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Charley Pride, country music’s first black superstar, dead at 86 from COVID-19

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Charley Pride, the first black country music superstar, died Saturday of complications from COVID-19. He was 86.

The trailblazer charted 29 No. 1 hits and another 21 Top 10 singles between the 1960s and 1980s, including “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and “Mountain of Love.” 

Pride enjoyed his greatest success in the 1970s, becoming the best-selling performer for RCA Records since Elvis Presley.

His final performance was on Nov. 11, when he received the Country Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award at Nashville’s Music City Center. He brought down the house with his hit “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’.” 

One of 11 children born to a sharecropper in Sledge, Mississippi, Pride served in the Army, worked at a Missouri smelting plant, and tried several times to break into big-league baseball — including pitching for the Yankees’ Birmingham farm club and a tryout with the Mets — before moving to Nashville in 1963. He recorded demo tapes soon afterward, but it was years before Chet Atkins signed him to a contract with RCA.

Pride won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1971 and its top male vocalist prize in 1971 and 1972. He won three 1972 Grammys for a gospel single — “Let Me Live” on one side, “Did You Think to Pray” on the other — and a 1973 Grammy for best male country vocal performance, for his “Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs” album.

In 2000, he became the first black performer elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Pride left RCA in 1986 and was the first act signed to 16th Avenue Records, a division of Opryland. His last Top 5 hit, “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This,” was released in 1987.

In 1967, Pride became the first black performer to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in more than a quarter century. In 1976, he broke a de facto touring ban in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles, with his “Crystal Chandeliers” becoming a unity song for Irish people on both sides of the conflict.

“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,” Pride wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Pride.”

Johnny Cash performing with Charley Pride in 1970.
Johnny Cash performs with Charley Pride in 1970.
Walt Disney Television via Getty

Country music legend Dolly Parton was among the first to express sympathies. “I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away,” she tweeted. “It’s even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you.”

Surviving are his wife, Ebby Rozene Cohran Pride; four siblings; three children; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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