NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The family of country music legend Charley Pride is speaking out for the first time since his death.
Some know him as one of the greatest country artists of all time, and the first black member of the County Music Hall of Fame.
“He became the second biggest seller on RCA next to Elvis Presley,” said Peter Cooper with the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Others, know him as a friend, husband, or dad.
“It always has been a rush to watch my dad perform. I looked up there and said wow … that’s my dad,” said his son Dion Pride.
Charley Pride was born on March 18, 1934, in Sledge, Mississippi. He was one of eleven children. He had a passion for both baseball and music. Pride pursued a career in The Negro American League.
“He was a pitcher and a fine hitter. He played in organized baseball for a long part of his young life,” said Peter Cooper, director, producer and writer at the Country Hall of Fame and Museum.
Pride played for the Memphis Red Sox, The Birmingham Black Barons, and the Pioneer League in Montana. At the same time, he performed music on the side.
“He started playing around clubs in Montana and people loved his singing — maybe more than his pitching,” Cooper said.
An injury ended Pride’s baseball career, but another curveball soon followed. Songwriter “Cowboy” Jack Clement became a champion of Pride’s musical talent. He encouraged Chet Atkins of RCA Records to sign Pride, and he did.
“Charley Pride came along at a time of segregation and racial isolation and built bridges,” explained Cooper.
Pride released his first hit song ‘Just Between You and Me’ in 1966. This led him to major stardom. Eventually, Pride recorded more than 50 singles that reached the Top 10 on country music charts.
As Pride rose to success, he never forgot about what mattered most: his family.
“Charley Pride was most concerned with his family, and his wife Rozene was by his side all the time,” said Cooper.
Charley and Rozene had three children together. His kids said their dad never took time with them for granted.
“‘I only get so much time with him. I am not going to waste it.’ He followed through with that,” remembered Dion Pride. “A lot of the times we were together. it was always a learning session in some way, shape, or form. That’s one of the most valuable aspects I am missing right now.”
Dion recalled one of his favorite childhood memories, when his father asked him to come into the kitchen to meet a friend. “I was speechless. All I could do was say ‘you’re… you’re…’ And he said ‘Yes, that’s right I’m Ernie Banks.’” He continued, “If you’re familiar with baseball at all, then you know that’s Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks! He said ‘when I tell you this, I want you to know it’s true. Your dad was a great ballplayer.’”
“I asked my dad, ‘why did you want me to know that?’ He said, ‘because you’re the only one that has always believed and has memories of me playing,” Dion added, “I can remember vividly watching him pitch in Montana. He was very passionate about it.”
Dion said his father’s music and work ethic inspired him.
“Everything my father did, I thought was fabulous. He had a very strict policy within himself that he wanted all of his albums to be potential singles,” said Dion.
At just 5-years-old, Dion decided to follow in Pride’s musical footsteps.
“Dad was my first and still is my first and biggest influence. I started playing my first instrument, which was an acoustic guitar, at five. I started taking classical lessons at eight. By the time I reached 13, I was all in.” Dion emphasized, “There were no eggs in any other basket. I didn’t believe in that and neither did my dad. That would be something he would be most proud of. The imprint he has left on certain people’s lives – mainly mine.”
Dion recalled when he was around 12-years-old he enjoyed playing his dad’s music.
“If anyone asked me to play any songs other than his, it offended me. I was offended, I would tell people I don’t do anybody else’s songs but my dad’s. That’s kind of how I felt about him, still do.”
Dion had the opportunity to tour the world with his father, an experience he said, cannot be matched.
“In Ireland, he started singing ‘Danny Boy’ that is kind of their unofficial Anthem right? After the show was over I was like ‘wow dad, that was so impressive’. He put his mic down and let them sing. They stopped singing, and they said ‘no we are not going to sing unless you sing with us’. I felt levitated off the floor that day because it was so overwhelming to see how people received him as an entertainer and a man.”
Dion said people always ask what his favorite moment in music has been. The answer remains the same. It’s performing alongside his dad.
“I have always told them how much better it could get than performing with someone who is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and not only that, he is your dad,” Dion said proudly. “The main word that comes to mind is just how proud I was of my father. The way he carried himself. One of the biggest things I appreciated about him was just how genuine and honest and forthright he was with his fans.”
In 1971, Pride won The Country Music Associations Entertainer of the Year Award. Pride went on to win several Grammys, and he was the first black member of The Country Music Hall of Fame.
“He did not know he was going into the Hall of Fame that day, but when Brenda Lee announced that he was he wept. He said that to be a part of this family in country music was the most meaningful thing to him. He could not believe his plaque was going to be on a wall with those people that he so admired and changed his life,” explained Cooper.
In November of 2020, Pride went to the Country Music Awards in Nashville to accept The Lifetime Achievement Award. He performed ‘Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’. At the time, no one knew that would be the last song he would perform.
Shortly after, Pride’s health took a turn. “They were not sure if it was COVID or not. They were treating him for pneumonia. My mother had a (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) specialist came in and they said ‘no that was COVID,’” said Dion.
Pride was admitted to the ICU. “I am happy for my mother, she was allowed to be there before he lost his faculties – as long as they have been married. If there was anyone I wanted to be there, then it was her.”
Charley and Rozene’s 64th anniversary would have been Dec. 28 this past year.
“The toughest part was not getting to see him when he was coherent. That was so hard because I could not have a conversation with him. I sat with him through his last days in the hospital and all of the days when he was in hospice. It was tough to see such a strong man labor and suffer the way he did. It made me angry.”
Dion told NewsNation affiliate WKRN it all happened so quickly. “It was exactly a month to the day he got home and a month later, December 12, we are laying him to rest. It was all so sudden.”
Charley Pride passed away in Dallas, Texas at 86-years-old due to COVID-19 complications. Dion said it was difficult to get on stage again.
“The shows I did in January Alex, the first show I had two shows, the first show I spent the first three songs crying as a tribute to him. It was pretty tough. But the second show was euphoric because it felt more like a celebration of him and his music. And of course, the crowd was a big help in getting me through that too because they just showed their appreciation for him.”
And Music City felt the family’s pain.
“People were crestfallen because of his example and his artistry, because of his personality and his humanity. It also came at the end of a year of loss and struggle and hurt. That goes for the music industry and far beyond,” said Cooper.
Dion said although he felt cheated by the way his dad died, he looks upon their relationship with only a smile.
“The one thing I always feared was that if he passed like he did before I was ready for it. I wonder if there would be any regrets. Zero. That tells me we lived a full life together. We always told each other we loved each other. It was always that,” Dion recalled.
Dion said he is working on a tribute to his father.
“It got put on hold naturally with what happened because I just could not do anything for quite a while, but I am really proud of what I’ve laid down so far.”
“I’m proud at this point when I look in the mirror because I can see him. I can see him. I think that’s a great thing for me it is for my healing it is to look in a mirror and see him. Our last conversations that we had were just like the ones I had in grade school or high school. I always walked away from talking with my father with some new wisdom, new knowledge.”
“He was such a great father and a really great man. I always told people that I never had to go past my front door for a role-model.”