Once called “the Jackie Robinson of country,” Pride grew tired of the never-ending questions about his skin colour and preferred to talk about his music.

“They used to ask me how it feels to be the ‘first coloured country singer.’ 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 hang-ups’ – it’s a disease,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 1992.

Last month, Pride collected the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville, becoming the first black artist to receive the honour since it was created in 2012.

The scaled-down version of the awards took place indoors at the Music City Centre convention hall under jittery circumstances, as several artists dropped out days ahead after testing positive for COVID-19. The Country Music Association said all stars had been tested multiple times for COVID-19 before performing. A request for “No drama, just music,” from the Country Music Association also drew criticism from fans in a year marked by historic protests over racial inequality.

The November 11 national telecast marked Pride’s last performance. Rising black country star Jimmie Allen introduced him, saying, “Here’s the truth, I might never have had a career in country music if it wasn’t for a truly groundbreaking artist who took his best shot and made the best kinda history in our genre.” Then the two sang a duet of Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.

“Well, you might not believe but I’m nervous as can be,” said Pride in his acceptance speech.

Charley Frank Pride was born in Sledge, Mississippi on March 18, 1934. One of 11 children raised by sharecropper parents, Pride sang from an early age, but his first true talent was pitching, fielding and hitting.

As a teenager working on the farm, he dreamed of following Jackie Robinson into major league baseball: “I said, ‘Here’s my way out of the cotton fields,” he told National Public Radio in 2017.

Pride left Mississippi in the 1950s to pitch in the Negro Leagues, eventually playing for teams in Memphis, Idaho, Wisconsin and Birmingham, Alabama, where he and another player were traded in exchange for a team bus, according to Pride’s 1994 autobiography, Pride: The Charley Pride Story, co-written with Jim Henderson.

He aimed for the majors, and even tried out with the California Angels and New York Mets, but injuries kept him out the big leagues. With encouragement from his coaches and from country star Red Foley, Pride launched his music career while still playing baseball. He started out modestly, performing in nightclubs around Montana, where he’d moved to play for the Missoula Timberjacks and where he later worked in construction and at a lead smelting plant.

His big break came in 1965, when he travelled to Nashville and convinced Chet Atkins to sign him to RCA Records. His first single, The Snakes Crawl At Night, flopped. But in 1966, he landed a Top 10 hit and a Grammy nomination with his third single, Just Between You And Me. From that point, his career skyrocketed.

For the next 20 years, Pride racked up hit after hit with songs as diverse as Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta Town, the reggae-style You’re My Jamaica and his chart-topping version of Hank Williams’ Honky Tonk Blues. He won a gospel performance Grammy for his 1971 song Let Me Live.

Critics dubbed his high-sheen country-pop sound “countrypolitan”. But Pride never tried to hide the twang and drawl in his singing voice, and he took great pride in his Southern roots.

“I’m really the epitome of American music, from gospel to blues to country, but country was the music I emulated the most,” he told The News.

In 1967, he became only the second Black musician to appear on the Grand Ole Opry – after harmonica player DeFord Bailey. Two years later, with his career exploding, Pride decided he needed to move from Montana to an area with a larger airport: While he considered heading back to the Deep South, he and his wife Rozene picked Dallas because it seemed more progressive. The couple lived for many years in a sprawling home in North Dallas.

“I grew up in a segregated society, and I didn’t want to subject my three kids to that,” he told The News in 2017. “We picked out what we thought was the best place for the kids, and also for travelling around the world, and you couldn’t find a better place for that than Dallas.”

When Pride started in Nashville, some people struggled with the concept of a Black singer performing what is essentially the music of white Southerners. In a 2017 interview with NPR, Pride recalled a Nashville publicist telling him “You look like them, but you sound like us.”

Yet in most interviews, Pride downplayed the role skin colour played in his career and said he was never jeered or booed by white audiences.

“Whenever I tell writers that, they look at me like they think I’m lying. But why would I lie? I’m a success. It would make a real sensational story if I talked about how this person called me this and that person called me that, but it never happened. Not once,” he told The News.

Pride scored his biggest hit in 1971 with the million-selling Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ , which crossed over to No. 21 on the pop charts and introduced him to a whole new audience. That same year, he won CMA awards for Entertainer of the Year and Top Male Vocalist.

After more than two decades of dominating the charts, Pride parted ways with RCA in the ’80s, and scored his last hit with 1989′s Moody Woman. Like a lot ageing country legends, he spoke out about an industry obsessed with young stars.

“Country music is becoming more like pop music all the time. They play the same 20 records over and over. Here I am, singing better than ever, and I can’t even get a record deal,” he told The News in 1992.

When Pride wasn’t working, he could often be spotted watching the Texas Rangers – he owned a minority interest in the team – and for years, he practiced with the team during spring training. But he never stopped performing. He continued to put out new albums and tour into his 80s.

“When you go onstage and you got a whole audience singing backup to every word of your song, it’s one of those things that gets in your blood,” he told The News in 2017. “You just love it, and it’s hard to stop.”

The Dallas Morning News

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