Dickie Pride died on March 26, 1969 as a result of an overdose of sleeping pills. At the time of death he was 27 years and 156 days old. Pride’s story is a tragic tale of a promising but unsuccessful career cut short, followed by a descent into drug use and possibly mental illness. He was one of the first British rockers to die of a drug overdose, and an early member of the forever 27 club, as well as a great rock and roll singer and a true showman.
He was born in south London in 1941 with the given name of Richard Knellar. As a child he demonstrated a fine singing voice and a penchant for appearing in public. At the age of 8 he was performing in benefits and other community events. As he grew up his talent was recognized and he received a scholarship to the Royal College of Church Music in Croydon. There his instructors believed he would be an operatic singer when he came of age, and he sang in the cathedral for the Archbishop of Canterbury. But he was interested in youth culture and got involved in a skiffle band at the same time he was singing in church.
Richard had begun working a series of menial jobs after leaving school, putting off going to University and singing in local pubs. He was discovered doing just that by one Russ Conway, who reported his find to his friend and business partner Larry Parnes. Parnes heard Richard sing and immediately saw his potential – he had a real voice, ans was good-looking besides. He signed Richard to a contract and he became a member of the Parnes stable of rock and roll singers.
Larry Parnes was a manager, entrepreneur, impresario, and an openly gay man in the promotional business. He had discovered that by finding a handsome young man who could sing and swivel his hips, he could make money by putting them on the road and recording them. His first attempt at this process was with Tommy Steele in 1956. He had moderate success with Steele, and decided to try it again. Ultimately, during the pre-Beatles era he was managing such famous and semi-famous performers as Billy Fury (one of the more well-known singers), Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Lance Fortune, Duffy Power, Johnny Gentle, and Georgie Fame (lhe had a couple of big hits after Parnes, later becoming a session musician, still active in the business). His method was to change his acts’ name to something obviously more flamboyant and theatrical, then start them to work making money for him. He took Richard Kneller and turned him into Dickie Pride. In addition to his stable of rockers, Parnes has entered rock history because he allegedly turned down a management contract with the Silver Beatles (later just The Beatles, of course) because he only wanted solo singers. The Silver Beatles were the backing band for one of Parnes’ acts, Johnny Gentle, on a short tour.
At the tender age of 17, Dickie Pride started performing on stage all over England. Reviews of his shows were almost universally full of praise, both for his voice and his sense of showmanship – he was a natural in front of an audience. He was making a good salary, at least 4 times what he would have been getting for a regular job, and he apparently enjoyed his work. Parnes was able to parlay his reputation as a live performer into a contract with Columbia Records, and a string of promotional appearances on British TV soon followed. But his recordings never really made the grade, mostly due to a big problem Parnes had with all of his boys – they didn’t have any hit songs to sing. There was only so much local gigging they could do, and his minor successes couldn’t make up for a general sense of failure after a time. Parnes was also prone to breaking contracts and not following through with his promises, especially if his grooming didn’t result in profits.
Dickie Pride was admired by other singers for his talent, but feared for his personality. He was apparently capable of using his fists at a moment’s notice, and started drinking and smoking dope at an early age. He would jump into the audience to fight a heckler without hesitation, yet he was reportedly kind and friendly when not drunk or stoned. By 1961, his career was all but over. He tried an album of standards for the label which tanked, and he was dropped after that by Columbia, and then by Parnes.
He was married in 1962 and found he could not make a living by singing, so he took up menial labor again. He attempted to start a band in 1963, but the group was short-lived. He and his wife were blessed with a son in 1965, and Dickie had started performing with a group known as the Sidewinders. Unfortunately, he was able to feed his need for addiction, and became a heroin user. After a slow fall into depression and a family break-up, he was committed to a mental hospital in 1967. His doctors decided that what he needed was a lobotomy, and performed the operation. He was released and once again tried to make a living as a singer, but failed. He was discovered in his bed in 1969, dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. Pride’s surviving stable mates and industry friends all have gone on record saying that he should have been a star, that he was the best singer of them all. His story was made into a play in 1999 called “Pride With Prejudice,” written by Charles Langley.