Trailblazing country superstar Charley Pride dead at 86 from coronavirus complications

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(This story has been updated with a statement from the Country Music Association.)

Charley Pride, the legendary baritone singer who broke barriers as the first Black country superstar and first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died Saturday due to complications from COVID-19, according to a statement from by publicist, Jeremy Westby. A post on the singer’s Facebook page said he was “admitted to the hospital in late November with COVID-19 type symptoms and despite the incredible efforts, skill and care of his medical team over the past several weeks, he was unable to overcome the virus." Pride was 86 years old.

Born a sharecropper’s son in Sledge, Miss., on March 18, 1934, Charley Frank Pride bought his first guitar at age 14 and taught himself how to play. However, he first embarked upon a professional baseball career with the Memphis Red Sox, a Negro American League team, and served two years in the U.S. Army before seriously pursuing music, after injuries dashed his baseball hopes. Pride moved to Nashville in 1963 and two years later met famed producer Jack Clement, who invited him to a recording session at RCA Studio B; the resulting demos caught the attention of RCA Records’ Chet Atkins, who signed Pride in 1966. Pride went on to become RCA’s best-selling artist since Elvis Presley.

During the peak years of his recording career, between 1966 and 1987, Pride earned 52 top 10 country hits (36 of which went to No. 1), 12 gold albums, four Grammys (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017), and three Country Music Association Awards, including Entertainer of the Year in 1971. In 1967, he became the first Black artist to perform on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1925.

Pride was honored with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 54th annual CMAs ceremony just last month, where he admitted that he was “nervous as can be” during his charming acceptance speech. At that time, Country Music Association SEO Sarah Trahern said, “Charley Pride is the epitome of a trailblazer. Few other artists have grown country music’s rich heritage and led to the advancement of country music around the world like Charley. His distinctive voice has created a timeless legacy that continues to echo through the country community today.”

Charley Pride at the 54th Annual CMA Awards, on Nov. 11, 2020. (Photo: ABC via Getty Images)
Charley Pride at the 54th Annual CMA Awards, on Nov. 11, 2020. (Photo: ABC via Getty Images)

Pride’s Lifetime Achievement Award was presented during the Nov. 11 CMA Awards ceremony by rising Black country star Jimmie Allen, who stated, “I might never had a career in country music if it wasn't for a groundbreaking artist who made the best kind of history. … Thank you, Mr. Charley Pride, for all the songs and for breaking down so many barriers with your remarkable life.” On the CMAs telecast, Pride crooned his million-selling crossover single “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” with Allen; this turned out to be his last public performance.

While it was initially unclear if Pride’s contracting of COVID-19 was linked to the CMA Awards, the Country Music Association did come under fire at that time for going ahead with a live, in-person, mostly maskless ceremony, at an indoor venue, Nashville’s Music City Center, during a week when there had been a coronavirus spike in Tennessee (the state had just reported its highest single-day increase four days earlier, with 5,071 new cases). Several artists that were slated to perform or attend the CMA Awards that evening — Lee Brice, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, Lady A’s Charles Kelley, and fiddle player Jenee Fleenor — withdrew at the last minute because they had either tested positive for the virus or had been exposed. However, in a statement addressing the controversy, the Country Music Association insisted, “We are following all protocols that have been put in place by the CDC as well as the creative unions to ensure we provide the safest environment possible.”

On Saturday afternoon, the Country Music Association responded to speculation that Pride’s death was connected to his appearance at ceremony, via the following statement on the organization’s website: "Everyone affiliated with the CMA Awards followed strict testing protocols outlined by the city health department and unions. Charley was tested prior to traveling to Nashville. He was tested upon landing in Nashville, and again on show day, with all tests coming back negative. After returning to Texas following the CMA Awards, Charley again tested negative multiple times. All of us in the Country Music community are heartbroken by Charley’s passing. Out of respect for his family during their grieving period, we will not be commenting on this further."

Pride is survived by his wife, Ebby Rozene Cohran Pride, four siblings, three children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the Pride family requests that donations be made to the Pride Scholarship at Jesuit College Preparatory School, St. Philips School and Community Center, the Food Bank, or another charity of one’s choice. Upon hearing the news of the pioneering country artist’s death, his fans and friends took to social media to grieve and pay tribute.

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