Charley Pride, the pioneering black country singer known for such hits as “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” has died in Dallas, Texas, from complications related to Covid-19, according to his publicist. He was 86.
Born in Sledge, Mississippi, in 1934, Pride picked cotton, played baseball in the Negro leagues, served in the U.S. Army, and worked in a smelting plant in Montana before moving to Nashville and becoming country music’s first black superstar. He scored 52 Top 10 country hits, including 29 Number Ones, and was the first African-American performer to appear on the Grand Ole Opry stage since Deford Bailey made his debut in the 1920s. Pride became an Opry member in 1993. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
After leaving the Army, Pride landed in Helena, Montana, where he continued to play baseball (Jackie Robinson was an early hero) and took a job in a smelting plant. He also began singing in public, where he caught the ear of a local DJ who arranged for Pride to sing for country stars Red Sovine and Red Foley. The pair convinced him to move to Nashville and, in 1964, he signed a management deal with longtime manager Jack D. Johnson. The following year, he had his first Nashville recording session and, a month later, signed with the label RCA.
Pride’s debut single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” failed to chart, but his debut album, Country, reached the Top 20. His 1967 album The Pride of Country Music went on to hit Number One and, that same year, he became the first African-American solo singer to appear on the Opry. On April 29th, he made his national TV debut, appearing on Lawrence Welk’s Saturday-night ABC music series.
A lifelong disciple of Hank Williams, Pride’s debut on The Lawrence Welk Show presented his vibrant take on Williams’ 1949 hit “Lovesick Blues.” During a later appearance, Pride sang Lead Belly’s oft-covered folk tune “Cotton Fields,” a song that reminded him of his hard upbringing as a sharecropper’s son. “[It] reminds me of what I don’t ever go back to doing because it hurt my fingers and my back and my knees,” Pride said.
Pride’s appearance on a variety show popular with a white audience was no small achievement, especially given RCA’s early penchant for obscuring Pride’s race. When Pride’s singles were sent to DJs and press, they arrived without the usual artist publicity photo.
By 1969, Pride was on a hot streak, propelled by his Top Three cover of Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga.” He notched his first Number One single with “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me),” following by another chart-topper, “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again.” The following year Pride released one of his signatures songs, “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone.” It too hit Number One. His other signature, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” arrived in 1971 and gave him a bona fide crossover smash, reaching Number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The hits continued well into the early Eighties, with singles like 1974’s “Then Who Am I,” 1977’s “More to Me,” 1980’s “Honky Tonk Blues” and “You Win Again” (two more Hank Williams covers), and 1983’s sultry “Night Games,” which would be his last Number One.
Despite being such an important black figure in country music, Pride never felt defined by his race, even when peppered with questions about it by the press. “I never see anything but the staunch American Charley Pride,” he told NPR in a 2017 interview. “They says, ‘Charley, how did it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music? How did it feel to be the first colored country singer? How did it feel to be the first Negro country singer? How did it feel to be the first black country singer?’ It don’t bother me, other than I have to explain it to you how I maneuvered around all these obstacles to get to where I am today…. I’ve got a great-grandson and [grand] daughter and they gonna be asking them that too if we don’t get out of this crutch we’ve been in all these years… this ‘them’ and ‘us.’”
In a 2019 documentary about his life and career, Pride did recall one particularly tense concert, however. It was in Big Springs, Texas, on April 4, 1968 — the date of Martin Luther King’s assassination. “I got onstage, nobody said nothin’,” Pride said. “They applauded, I got a standing ovation. I didn’t say nothin’ about nothin’ pertaining to what had happened. But it was hanging there, what had happened and me the only one there with these pigmentations. You don’t forget nothin’ like that.”
Dolly Parton, who sang with Pride on the duet “God’s Coloring Book,” remembered the country star in a tweet on Saturday. “I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away,” she wrote. “It’s even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you.”
Just last month, Pride, a three-time Grammy winner, was honored by the Country Music Association with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. He performed on the telecast with country singer Jimmie Allen, recreating “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.” It would be Pride’s final performance.