Charley Pride obituary

<span>Photograph: Rick Diamond/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Rick Diamond/Rex/Shutterstock

A fine baritone voice and friendly, graceful manner ensured that Charley Pride, who has died at the age of 86 from complications related to Covid-19, enjoyed dozens of US country hits and worldwide popularity. He was also the first African American to enjoy any kind of success singing country music – and for quite a time the only one.

Pride scored 30 No 1 hits in the US country charts alongside another 22 that reached the Top 10, won three Grammy awards (one for singing country, two for singing gospel) and received numerous other honours. He broke country’s colour barrier but always insisted that music knew no colour: “I never viewed country as white music. The songs were stories about the good times and bad that all people experienced.” He was never an activist, but his quiet dignity ensured that he was able to make a breakthrough.

Charley Pride in his mid-30s, the point at which his records began to reach the top of the charts.
Charley Pride in his mid-30s, the point at which his records began to reach the top of the charts.
Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Born in Sledge, Mississippi, Charley was the fourth of 11 children of Mack (Fowler) Pride and his wife, Tessie (nee Stewart). His parents were sharecroppers who cultivated peanuts, corn and cotton. They lived in a house that Charley described as more akin to a shack, with the children sleeping three and four to a bed, and Sledge was small and deeply segregated.

On Saturday evenings Mack loved listening to the Grand Ole Opry, a popular radio show broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, featuring a selection of country singers. As a child Charley sang the songs he learned off the radio and, at the age of 14, bought a guitar.

Though he was complimented for his voice, he discounted the possibility that a black man would be welcomed into what was then considered white people’s music.

Baseball looked like a more promising escape route from sharecropping, and in 1952 he was signed by the Memphis Red Sox, of the Negro American League, as a pitcher.

Pride met his wife Rozene Cohran, a cosmetologist, in Memphis and they married just as he was drafted into the US army in 1956. Discharged in 1958, Pride returned to Memphis but was prevented from rejoining the Red Sox by an arm injury. He then approached Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley was discovered. The studio made a recording of him, but declined to release it.

Continuing in professional baseball, Pride bounced around the minor and Negro leagues, barely making ends meet. In 1960 he moved to Helena, Montana, to play in a semi-pro team that guaranteed the players employment in a lead smelter. The work was hard and dangerous but Pride enjoyed the more relaxed racial atmosphere and his musical talent was quickly recognised: he was commissioned to sing for 15 minutes before each game and at company picnics while finding work in local bars. One evening the singer-songwriter Red Sovine caught Pride’s performance and advised him to go to Nashville.

In 1965 he did so, quickly acquiring a manager, albeit one who initially thought his charge might succeed as a novelty act. Signed on the strength of a demo tape by Chet Atkins to RCA Victor, the label had some trepidation about marketing Pride – they sent out his first singles to radio stations without publicity photos of Pride accompanying them. His 1966 debut album saw him called Country Charley Pride and dressed in cowboy gear, but he quickly dropped “Country” from his name and took to dressing in smart suits and turtlenecks.

His third single, Just Between You and Me, began a run of seven Top 10 country-radio hits. Then, in 1969, he reached No 1 on the country chart with All I Have to Offer You (Is Me). Over the next four years he scored 13 No 1 country hits – his biggest, Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ (1971), spent five weeks at the top of the country charts and reached No 21 on the pop charts. He won the Country Music Association’s awards as entertainer of the year and top male vocalist 1971 (winning the latter award again in 1972) and the 1972 Grammy for best male country vocal performance.

By then he was selling more records than any other RCA artist since Elvis, and came across on stage as a placid, easygoing man. He later revealed that from 1968 onwards he struggled with depression and bipolar disorder. In his autobiography Pride (1994, written with Jim Henderson) he details how, as a child, he was traumatised when two menacing white men kidnapped his little brother – the county sheriff would return the boy, seemingly unharmed – and how, as a teenager, he came to hate the white people who treated him and his community with open contempt.

Pride enjoyed a large, loyal following across the UK and Ireland. In November 1976 he played a concert at the Ritz Cinema, Belfast – one of the few international artists to perform in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles – so winning him enduring affection. His hit You’re My Jamaica (1979) was the first No 1 country record to be recorded in Britain. When I saw Pride in concert in 2015 at Indigo at the O2 in London, he performed a winning selection of hits, the warmth of his voice and personality evident throughout.

In 1985 RCA dropped Pride, as they were now focused on promoting a more youth-oriented style of pop country. This embittered him, as he felt that he and other older artists were being discarded unfairly. Pride continued to tour and record – he received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2017 – his last performance being a duet with the country singer Jimmie Allen on 11 November 2020, at the CMA awards in Nashville.

Pride is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.

Charley Frank Pride, singer, born 18 March 1934; died 12 December 2020