while white children passed by in school buses. Because his father scorned the roughness and ribaldry of blues music, Pride grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and idolizing such stars as Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb.
Pride charted his first single, Clement’s composition “Just Between You and Me,” in 1966. It went Top 10, and five of his subsequent six releases went Top 5. In 1969, he had his first No. 1 with “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me).” From then on, until his chart successes began tapering off in the mid-1980s, most of his RCA singles hit No. 1 and only rarely ranking less than Top 5. His albums routinely were certified gold, signifying half a million copies.
Throughout his career, Pride performed without any visible chip on his shoulder, seeming to dismiss any racial roadblocks with easygoing humor (often quipping about his “permanent tan”). But he was not oblivious nor impervious to racial slights. In the 2019 Country Music documentary on PBS, he revealed that RCA was particularly vigilant in his choice of love songs to record. He said he wanted to record “The Green Green Grass of Home,” but that the label balked because of the line, “Down the road I look and there comes Mary/ Hair of gold and lips like cherries” since the “hair of gold” marked Mary as a white woman.
“Charley Pride was a trail blazer whose remarkable voice & generous spirit broke down barriers in country music just as his hero Jackie Robinson had in baseball,” tweeted director and producer Ken Burns.
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.”
In his memoir, Pride wrote, “We’re not color blind yet, but we’ve advanced a few paces along the path and I like to think I’ve contributed something to that process.”
He is survived by his wife, Rozene, whom he married in 1956; three children, Kraig, Dion and Angela; and several grandchildren.