Charley Pride needs no preamble.
The Southern-born, country music personality has lived the life of a legend; his prelude to fame stamped with a Montana pedigree.
When he performs at the Red Ants Pants Festival in White Sulphur Springs on July 27, it’s nothing less than a true homecoming.
“We spent seven and a half years in Helena, and then two and a half years in Great Falls,” said Pride. “It was about a month short total of 10 years in Montana. I believe it was from April of 1960, to when we left in 1969. My two youngest were born up there. I’m blessed with a good memory, going back 50 years.”
Pride was born March 18, 1938, on a sharecropping cotton farm, in Sledge, Mississippi.
“I was born 54 miles from Memphis,” said Pride. “They put a marker in my hometown. There were eight boys, three girls, and nine of us are left, we lost two. Back then, there was nothing for 500 miles around when I was born, just out in the woods. That house is now gone.”
At age 14, Pride purchased a guitar from a Sears Roebuck catalog and taught himself the riffs he heard on country music radio.
Music, however, took a backseat to his dream of becoming the greatest professional baseball player that ever lived.
In 1952, Pride pitched for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. One year later, he signed a contract with the Boise Yankees, the Class C farm team of the New York Yankees. Pride pitched for several other minor league teams in the Negro Leagues throughout the mid-1950s, before serving two years in the U.S. Army.
Following service, he returned to baseball. After three games with the Missoula Timberjacks of the Pioneer League, in 1960, he was released.
Dejected, Pride followed a tip that there were a couple of semi-pro teams in Helena. He immediately found work at construction sites.
“We put down sidewalks and things like that,” said Pride. “I helped a man named Oscar Jones. That was my first job.”
Within days of his arrival, postmaster and baseball manager Kes Rigler showed up at Pride’s YMCA room and offered him a chance to play for the East Helena Smelterites and also a job at the American Smelting and Refining Co., or ASARCO.
Pride was a pitcher and outfielder on the Smelterite team and batted a State Copper league high .444 in his first season.
Realizing that Helena could turn into a long-term residence, Pride made arrangements for his wife – in 1958, he married Rozene Cohran while playing baseball in Memphis – and young son to join him.
Charley and Rozene lived in Helena from 1960 to 1967. They first rented an apartment on Fifth Street and then at 825 Madison Ave., Apartment No. 1. Rozene worked as a technician at the Hawkins-Lindstrom Clinic in Helena.
At 76, Pride’s memories of the dust and danger of the smelter linger. He once broke his ankle on a slope of craggy pocketing, and, years after he left, he heard rumors that one of the men he’d worked alongside burned to death on the job.
“I would unload the cars, and I’d send the coal up to feed down into the furnace,” said Pride. “It was 2,400 degrees. It would get the nickel and gold out of the slag, and process the zinc out of it. My job was to keep the mouth of the furnace open, so it could breathe. When you were done tapping the slag out of the furnace, you would take it to the hill and dump it. You wore glasses, and it would fry your skin. You would still get just a little bit on you, it would hit you on the arm, or up above the glove.”
“I would be keeping the mouth open so it could breathe, had a 3-, 4-inch rigger. You slosh it into the mouth, but if it gets cold, it will block the furnace mouth. So you’ve got to keep it breathing.”
While living in Helena, Pride earned tryouts for the California Angels (1961) and New York Mets (1965), but they declined to sign him.
Pride then turned to playing more in the local bars and entertained at a number of ASARCO picnics held at McClellan Creek.
“I would work at the smelter, work the swing shift and then play music,” said Pride. “I’d work 11-7. Drive. Play Friday. Punch in. Drive. Polson. Philipsburg.”
The Night Hawks
After work, Charley played at various saloons and pubs, frequently solo, and other times as part of a four-piece combo called the Night Hawks.
“The Night Hawks lasted until I started singing on my own. Everything segued into the record and all that. We always had a good crowd. My waistline then was a 32, but I wouldn’t be able to get into them outfits now. I wasn’t too good of a guitar player, but I always could sing. I still don’t pick worth a hoot.”
The Prides settled at 638 Peosta, a few blocks west of Carroll College. Two of Pride’s three children were born in that house (his oldest son was born in Colorado when he was in the Army.)
On March 23, 1962, a son, Dion, entered the world, and, later, on April 18, 1965, Angela arrived. Both were born at St. Peter’s Hospital.
“They are both Aries signs,” said Pride. “My boy is named after Dion and the Belmonts.”
“We paid $7,500 bucks for it back in those days,” said Pride. “We loved it. I never forget it. I hope it never goes away. That was one of the most proud moments of my life. I never wanted to pay rent, it never ends.”
“The Snakes Crawl at Night”
Chet Atkins at RCA heard a demo tape of Pride’s and signed the vocalist in 1966. Later that year, Pride’s debut single, “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” was released.
“I always hear a rumor that there was no photograph because I was black,” said Pride. “But that’s not true. My biggest problem was that promoters were afraid to bring me in. But people didn’t care if I was pink. RCA signed me, and all of the bigwigs, they knew I was colored, but unanimously, they decided that we are still going to sign him. They decided to put the record out and let it speak for itself.”
Released at the end of 1966, “Just Between You and Me” began a streak of successful singles that eventually led Pride into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Only Elvis Presley sold more records for RCA.
In the mid-1960s, Pride’s engagements and bookings flourished.
“I started recording in Helena, but I couldn’t get to a plane fast enough,” said Pride. “I needed a place to fly to and from my dates, so we moved to Great Falls. In Great Falls, I still sang. I got a job on 10th Avenue South at a club, and put a band together.”
Before he moved north, Pride and ASARCO parted ways, amicably.
“I was there for five years,” said Pride. “I had taken all of the leave of absence I could take to sing. The superintendent said, ‘Until you are 45, you have a job here. You are leaving the right way.’ ”
Pride befriended a Great Falls businessman and native Texan named Louis Allen “Al” Donohue – who is often credited with giving Pride his start. Donohue was the majority owner of the Heritage Inn and the Budget Inn and co-owned KMON and KNUW radio stations.
“We became very good friends,” said Pride. “He was the very first one to play my record in Montana, and we were friends up until the end. The label began mailing it out – sending the record to different stations, and I took mine to Great Falls.”
Pride said that he and his wife returned a few years ago to Great Falls, and while looking at their former rental house, they bumped into the present owner.
“We pulled up and there was the fellow who was living there now, he was getting ready to back out,” said Pride. “We didn’t move, so he would have to get out and say something. I said, ‘I want my house back,’ and laughed. He took us through the house again.”
Decade in Montana
Reflecting on the 1960s, Pride remembers only the good, the formative days and friendships, the hard work and hope of tomorrow.
“Montana is a very conservative state,” said Pride. “I stood out like a neon. But once they let you in, you become a Montanan. When the rumor was that I was leaving, they kept saying, ‘we will let you in, you can’t leave.’
“We never did go fishing, hiking, or hunting,” added Pride. “We did go out to Canyon Ferry sometimes and hang out. My wife bowled with a lot of different people there. There are some who probably remember us.”
Occasionally, Pride drops in on his old town and residence. When the UBC store in Helena was built in 1982, Charley attended the grand opening. He took photos of the house in 2005.
Living in Dallas, Texas, Pride – who is involved in theater, banking, real estate, and is part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team – has absolutely no gripes about the status of his health or future.
“I had a few operations on my right vocal cord,” said Pride. “But I’m pretty well in good shape. I just did my blood pressure. I’ve got a 29-year-old heartbeat. And the fans say I’m singing better now than ever.”
Decades and millions of miles haven’t dislodged Pride’s recollections of Montana – or his undeviating affection for the people, towns, and cities where he literally found his rhythm and, perhaps most importantly, made a family.
“I will always think of that house on Peosta when I think of your state,” said Pride. “That was our little darling. Always love seeing it.”
Brian D’Ambrosio is a freelance writer based in Missoula.