Charley Pride has died. A pioneer in the world of country music, with dozens of hit singles, a boatload of awards, and the rare distinction of being one of only three Black performers to be a member of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, Pride helped define the voice of country music as it launched a rising takeover of pop music in the 1960s and 1970s. Across his long career, he was credited with breaking barriers, helping to reduce tension during The Troubles in Ireland, and also penning and singing an unimaginable number of damn fine country songs. Per Variety, Pride died today of complications from COVID-19. He was 86.
Pride broke into the world of music in a way most people don’t: Through baseball. During the early years of his life, Pride was a player for the Negro American League, pitching for various teams on a pro and semi-pro level. (As he wryly noted in his 1994 autobiography, Pride, “I may have the distinction of being [one of] the only players in history to be traded for a used motor vehicle” after being passed around in exchange for a used team bus.) After landing in Helena, Montana, Pride began picking up extra money by singing before games for his semi-pro team, which swiftly blossomed into the international success sports hadn’t brought. (Even so, Pride never lost his love for the game, and in later years would serve as a co-owner of the Texas Rangers MLB team.)
Signed by RCA after executives heard a demo tape in the mid-’60s, Pride had his first breakout hit in 1965, with his third single, “Just Between You And Me.” From there, the rise was more-or-less meteoric; it’s worth noting that Pride had a million-selling “Best Of” album by 1969—two years before releasing his most popular song ever, “Kiss An Angel Good Morning.” So undeniable was his rich tenor voice and heartfelt sentimentality, it blew straight through many of the biases or prejudices his audience might otherwise have harbored toward a Black musician working in traditionally white spaces; Pride famously joked about his “permanent suntan” to break the tension during his first major gig, and became the first Black man to perform at the Opry in 26 years in 1967.
And from there, there was really no stopping him: Pride released 42 studio albums across his long career, including a set of Hank Williams covers, gospel albums, and other hits that charted well on the U.S. country charts. He helped break a touring ban on Ireland during the Troubles, was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2000, and firmly established himself in the pantheon of American country music greats. Pride released his final album, Music In My Heart, in 2017, at the age of 83; if his advancing years had slowed him down, it’s not evident in his voice, which is as warm and powerful on the album as it was 50 years previous.
As news of his death broke today, Pride was tributed and remembered by many of his contemporaries and other massive names in the field of country music. Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, and more paid tributes to his long career and enduring legacy (while also damning the disease that took his life). Pride’s final public appearance came last month, when he accepted the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the Country Music Awards—which were criticized at the time for holding an indoor event, largely sans mask, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a tragic note to end what seemed to be a truly joyful career; Charley Pride set out to spend his life making music, and succeeded in a way few people in the 20th century could match.