January 2018 became another benchmark chapter in Helena’s history with the commencement of the inaugural term of Mayor Wilmot Collins. This is memorable because Mayor Collins is the first black person to serve as Helena’s mayor since our city became incorporated.
With the justified attention given to Mayor Collins' story, another event that occurred in Helena more than 50 years ago generates a parallel story.
Helena’s musical scene of the 1950s and 1960s featured a variety of music. The classical sounds of the Helena Symphony coupled with the various popular musical styles of this period provided Helena with a mixture of live music, including country.
Country music is arguably one of the more indigenous forms of American music. Over the years country music has been, and continues to be, dominated by white performers. One exception to this equation is Charley Pride -- a black country music performer who, to a certain extent, honed his musical career in Helena.
Pride merits the distinction given him as one of the few black musicians to break into the sphere of country music. His eventual ascension to the pinnacle of country music fame during the 1960s, '70s and '80s is nothing short of an amazing feat. Testament to some of his more notable accomplishments are his being one of the first three black musicians to gain membership into the Grand Ole Opry (Deford Bailey and Darious Rucker are the other two) coupled with his subsequent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The chronology of Pride’s musical career is a fascinating study, examining his commitment to become a major league baseball player, which initially superseded his desire to pursue a career as a professional musician.
Pride's penchant for baseball led to a series of semi-pro baseball team engagements, ultimately leading to his arrival in Helena to play for the then East Helena Smelterites. The terms involved in this arrangement included not only playing baseball, but securing an accompanying decent-paying job at ASARCO -- terms that were appealing to this young man from Mississippi who had a family to support.
It was during his tenure with the Smelterites that Pride's musical career took an interesting turn based on his distinctive baritone voice. He was asked to sing at the Smelterites games, resulting in more-than-casual approval from the crowd. Pride had actually started performing music back in 1958 before arriving in Helena. Nonetheless, his trajectory through the world of professional music was fomented in Helena/East Helena -- not a place renown for spawning music stars.
In addition to being able to sing, Pride had taught himself to play guitar when he was in his teens. Armed with his singing and guitar playing capabilities, he started to perform in the early 1960s with Helena-area professional musicians, including a well-known group at that time -- The Night Hawks. These experiences likely helped to serve as a pivotal point for what was to become his iconic career as a musician.
This is when an obscure part of Pride's story occurred.
The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) is an international union to which many thousands of professional musicians belong. While they maintain a strong presence in major cities across the country, their current Montana membership numbers have dropped to a fraction of what they once were. However, this was not the case in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Pride was launching his career. Most performing musicians in the area belonged to the AFM. Pride was no exception, joining as soon as he started playing the clubs. According to AFM records, Pride joined in January 1959. The noteworthy point about Pride's membership is that he was likely the first black member of Helena’s local AFM chapter -- local 498-642.
Pride's rise to fame after leaving Helena occurred in a relatively short period. Between 1969 and 1971 he broke into the “big time’’ with eight singles that were on Billboard Hot 100, with much more success to follow. The path he charted to stardom is a compelling one and can’t be given the attention it deserves based on the spatial constraints of this article.
Suffice to say, Pride’s career has left an indelible mark on the history of American music. Helena/East Helena will serve as one of the postmarks.
Oh, by the way, Pride is still a member of Helena’s local 498-642.
Hal Jacobson is a former state legislator and member of the Lewis and Clark Heritage and Tourism Council, which produces the monthly "Nuggets from Helena" column in the Independent Record.