Country music’s first Black vocalist, Charley Pride has died. He was 86. Public relations firm 2911 Media confirmed that Pride died on Dec. 12 in Dallas, Texas from complications related to COVID-19.
Pride had just been seen by millions on live TV in November as he received a lifetime achievement award from the Country Music Association on its annual telecast. It was on that Nov. 11 telecast that he did his final performance, a duet of his classic “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” with Jimmie Allen, a rising Black star in country who expressed his indebtedness to his predecessor.
Pride followed that with a lengthy and heartfelt speech as the small audience of nominees and their guests stood in rapt attention.
All the performers on the CMA Awards telecast were said to have undergone repeated COVID-19 tests prior to appearing, and several dropped out as a result of testing positive. CMA representatives said at the time that none of the performers who tested positive had entered the footprint of the production area for the telecast.
Maren Morris, who also performed on the CMAs and was the leading winner, was among those quick to wonder if there could be a connection, with Pride apparently contracting COVID-19 so soon after appearing on the show.
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions because no family statement has been made,” Morris tweeted, “but if this was a result of the CMAs being indoors, we should all be outraged. Rest in power, Charley.”
Among those paying quick tribute as the news shocked the country music world was Rissi Palmer, another rising Black star in the genre who has celebrated the path Pride laid for her and others. “I have no words,” Palmer simply tweeted.
Dolly Parton 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.”
Prior to his CMA honor, Pride also came back into the limelight in early 2019 as he promoted “American Masters — Charley Pride: I’m Just Me,” a public television documentary that included interviews with acolytes like Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Parton and others as well as Pride himself.
And he was featured in Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series as well. Burns reacted to the news on Twitter, writing, “Charley Pride was a trail blazer whose remarkable voice & generous spirit broke down barriers in country music just as his hero Jackie Robinson had in baseball. His last performance was his hit, ‘Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.’ Now he is one.”
A 2000 inductee in the Country Music Hall of Fame and a three-time Grammy winner, Pride was not the first country performer to cross racial lines: Harmonica player Deford Bailey was an early featured artist on the Grand Ole Opry. (Successors included ’70s contemporary Stoney Edwards and, much later, former Hootie & the Blowfish vocalist Darius Rucker, who found immense crossover success in the genre.)
He is survived by his wife, two sons; and a daughter.