Born: March 18, 1934:

Died: December 12, 2020.

CHARLEY Pride, who has died aged 86 from complications of Covid-19, was a country singer who broke the mould several times over. His honey-sweet, easy-going voice on deep-fried classics such as Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ and Crystal Chandelier saw him sell millions of records and become successful all over the world. He released more than 50 albums, and scored 29 No.1’s in the Country music chart. During his 3- years with the RCA label, only Elvis Presley sold more records than he did.

As a black artist operating within what has historically been a predominantly white genre, his talents came to the fore during an era of institutionalised racism, and his early records were issued without a picture of him. He was only the second artist of colour to become a member of the home of country royalty, the Grand Ole Opry.

He wore such pioneering as gently as his records. Having played for every US president who reached office during his career other than the current one, he was also a pillar of understated diplomacy. In the run-up to the 1984 election, he performed for the sitting president, Ronald Reagan, and his Democrat rival, Walter Mondale.

He became a hero in Northern Ireland when he played Belfast in 1976. With the city torn by the Troubles, visits by touring artists were unofficially off-limits. Playing to an audience from both sides of the political divide, his brand of unity opened the door for other artists to play there. It also resulted in the UK release of Crystal Chandelier as a single. Recorded by Pride in 1967, Ted Harris’ song became a bar-room staple for all-comers.

Charley Frank Pride was born in Sledge, Mississippi, USA, the fourth of 11 children to sharecroppers Tessie (nee Stewart) and Mack Pride Snr. They had intended to name their son Charl, but a clerical error on the birth certificate picked it up wrongly. Under his father’s influence – he saw the blues as unsavoury – Pride turned to the music of Hank Williams and other country stars, and. aged 14, bought a $10 guitar from money earned picking cotton.

Despite his love of music, Pride had ambitions to become a baseball player. Under the auspices of the Negro American League, he pitched for the Memphis Red Sox, and signed with the Boise Yankees, before injury saw him play with increasingly minor teams. He continued playing after being drafted into the army in 1956, and pursued a professional career before moving into construction work in Montana in 1960.

While pitching for the semi-professional East Helena Smelterites, his singing ability was spotted by the team manager, who paid him extra to sing for fifteen minutes before each game. Pride also played local gigs, both solo and with a band called The Night Hawks. A demo by Pride was heard by Chet Atkins, who signed him to what was then RCA Victor.

Initially billed as Country Charley Pride, his first single, Snakes Crawl at Night (1966) did reasonably well, but it wasn’t until his third release, Just Between You and Me (1966) that he made a breakthrough into the country chart for the first time. The same year, he played his first big show in Detroit to an audience of 10,000, and Just Between Me and You was nominated for a Grammy.

By now resident in Dallas, between 1969 and 1971, Pride had eight country number 1’s. Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ (1971), crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100, and became one of his defining numbers as he helped take country into the mainstream. A succession of hits and awards followed over the next three decades, his easy-going professionalism accompanying what by now was regarded as one of the greatest voices in country.

Outside music, he invested in real estate, music publishing and a talent agency. He channelled his love of baseball into becoming part-owner of the Texas Rangers. In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2003, a 33- mile stretch of Mississippi Highway 3, running from Pride’s hometown of Sledge to Tutwiler in Tallahatchie County, was named Charley Pride Highway. The honour was symbolic of just how big a road Pride had travelled beyond his sharecropper roots.

This was epitomised even more in 2008, when Pride, his brother Mack and 28 other surviving veterans of the Negro American League became honorary draftees of the 30 current teams in Major League Baseball.

In 2017, Pride received a Grammy lifetime achievement award. His final public appearance came in November at a Country Music Association awards ceremony, where he sang Kiss an Angel with contemporary country singer Jimmie Allen. The same night, he was honoured with the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I’m in the business of selling lyrics, feelings and emotions,” Pride said in a BBC radio interview in 2019. “I bring all those three together. When I go in a studio I wanna’ do the best job I can, and then, when I go out on stage, I want to do it even better.”

Asked by the Evening Times in 2004 whether he ever tired of the country music scene, he responded: “Never. Like my love for golf and baseball, my love for music will never leave me. Look at men like George Burns and Bob Hope – they were still telling jokes as they drew their last breath. There’s something special about performing music. I still get as excited about getting onstage now as I did the first time I strummed my guitar on my baseball team’s bus”.

Pride is survived by Rozene; their two sons, Carlton and Dion; their daughter, Angela; four brothers and sisters; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.