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Country Music Icon And Boundary Breaker Charley Pride Felled By Covid-19


America’s out-of-control Coronavirus pandemic has claimed the life of another music legend, the iconic country singer Charley Pride. One of the great song interpreters of all time, Pride’s sensitive but resounding baritone delivered him every accolade possible in the industry, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He died in Dallas on Saturday at age 86, his PR firm said.

Between 1966 and 1987, Pride released 52 top ten singles, including 30 that reached number one. His indelible sides include “Just Between You And Me,” “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone,” “Crystal Chandeliers,” and “All I Have To Offer You (Is Me).” He was a gifted interpreter of Hank Williams, whom he admired, including hits on “Kaw-Liga” and “Honky Tonk Blues.” He’d been active on the road and was the subject of a PBS American Masters documentary in 2019. Pride was last seen in performance just a month ago at the Nov. 11 CMA Awards, singing “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” in celebration of receiving the rarely conferred Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Though he was a reluctant Civil Rights avatar, Pride did break one of the most consequential barriers in 20th century American culture, becoming the first modern era African American superstar in country music, a format rooted in black blues but controlled by white gatekeepers and marketed historically to white audiences. DeFord Bailey was the only other comparable pioneer, having become a star of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s and 30s before being marginalized by WSM radio management. But Pride won over country’s conservative, largely southern fan base just a couple of years after the eradication of Jim Crow laws and the Voting Rights Act. His label, RCA Records contrived to hide his race from radio programmers and fans until he’d achieved traction with several successful singles.

“I’ve always tried to think of myself just as an American,” Pride told the Dallas Observer in 2016 while backstage at the Opry. “That’s what I am. I’m an American. Even growing up in Mississippi, one of the most segregated states in the Union, I kept my wits about me.”

Pride was born the fourth of eleven children in 1934. His sharecropping family in Sledge, MS listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery radio. He got his first guitar at age 14 and pursued his twin loves of music and baseball into young adulthood, landing stints in the Negro and the major league farm systems. Those travels led him to settle in Helena, MT, where he worked in a smelting plant by day and sang in bars at night. Country artists Red Foley and Red Sovine heard him and began connecting him in Nashville, where he was ultimately championed and produced by industry renegade and Memphis transplant Cowboy Jack Clement. RCA’s chief talent scout Chet Atkins took a chance on Pride, who rang up radio success right away, his third single breaking the top ten.

That song, “Just Between You And Me,” opened the path to his first Grammy nomination, national touring and his inevitable introduction to an unsuspecting mass white audience. The story is oft told of encountering 10,000 people in Detroit in the summer of 1966 where surprised silence led him to joke about his “permanent tan” before singing his way into their good graces.

Possibly his biggest career single “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” came in 1971. The five-week number one hit helped him secure the CMA Entertainer of the Year and Top Male Vocalists awards. On the televised ceremony, Loretta Lynn hugged and kissed Pride in defiance of suggestions from the producers that she only shake his hand.

That song also became symbolic of his 64-year marriage to Rozene Cohran of Oxford, MS, who survives Charley Pride, along with their children Carlton Kraig Pride, Charles Dion Pride, and Angela Rozene Pride, as well as five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Figures from across American music expressed their grief and appreciation for the country giant, including Dolly Parton who tweeted: “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.”

Covid-19 has claimed the lives this year of songwriter John Prine, country artist Joe Diffie, jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, jazz trumpet player Wallace Roney, gospel singer Troy Sneed, Fountains of Wayne member Adam Schlesinger among others

Charley Pride sings "Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone" on the Marty Stuart Show in 2012.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org