Charley Pride, Trailblazing Country Music Singer, Dies at 86

Charley Pride
Joseph Llanes

Charley Pride

Charley Pride, country music's first Black superstar, has died.

The barrier-breaking Pride, who scored 29 No. 1s on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, passed away Saturday (Dec. 12) in Dallas of complications from COVID-19, according to a press release. He was 86.

Though other Black artists had experienced success in country music, and had left indelible foundational marks on the music and culture, the Sledge, Mississippi-born Pride was the first Black artist  to achieve superstardom through  such classics as “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” (1970), “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” (1971) and “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” (1969).

“No person of color had ever done what he has done,” Darius Rucker said in the PBS American Masters film Charley Pride: I’m Just Me.

The son of a sharecropper, Pride came to country music after playing in the Negro American League. His love for baseball never abated: for the last 10 years, he was part of the Texas Rangers' ownership group.

In November, Pride received the 2020 Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 54th annual CMA Awards. He was named CMA entertainer of the year in 1971 and was the first Black man to co-host the CMA Awards in 1975, with Glen Campbell. The three-time Grammy winner was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

"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," says Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern. "I remember working with Charley in 2009 on 'Country Music: In Performance at the White House' when President and Michelle Obama invited several Country artists to perform. He was a trailblazer in so many ways. It was a special night and Charley was telling amazing stories. Our deepest condolences go out to his wife Rozene and the rest of his family and friends at this sad time."

"Music is about breaking barriers. As one of the first Black superstars in country music, Charley Pride did just that. A three-time Grammy winner and 13-time nominee, the Recording Academy feels this loss deeply," said the Academy's interim president/CEO Harvey Mason in a statement. "During his nearly five-decade long career, Pride inspired artists and paved the way for so many in the industry, which is why the Academy honored him with our Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. He'll be sorely missed, but we are grateful for the remarkable legacy he leaves behind."

Ten of Pride's nominations came in country categories, including his 1972 win in the best country vocal performance, male, category  for Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs.  The album logged 16 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart in 1972 and  contained “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs.


Pride appeared as a guest on two albums released earlier this year: In a historic move featuring three generations of Black male country artists, he and Rucker joined Jimmie Allen on “Why Things Happen,” a poignant track on Allen’s EP, Bettie James, released this summer.Pride also dueted with Garth Brooks on Brooks’ new fall album, Fun, on "Where the Cross Don’t Burn," a tale of a young white boy’s friendship with an older Black man.

“We got a chance to represent Black country artists for younger Black kids who want to do country but don’t feel anyone out there looks like them,”  Allen told Billboard earlier this year of  recording "Why Things Happen." “No matter your race, it’s important to see someone who looks like you doing what you love. It makes it more realistic. It makes it seem achievable.”

With still only a handful of Black or bi-racial artists heard on country radio now more than half a century after Pride's breakthrough, it's almost impossible to imagine how tough his path was to forge. RCA, the label that signed Pride, sent out his initial singles to radio without press photos, so disc jockeys would not know he was Black. “It was RCA’s decision not to play up or down the color thing, but to just let the voice go, put the record out and let the people decide,” Pride  told The Washington Post.

“Charley Pride was a trailblazer whose remarkable voice & generous spirit broke down barriers in country music just as his hero Jackie Robinson had in baseball," said filmmaker Ken Burns, who featured Pride in his Country Music docu-series that chronicled the history of country music in America. "His last performance was his hit, 'Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'.' Now he is one."

In lieu of flowers, Pride's family asks for donations to The Pride Scholarship at Jesuit College Preparatory School, St. Philips School and Community Center and The Food Bank.