Charley Pride, the first true Black superstar in the predominantly white world of country music, died on Saturday, December 12th due to COVID-19 complications. He was 86 years old.

As a representative from Pride’s camp noted in the death announcement on the artist’s social media, “It is with great sadness that we confirm that Charley Pride passed away this morning, Saturday, December 12, 2020, in Dallas, Texas of complications from Covid-19 at age 86. He was admitted to the hospital in late November with Covid-19 type symptoms and despite the incredible efforts, skill and care of his medical team over the past several weeks, he was unable to overcome the virus.” In lieu of flowers, Prides family asked for donations to The Pride Scholarship at Jesuit College Preparatory School, St. Philips School and Community Center, The Food Bank, or the charity of your choice.

Pride’s career began during the 1960s amid widespread racial unrest. Despite that fact, Charley Pride went on to become one of the most successful artists in the history of the genre, landing 52 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Top 10 from 1966 to 1987, 29 of which made their way to the top spot. Pride was one of three Black members of Nashville country music institution, the Grand Ole Opry, alongside Darius Rucker and DeFord Bailey.

As the New York Times notes, “At RCA, the label for which he recorded for three decades, Mr. Pride was second only to Elvis Presley in record sales. In the process he emerged as an inspiration to generations of performers, from the Black country hitmaker Darius Rucker … to white inheritors like Alan Jackson, who included a version of [Pride’s ‘Kiss an Angel Good Mornin”] on his 1999 album, Under the Influence.”

Prior to pursuing a music career, Charley Pride played professional baseball for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League and, later, for various Major League Baseball minor league outfits. His professional baseball dreams were put on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956. While he continued to play for various MLB farm teams after being discharged in 1958, his skills as a singer began to outshine his abilities as a pitcher. While playing for the semi-pro squad in Montana, East Helena Smelterites, and working at the local Asarco lead smelter, Pride’s singing caught the attention of the team’s manager, who hired him to sing for 15 minutes before each game.

Pride’s final live performance came just a few weeks ago during November’s 54th annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, during which he was honored with the organization’s highest recognition, the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.

While the event was downsized from its usual home at Bridgestone Arena, the 2020 CMA Awards caught widespread flack for going on in-person in the midst of the biggest spike in new COVID-19 cases the country and the state of Tennessee has experienced thus far, unlike other recent awards shows in Nashville like the Americana Honors & Awards (canceled) and the ACM Awards (virtual).

Citing the potentially risky event and the timeline from that night through Pride’s death on Saturday, artists and fans alike were quick to theorize that the singer may have contracted the virus during the event.

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The CMA released a statement regarding its testing protocols, noting, “Everyone affiliated with the CMA Awards followed strict testing protocols outlined by the city health department and unions. Charley was tested prior to traveling to Nashville. He was tested upon landing in Nashville, and again on show day, with all tests coming back negative. After returning to Texas following the CMA Awards, Charley again tested negative multiple times. All of us in the Country Music community are heartbroken by Charley’s passing. Out of respect for his family during their grieving period, we will not be commenting on this further.”

Watch Charley Pride deliver his final performance—a duet with Jimmi Allen on “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'”—at the 2020 CMA Awards below:

Charley Pride & Jimmie Allen – “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'” – CMA Awards 2020

[Video: CMAVEVO]

In the days since Pride’s death, countless members of the country music community have honored the late artist. As Mickey Lamantia noted, “In many ways his contribution to Country Music was equally important to that of Jackie Robinson (Baseball) and Jim Brown (Football)! Country Music is better today because of him and his God Given Talent.”

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Added Dolly Parton, “I’m so heartbroken that one of my dearest and oldest friends, Charley Pride, has passed away. It’s even worse to know that he passed away from COVID-19. What a horrible, horrible virus. Charley, we will always love you.”