Charley Pride was the first Black superstar of country music. He grew up in abject poverty and wanted to be a professional baseball player. He had the talent, but an elbow injury at age 24 cut short his baseball pitching career. To make enough money to feed his family, he started singing at baseball games, night clubs and social events. He became so successful that he sold 70 million RCA records, second only to Elvis Presley, and had 43 number-one country singles and 52 top-10 records on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. He was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and in 2000 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He had several medical problems, and on December 12, 2020, at age 86, he died from complications of COVID-19.
Early Life, Baseball and Country Music
Pride was born at the height of the depression in 1934, in Sledge, Mississippi, the fourth of 11 children of poor sharecroppers. His father loved music and exposed his children to blues, gospel and country music. The family listened regularly to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM-AM radio. At age 14, Pride received his first guitar from his mother, and he taught himself how to play it while he sang songs that he heard on the radio.
His first love was baseball and at age 18, he was a pitcher for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. A year later he joined the Boise Yankees, a farm team of the New York Yankees, but he suffered from frequent injuries. He also had tryouts with the Los Angeles Angels and New York Mets. At age 22, he was drafted to serve in the army, where he helped his Fort Carlson team win the All Army baseball championship. At age 24 he was discharged from the army and tried again to play professional baseball, but repeated arm injuries hindered his career. He received a call from the Missoula Timberjacks, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, to come to Missoula, Montana. He mortgaged his home furniture, borrowed $400, left $200 for his wife in Memphis, took $200 for himself and headed to Missoula, but repeated arm injuries ended his quest for a professional baseball career. At age 26, he was laid off by the Timberjacks and moved to Helena, Montana to pitch for the a local baseball team called the East Helena Smelterites. The team had little money so he also worked at the local Asarco Lead Smelter Company and the team paid him to sing before each baseball game. He was now receiving $10 per game for playing and $10 per game for singing. However, his job required that he shovel coal from railroad cars into a 2,400F furnace. He was burnt frequently and broke his ankle.
His paid singing performances earned him enough money to have his wife and son join him in Helena, and he bought their first home. In 1966, at age 34, he got his first record contract with RCA and the next year he was making enough money from his musical performances to move to Texas. From 1969 to 1971 he produced eight singles that were number one on the US Country Hit Parade: All I Have to Offer You Is Me, I’m So Afraid of Losing You Again, I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me, I’d Rather Love You, Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone, Wonder Could I Live There Anymore, I’m Just Me, and Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’. He continued to make records and give sold-out concerts, and he remained a serious baseball fan and became an owner of the Texas Rangers major league team.
Pride wrote in his 1994 autobiography that at age 34 he suffered bouts of paranoia, insomnia and confusion while entertaining military troops in Germany. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with manic depression. Some days he felt that he was better than everyone else, and on other days he was so depressed that he couldn’t get out of bed. He did smoke and drink in his early days, but gave those habits up years ago. At age 60, he was diagnosed with a squamous cell cancer of his vocal cords and was unable to talk or sing. Surgery saved both his singing career and his life. After eight weeks of recovering from surgery, he was back on a concert tour.
His last public performance was at the Country Music of America (CMA) Awards in Nashville on Nov. 11, 2020, where he was awarded the CMA Lifetime Achievement Award. He died from complications of COVID-19 one month later, on December 12, 2020. We have no information on where he contracted the virus or why he died from it, but the people most likely to suffer severe complications from COVID-19 are those with damaged lungs or immune defects in which their immunity is unable to fight off the virus. Some of the conditions that are known to increase risk for complications and death are listed below.
Who Is Most Likely to Die From COVID-19?
Many people become infected with COVID-19 and recover without even having any symptoms. If you are healthy and have a strong immune system, your lymphocytes and cytokines may be able to kill the virus, so you recover and become immune so you will not be reinfected. At this time, scientists have no idea how long your immunity will protect you from a future COVID-19 infection. However, some of the people who were infected with a similar virus called SARS-CoV-1 in 2003 still have immune protection from that virus 17 years later (Nature, July 15, 2020;584:457–462).
The risk of death is higher in people over age 65 (31 percent of cases, 45 percent of hospitalizations, 53 percent of ICU admissions, and 80 percent of deaths). You are at increased risk for death if you suffer from:
• Lung disease. COVID-19 enters the lungs and can kill people by filling up the lungs with mucus. People with any kind of lung disease or damage are unusually susceptible to this buildup of lung mucus. Smoking and exposure to second hand smoke are the most common causes of lung damage.
• Diseases that affect your immune system, such as cancers, anemia, or bone marrow damage, which interfere with your ability to fight infections.
• Diabetes. High rises in blood sugar can cause sugar to stick to and destroy cells, particularly in immune cells that protect you from infections.
• Heart and blood vessel disease. COVID-19 can kill by sending a person into heart failure. Any heart damage increases risk for this side effect.
• Liver or kidney damage. Your liver and kidneys are necessary to protect you from infections.
• Bleeding or clotting defects.
• Taking drugs that suppress your immune system for any reason.
• Nerve damage disorders. Any disease that affects nerves in your body can interfere with your ability to fight infections.
• Other chronic diseases.
• Obesity. Being obese reduces immunity.
• High blood pressure. A hormone called angiotensin constricts arteries and too much of that hormone can cause high blood pressure. Angiotensin constricts arteries by acting on special ACE2 receptors located in organs such as heart and lungs. People who have high blood pressure usually have increased numbers of ACE2 receptors in their hearts, lungs and other organs. COVID-19 enter the lungs and heart through these receptors, so the virus can kill some people by entering their lungs and heart in large numbers to cause lung damage and heart failure. We do not know whether drugs used to treat high blood pressure by blocking the effects of angiotensin (ACE inhibitors and ARBs) increase susceptibility to COVID-19, but at this time, people taking these drugs are being advised to continue taking them.
There are more deaths from COVID-19 in men than in women, for reasons we do not fully understand. Some of the genes responsible for a person’s immune response are found on the X chromosome, and women have two X chromosomes while men have only one.
Are Musicians at Particular Risk for COVID-19 Complications?
I reported in April 2020 that many musicians had died from COVID-19: Joe Diffie, Adam Schlesinger, Ellis Marsalis Jr., John Prine, Manu Dibango, Alan Merrill, Wallace Roney, Cristina Monet-Palaci, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Mike Longo. Since that report we have also lost Tommy DeVito, Bruce Williamson, Sterling Magee, Trini Lopez, Dobby Dobson, Dave Greenfield, Bootsie Barnes, Lee Konitz and Henry Grimes, and now Charley Pride.
In that report, I speculated that musicians might have a higher-than-average risk for serious complications from COVID-19 because they typically spend their lives performing in environments full of smoke that damages their lungs, and often have other lifestyle factors that increase their risk for diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, or lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with these conditions are among the ones most likely to die from COVID-19.
In Memory of Charley Pride
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue until we have herd immunity, when about 80 percent of the population is immune, which should occur within a year or two now that widespread distribution of effective vaccines has begun. We do not yet know how long the vaccines will protect people, and whether vaccination will be needed just once or more often, as with yearly flu vaccines. See Should You Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?
Charley Frank Pride
March 18, 1934 – December 12, 2020