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Country Music Superstar Charley Pride Dies at Age 86

The first Black performer to enter the Country Music Hall of Fame died of complications from COVID-19.

Charlie Pride, country music's first African-American superstar, died from complications due to COVID-19 on Saturday, according to a statement on his website. He was 86.

Pride had 52 recordings in the top 10 of Billboard's country charts, including "Is Anyone Goin' to San Antone," "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'," and "Roll on Mississippi." His first hit was "Just You And Me" in 1967, after which came two decades of nonstop success. He won three Grammy awards (and a fourth for lifetime achievement in 2017), and the 1971 Entertainer of the Year award from the Country Music Association. His induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000 was the first for a Black performer.

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He was born in Mississippi in 1934 to sharecropper parents. In his youth he played baseball for the Negro Leagues, the independent Pioneer League, and, briefly, in the Class C farm club of the New York Yankees in Boise, Idaho. He began singing the National Anthem at the start of games, then the manager of the East Helena Smelterites paid him a little extra extend the performances to 15 minutes, from which they saw a boost in attendance. He was also working at a local Montana smelting facility at the time, where he would sing at company events as well as performing in area clubs. Demo tapes of Pride and his group eventually made their way to Chet Atkins who signed him to the RCA Victor label. During Pride's peak years, he was the second-best selling artist on the label, topped only by Elvis Presley.

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Charley Pride was not the first Black performer in country music to achieve success, but no one before him was quite so visible. While other artists and record-buyers welcomed him, the industry itself had its reactionary elements. The New York Times noted that Loretta Lynn was instructed not to embrace him at an awards ceremony in 1970. (She ignored this direction.)

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His last performance was less than one month ago, at the Country Music Awards, where he received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award . He sang "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'," one of his biggest hits, in a duet with 34-year-old Jimmie Allen.

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Pride joins a tragically long list of musicians we have lost to COVID-19, including John Prine, Ellis Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Adam Schlesinger, Trini Lopez, Lee Konitz, Nick Cordero, and Bucky Pizzarelli, among others.

On Twitter Dolly Parton called Pride one of her dearest and oldest friends.

Other country music celebrities like Tanya Tucker, The Chicks and Darius Rucker, who co-hosted the recent Country Music Awards show, shared their thoughts.

Viola Davis called his story "one for the books" and Rev. Jesse Jackson said he "expanded our musical horizons."

"It's Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer," initially recorded in 1972, was Charley Pride's ninth single to hit number one on the Billboard country chart. It is Peak Nashville, smooth and easy with a melancholy twang. Be forewarned that if you hit play on this video, you'll likely watch it five times in a row.

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