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Obituaries

Country Legend Charley Pride Dies Of COVID-19 Complications At 86

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Charley Pride, the son of sharecroppers who became one of the greatest country music stars, has died. Pride's website said the cause was complications from the coronavirus. He was 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS AN ANGEL GOOD MORNING")

CHARLEY PRIDE: (Singing) You've got to kiss an angel good morning and let her know you think about her when you're gone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charley Pride was the first African American member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He scored hit after hit on the Billboard Country charts. Pride even got a star on a certain walk in Hollywood. It was a long way from the Mississippi cotton fields, but it was that very childhood that shaped his music. When I spoke to him in 2017, he recalled how his father brought home a radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRIDE: I just got kind of hooked on it. And I bought me a Sears Roebuck guitar and start emulating the singers. And that's - one thing led to another from baseball to segueing into this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You originally wanted to be a Major League Baseball player.

PRIDE: Right. See, when I saw Jackie Robinson go to the major leagues, I'm picking cotton beside my dad. And I said, uh-oh, here's my way out of the cotton field.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charley Pride did make it out as a talented athlete playing for the Memphis Red Sox and other teams in the Negro Leagues. After a break from Army service, Pride made his way to a ball club in Montana where he sometimes sang the national anthem before games. And one night, when some favorite musicians visited, they heard him sing and said, Charley, head to Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRIDE: I went to Nashville. And the guy that was doing public relation for the publishing company that they told me to go to - he come in and heard me. I sang for him. He said, where are you from? I said, I'm from - born and raised in Mississippi, but I live in Montana. Well, how do they take you up there? I said, about the way you doing right now when they see me 'cause, you know, with the pigmentation I have - I mean, I say (yodeling). Oh, you look like them and sound like us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SNAKES CRAWL AT NIGHT")

PRIDE: (Singing) Oh, the snakes crawl at night. That's what they say. When the sun goes down, then the snakes will play.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when you went and auditioned, they said, you sound like us - I guess white and country - but you're Black.

PRIDE: No, they didn't see - let me explain that, too. See, Chet Atkins took the dub - I did a dub for Jack Clement. Chet Atkins took it out to Monterey, Calif., and played it for all the bigwigs there. And he said, how do you like this voice? So they all said, it sounds good. So when he showed the picture and said he was colored, everybody looked at one another. And unanimously, they said, well, we still going to sign him. We ain't going to say nothing about it. And that's the way they did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME")

PRIDE: (Singing) But just between you and me, I've got my doubts about it 'cause just between you and me, you're too much to forget.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you a little bit, since you brought it up, about the fact that you are African American in a genre that is still seen as sort of music for white America in many ways. Do you see it as that way - country music?

PRIDE: No, that's why I'm where I am. I never see nothing but the staunch American Charley Pride. But see, like, when I got into it, about the minute I told you a while ago about you look like them and sound like us - if, say, for instance, like I'm talking to you - they use different description. They'll say, well, Charley, how does it feel to be the Jackie Robinson of country music, or, Charley, how does it feel to be the first colored country singer? How does it feel to be the first Negro country singer? How does it feel to be the first Black country singer?

So it don't bother me other than I'm have - have to explain it to you how I maneuvered around all these obstacles to get to where I am today. So I like to clear that up because - like, I've got a great-grandson and daughter. And they're going to be asking them that, too, if we don't get out of this crutch we all been in all these years of trying to get free of all of that, you see - y'all, them and us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KISS AN ANGEL GOOD MORNING ")

PRIDE: (Singing) Kiss an angel good morning and love her like the devil when you get back home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Musician, singer, icon Charley Pride. He died in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday of complications from the coronavirus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.