NEW YORK (AP) — Charley Pride, country music's first Black star whose rich baritone on such hits as "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" helped sell millions of records and made him the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has died. He was 86.
Pride died Saturday in Dallas of complications from Covid-19, according to Jeremy Westby of the public relations firm 2911 Media.
"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," Dolly Parton tweeted.
Pride released dozens of albums and sold more than 25 million records during a career that began in the mid-1960s. Hits besides "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" in 1971 included "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone," "Burgers and Fries," "Mountain of Love," and "Someone Loves You Honey."
He had three Grammy Awards, more than 30 No. 1 hits between 1969 and 1984, won the Country Music Association's Top Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year awards in 1972 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
The Smithsonian in Washington acquired memorabilia from Pride, including a pair of boots and one of his guitars, for the the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Ronnie Milsap called him a "pioneer" and said that without his encouragement, Milsap might never gone to Nashville. "To hear this news tears out a piece of my heart," he said in a statement.
Until the early 1990s, when Cleve Francis came along, Pride was the only Black country singer signed to a major label.
In 1993, he joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in Nashville.
"They used to ask me how it feels to be the `first colored country singer,'" he told The Dallas Morning News in 1992. "Then it was `first Negro country singer;' then `first black country singer.' Now I'm the `first African-American country singer.' That's about the only thing that's changed. This country is so race-conscious, so ate-up with colors and pigments. I call it `skin hangups' — it's a disease."
Pride was raised in Sledge, Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper. He had seven brothers and three sisters.
In 2008 while accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the Mississippi Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts, Pride said he never focused on race.
"My older sister one time said, 'Why are you singing THEIR music?'" Pride said. "But we all understand what the y'all-and-us-syndrome has been. See, I never as an individual accepted that, and I truly believe that's why I am where I am today."
As a young man before launching his singing career, he was a pitcher and outfielder in the Negro American League with the Memphis Red Sox and in the Pioneer League in Montana.
After playing minor league baseball a couple of years, he ended up in Helena, Montana, where he worked in a zinc smelting plant by day and played country music in nightclubs at night.
After a tryout with the New York Mets, he visited Nashville and broke into country music when Chet Atkins, head of RCA Records, heard two of his demo tapes and signed him.
To ensure that Pride was judged on his music and not his race, his first few singles were sent to radio stations without a publicity photo. After his identity became known, a few country radio stations refused to play his music.
For the most part, though, Pride said he was well received. Early in his career, he would put white audiences at ease when he joked about his "permanent tan."
"Music is the greatest communicator on the planet Earth," he said in 1992. "Once people heard the sincerity in my voice and heard me project and watched my delivery, it just dissipated any apprehension or bad feeling they might have had."
Throughout his career, he sang positive songs instead of sad ones often associated with country music.
"Music is a beautiful way of expressing oneself and I truly believe music should not be taken as a protest," he told The Associated Press in 1985. "You can go too far in anything — singing, acting, whatever — and become politicized to the point you cease to be an entertainer."
In 1994, he wrote his autobiography, "Pride: The Charley Pride Story," in which he disclosed he was mildly manic depressive.
He had surgery in 1997 to remove a tumor from his right vocal cord.
He received the Living Legend award from The Nashville Network/Music City News, recognizing 30 years of achievement, in 1997.
"I'd like to be remembered as a good person who tried to be a good entertainer and made people happy, was a good American who paid his taxes and made a good living," he said in 1985. "I tried to do my best and contribute my part."
He is survived by his wife, Rozene, whom he married in 1956; three children, Kraig, Dion and Angela; and several grandchildren.