Before Darius Rucker or Lil Nas X, there was Charley Pride. The fourth of eleven children born to sharecroppers in Sledge, Mississippi didn’t just break the race barrier in country music; he positively shattered it. Pride wasn’t the first African-American performer in the genre – DeFord Bailey’s success in country and blues dated back to the 1920s – but he earned the same level of stardom accorded his white contemporaries such as Willie Nelson or Glen Campbell. With Pride’s death today of COVID-19 at the age of 86, American popular song has lost one of its greatest troubadours.
Pride’s road to fame wasn’t an easy one; before his signing by the legendary Chet Atkins at RCA Victor, he picked cotton, played baseball in the Negro Leagues, served his country as a member of the U.S. Army, and worked at a zinc smelting plant. But his love of music led him to Nashville, and to Atkins. The visionary producer, guitarist, and architect of the pop-leaning “Nashville Sound” knew that Pride’s resonant baritone would prove a perfect match for the label’s lush style.
His first album for RCA was simply titled Country Charley Pride. The 1966 platter was produced by Atkins, Bob Ferguson, and Jack Clement and featured Pride’s stirring renditions of staples including “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Detroit City,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” He topped the Billboard Country Albums chart with his third long-player, 1967’s The Country Way, beginning a consecutive run of fourteen albums that reached the top ten. All but one of those reached the top five of the chart, and eight made it to No. 1. Crucially, many of those albums crossed over to the Pop survey. He remained at RCA for a full two decades, and scored his final chart-topping LP in 1980 with the Hank Williams tribute There’s a Little Bit of Hank in Me. All told, Pride garnered 52 top ten hits on the Country Singles chart and a whopping 30 at pole position including 1969’s “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” (the first Country No. 1 by a black artist since 1944), 1970’s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” 1971’s “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” and 1983’s “Night Games.” Following the release of the latter, no African-American artist would reach the top spot again until Darius Rucker in 2008.
Yet Charley Pride didn’t wish to be defined by the color of his skin. Throughout his career, he offered variations on this quote which he gave to the Dallas Morning News in 1992: “They used to ask me how it feels to be the first colored country singer. Then it was ‘first Negro country singer,’ then ‘first black country singer.’ Now I’m the ‘first African-American country singer.’ That’s about the only thing that’s changed. This country is so race-conscious, so ate up with colors and pigments. I call it ‘skin hang-ups.’ It’s a disease.” He wasn’t hung up on sadness, either, like some of his fellow artists. He chose to emphasize positive songs on his albums and setlists, and in his lifetime recorded one Christmas album and two LPs of sacred music. He frequently took artists under his wing, presenting The Pridesmen (a six-man white vocal group) at RCA and encouraging young pianist-singer Ronnie Milsap to follow his own dreams.
Pride’s accolades over the years included three competitive Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award as well as an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award, and three American Music Awards. The Country Music Association named him the 1971 Entertainer of the Year, and 1971 and 1972 Male Vocalist of the Year. He continued recording right up to the present day, guesting with Canadian country artist Brett Kissel on Ben Peters’ song “Burgers and Fries” in 2017 (Charley had taken the composition to No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 1 in Canada back in 1978) and with Jimmie Allen and Darius Rucker on “Why Things Happen” earlier this year. The latter brought together three generations of black artists in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
Just last month, Pride took the stage to join Jimmie Allen on “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'” and to receive the CMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award – only the sixth-ever recipient following Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Kris Kristofferson. Parton was just one of the countless artists who paid tribute to Pride upon news of his passing. His onetime RCA labelmate wrote, “I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away. It’s even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you.”
Ronnie Milsap shared another touching tribute: “Without his encouragement when I was playing the Whisky A’ Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in the ’70s, I might never have made it to Nashville – and to hear this news tears out a piece of my heart. That he died of COVID makes me even sadder. These are such sad days with too much loss.” He implored, “Please, to anyone who’s ever loved ‘Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,’ ‘Mountain of Love,’ or ‘Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,’ wear a mask, wash your hands, and be wise about gathering. We’ve lost too many, and I just want us all to be here to love each other and the music the way Charley always did for years to come.”
Roll on, Mississippi – carry him home.