Charley Pride, the Jackie Robinson of country music, dies of COVID-19 at 86

WTOP's Jason Fraley remembers Charley Pride

He broke country music’s color barrier as the Jackie Robinson of the genre.

On Saturday, Charley Pride died of COVID-19 complications at the age of 86.

“People say, ‘Charley, how does it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music? Charley, how does it feel to be the first colored country singer? Charley, how does it feel to be the first Negro country singer? Charley, how does it feel to be the first black country singer? How does it feel to be the first Afro-American country singer?’ I say, ‘I feel the same way.’ … I’m a staunch American,” Pride told WTOP back in 2018.

Even so, he appreciated the parallel of paving the way as a pioneer.

“The difference with Jackie Robinson and I, he was specifically picked to do what he did,” Pride said. “Branch Rickey brought him in (and) said, ‘Hello N-word. … You wanna know why I said that? You’re gonna hear that a lot (and) you’re gonna take your bat and glove and win it that way, because if you don’t make it, the others aren’t gonna make it.’ … I went into it by choice, so that’s the difference. … It was a different ballgame the way I went into country music.”

Born the son of sharecroppers in 1934, Pride first set out to be a professional baseball player.

“In the old Negro Leagues, I was just behind Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays,” Pride recalls. “I tried to make the Memphis Red Sox and didn’t make it, so a guy by the name of Jim Ford put together an all-black team to play up in Wall Lake, Iowa, which was Andy Williams’ home. We were playing on percentages and I about starved up there. Somebody would pull up weeds and we’d eat the bottom of it sometimes, but I don’t want to remember that.”

Things improved slightly with a new team owner in the Iowa State League.

“A popcorn king took over the team and started giving us money,” Pride said. “We didn’t win nothing once we started playing, so the guys went back to the Memphis Red Sox. They raided the whole pitching staff. That’s when I went back, got a job and was there for good.”

In 1953, he signed with the Boise Yankees, the minor league club of the New York Yankees. In 1956, he won 14 games as a pitcher, earning himself a spot on the Negro American League All-Star Team, where he pitched against such future MLB Hall of Famers as Mays and Aaron.

“My mother signed a contract for me (with) the Yankees,” Pride said. “They sent me to Boise, Idaho, then to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and back to Memphis. I cracked my elbow in 1956 and that kind of did me in. I had all three (pitches), the harm, the hook and the change, but they didn’t have no Tommy John (surgery) in those days, so I developed me a good knuckleball.”

Plagued by injury, Pride turned to his other passion: music. Having taught himself to play guitar at age 14, Pride often played on the team bus from town to town. During trips to Nashville, he met manager Jack Johnson and recorded a demo discovered by RCA Records chief Chet Atkins. Atkins signed him immediately and allowed him to release his first records.

His first single “The Snakes Crawl at Night” arrived in 1966, but it was his third single “Just Between You and Me” that launched his career, reaching the Top 10 on the country charts and earning his first Grammy Award. The next year, he became just the second African American performer to appear at the Grand Ole Opry after harmonica player DeFord Bailey.

From 1969 to 1971, Pride rattled off No. 1 hits: “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me),” “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” “I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me,” “I’d Rather Love You” and “I’m Just Me.”

Then, in 1971, came the defining hit of his entire career: “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.”

“I didn’t know how big it was gonna be, but I just remember how much I loved it when I heard it,” Pride said. “I had no idea it would do what it did, but I couldn’t wait to get into the studio. I’m glad I went in there and lived that. … That was the only million-selling single I ever had.”

He dominated the ’70s country charts with over a dozen No. 1 hits: “It’s Gonna Take a Little Bit Longer,” “She’s Too Good to Be True,” “A Shoulder to Cry On,” “Don’t Fight the Feelings of Love,” “Amazing Love,” “Then Who Am I,” “Hope You’re Feelin’ Me’,” “My Eyes Can Only See as Far as You,” “She’s Just an Old Love Turned Memory,” “I’ll Be Leaving Alone,” “More to Me,” “Somebody Loves Yo Honey,” “Where Do I Put Her Memory” and “You’re My Jamaica.”

The ’80s brought even more No. 1 hits: “Honky Tonk Blues,” “You Win Again,” “Never Been So Loved,” “Mountain of Love,” “You’re So Good When You’re Bad,” Why Baby Why” and “Night Games.” In total, Pride recorded 36 No. 1 country hits across four platinum-selling albums.

“I’m in the business of selling lyrics, feelings and emotions, all of that in one package,” he said.

Maryland residents may even remember his cover of Bobby Bare’s “The Streets of Baltimore.”

“Bobby Bare is a real good friend of mine,” Pride said. “I lived in Montana (and) I was working the silos on the missile sites up there and he came and had ‘Detroit City.’ … I recorded ‘Detroit City’ on my first album. … Bare recorded ‘Streets of Baltimore’ too and I recorded that. … I did a lot of (covers) of people I admire. I did a tribute album to Jim Reeves, to Hank Williams.”

In 1993, Pride was invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1999, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2003, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Recently, Whoopi Goldberg pushed to get him awarded at the Kennedy Center Honors.

“She’s a big fan of mine,” Pride said. “I received a Lifetime Pioneer Award in New York and she made a big spiel about me. The next thing I know, I was on ‘The View.’ … She couldn’t believe I hadn’t been at the Kennedy Center Honors: ‘I don’t believe this. I’m gonna work on this!'”

Regardless of accolades, his legacy resides in the fans who continue to play his tunes.

“Jack Clement, my producer, said, ‘Charley, these songs we’re cutting right now, in 50 years they’re still going to be playing them.’ He was kind of spot on,” Pride said. “I go back now and listen to some songs that I didn’t quite want to record (and) go, ‘Oh, that was pretty good! I didn’t think it was good back then!’ I’ve got 500-some songs and I go back and go, ‘Hey, that wasn’t too bad!’ That’s the way I’m living it out now, going back and listening to what we did.”

Amid the nostalgia, he still recorded new music in recent years, including “Music in My Heart.”

“My fans a lot of times will say, ‘Is he singing to a track? He sounds the same!'” Pride joked.

He also kept busy as a partial owner of the Texas Rangers, bringing him full circle to his initial love of the baseball diamond and the aforementioned Jackie Robinson comparisons.

“Do you have any idea how many black American players are in the major leagues?” Pride said. “You’ve got a lot of Latinos and Dominican Republicans, but you’ve got maybe a little better than 7 percent. I told my grandson, ‘Tom Hicks gave Alex Rodriguez $252 million in baseball.’ He said, ‘I want to play football and basketball. The girls all follow basketball.’ I said, ‘You can (attract) a lot of girls with $252 million!’ … I feel bad to see how much (Robinson) gave, and the amount of American blacks in the major leagues. To me, it’s just stunning.”

Today, Pride’s influence shines in black country stars from Jimmie Allen to Darius Rucker, not to mention an overall awakening of the genre’s lyrics, from Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free” to Kenny Chesney’s “Some People Change” to Brad Paisley’s “Welcome to the Future” — “From a woman on a bus, to a man with a dream. Hey, wake up Martin Luther! Welcome to the future.”

Hear our full conversation with the late Charley Pride below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Charley Pride in 2018 (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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