by Merle Travis Peterson
My dad saw Charley Pride play at the J-Bar-T in Great Falls in 1968. I asked my dad, “How was he?” And he said, “He was as good then as he ever was!”
“They lived across the park from us when you were born. They (The Pride family) were really nice people and everyone really liked them.” said my mother.
All my life I had heard stories about Charley Pride. Charley Pride used to play here. Charley Pride used to work here, drink here, eat here. An old man one night at the Flamingo Bar told me, “Once I gave him a ride home, all the way to Helena.” He came with the Air Force, some would say. Others said he came to play semi pro baseball, and others said he used to work at the Smelter.
My dad’s uncle, Frank Vukasin owned the Cimarron Bar, and his son, Ronnie used to play drums in the house band. Ronnie once told me Charley would come in with his guitar, quietly, shyly and sit and listen, and when the band was on break, he would politely ask the band to sit in. Then he proceeded to blow everybody away with how good he was. Ronnie told me he was always really, really good, from the first time he sat in.
Charley Pride recorded his first single in Great Falls with local musicians, or at least that’s the story. ‘The Snakes Crawl at Night’ was a demo recording that was sent to Nashville, and was pressed and released as is, meaning they didn’t feel they needed to rerecord, remix or sweeten up in any way. This allegedly led to some bitterness and animosity toward Charley from the local Great Falls musicians who had worked with him and played on the recording. They all knew Charley was going to make it and they wanted to go with him. They would ask, “Are you gonna take us with ya Charley?” and Charley would say, “Yeah, I’m gonna take you all with me.” But when Charley made it, he left for Nashville and didn’t bring the band. Knowing a bit about the music business myself, clearly Charley couldn’t bring the local band. He didn’t have to. The best musicians in the world are in Nashville and Charley was lucky to be getting any kind of break. Charley couldn’t have brought his own band. RCA wanted Charley Pride but Charley was in no position to make demands of the record company and say I want to use my own band.
As a kid I often wondered, how does the first black country singer, and one of the greatest country singers of all time come from Great Falls? How is that possible? Knowing a bit about history, I also realized that this happened right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. I used to wonder how something like this could happen in Great Falls but I’ve come to realize that Great Falls, Helena, Missoula and Montana in general may have been the only place this could have happened.
Charley Pride is the second highest grossing artist of all time for RCA, second only to Elvis Presley. He recorded 30 #1 Hits and had 52 Top Ten singles. He was born in Sledge, Mississippi in 1934. In 1960, after getting out of the Army, Charley Pride went to Missoula, Montana to play baseball for the Missoula Timberjacks. When he was dropped from the team, he moved to Helena to work labor at the East Helena Smelter, loading coal into a burning furnace and pitching for their baseball team, The Smelterites. When the team manager heard him sing, he started paying him an extra $10 a week to sing for 15 minutes before every game. He joined a local band called The Night Hawks. They played around Helena and Great Falls. With the smelter job and his growing music career Charley started to make a good living. He was able to move his wife and young family up from Memphis to Helena where he had bought a house.
In 1967, he moved with his family to Great Falls. Great Falls, at the time was said to have the best night life in Montana and people would come from far and wide to listen to music, drink and dance in the dozens of bars and night clubs the town had at the time. Charley’s music career had been taking off, and Great Falls had an airport allowing him to leave on weekends and play shows all over the country.
“Al Donahue made Charley Pride!” or at least that’s what my dad said. Al owned the Heritage Inn and KMON Radio, where I worked in high school. My parents were friends with the Donahues. I remember being at their house. The basement was like a movie theater. I watched the first Star Trek movie on Laser Disk with my little brother while my folks visited the Donahues upstairs. For those that don’t know, a Laser Disk is like a CD, but they were as big as LP records. You had to be rich to own that kind of technology in the early 80s and Al Donahue was rich. He financed Charley’s first demo, ‘The Snakes Crawl at Night’, and he introduced Charley to Red Sovine, a country singer, popular at the time with some big hits (‘Teddy Bear’), who was playing in Helena. Donahue talked Sovine into listening to Charley sing back stage. Sovine wasn’t really interested and he thought it was a joke until Charley started to sing. Red was shocked and really impressed. He introduced Charley to an agent in Nashville who introduced Charley to Faron Young (‘Hello Walls’), who introduced Charley to Chet Atkins, who signed him to RCA.
He stayed in Great Falls for a few more years, flying out from the airport on weekends and making appearances all over the country. After he had about five big radio hits under his belt, he moved to Nashville and became the best-selling Country Artist of the 1970s. Charley Pride now lives in Texas and still plays about 45 shows a year.
People liked Charley and he became one of us. By that I mean a Montanan. If you can deal with the cold winters and the hard work and the wind, and you can take or make a light hearted joke now and then, you can be one of us. When Charley sang for the folks in Montana, he sang songs they knew and played the kind of music they liked. He played country music because that’s what people liked, and that’s what Charley liked. By doing that he made a connection with the people. And people thought he was cool because it seemed like he was doing this for them as a gesture of friendship, bringing people together, disarming them with a self-deprecating joke about his sun-tan, then singing songs everyone knew and sang along with. He built a bridge to his audience through his kindness.
“He was the nicest guy in the world!” I’ve heard that said many times about Charley Pride. Unlike the other legends of country music, there are no stories of Charley raising any kind of hell. No drunken drug fueled benders, no groupies, no cheating, no wrecked cars, no missed shows, nothing in his wake but stories of his kindness and professionalism. He couldn’t afford to act like Johnny Cash. He wouldn’t get away with it and get a pass the way Johnny Cash did. He had to be a pro at all times. If he made one mistake it would be over for him. Fortunately, Charley Pride had no problem being good.
At their most critical, some who met him have said he was defensive at times and very guarded with his privacy. I would argue he had to be. If it seemed he always had his guard up and was on the defense, even after the battle had long been won, I can understand that. He was the first black country singer. That had to be quite a battle. Still everyone who ever met him said he is a kind and gentle man. One thing I have heard is that Charley Pride does not like loud bass through the sound system. He does not like sub woofers and the sound men have to turn it down or off completely or he will throw a fit. That is the worst thing anyone has to say about him. He hates loud bass.
When you look up outlaw country singers, the list won’t include Charley Pride but I think it should. He is one of the greatest country singers of all time. In a perfect world it shouldn’t matter that he is black, but our world is far from perfect, and Charley Pride, as a black man, faced a great deal of racism when he left Montana and toured around America playing country music. He handled it with dignity and grace and in that way, I think he is the ultimate outlaw. “I always have a smiling face. Any time and any place …” Sometimes the most outlaw thing you can do is be nice.
Looking Ahead: Charley Pride has a rescheduled date to play October 8th at the Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights, WA.
Info & tickets available at https://bit.ly/31OleZ6 .