Award-Winning Singer. Professional Pitcher. Smelter Man. Serviceman. Montanan.
Charley Pride lived a remarkable life.
Hailing from Mississippi, Pride got his first taste of life on the road as a longtime pitcher in the Negro American League. He got his second taste when he was drafted for military service in 1956.
Pride was discharged in ‘58, and in 1960, he signed with the Missoula Timberjacks (a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds). He pitched only three games that season before moving on to
Helena, where he was recruited to pitch for the East Helena Smelterites and work at the Asarco lead smelter.
Pride earned ten dollars a game to play. When the team manager heard him sing, Pride was paid an additional ten dollars to perform before each game.
In the coming years, Pride performed in various Montana clubs, sometimes solo, other times with a four-piece band called the Night Hawks. In 1965, Pride’s big break came when Chet Atkins (aka “The Country Gentleman”) of RCA heard a demonstration tape and signed him to a contract.
“They knew I was colored… They decided to put the record out and let it speak for itself,” said Pride in a 2014 interview. Many listeners, however, had no idea that Pride was black.
Records submitted to radio stations for airplay did not include a photo of the singer.
With the success of his third single, “Just Between You and Me” (which was nominated for a Grammy), Pride was booked to play before 10,000 fans in Detroit. As he came onstage, applause trickled to silence. Pride addressed the crowd, saying, “Friends, I realize it’s a little unique, me coming out here—with a permanent suntan—to sing country and Western to you. But that’s the way it is.”
Despite the initial surprise, Pride’s race was of little issue to fans and critics. In 1971, he was named Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. By the mid-1970s, he was RCA’s top-selling performer since Elvis. By 1987, he had 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, thirty of which made it to number one.
Though he only resided in Montana ten years during his rise to fame, Pride regularly returned to the Treasure State. In 1983 and ‘88, he served as the honorary chairman for Great Falls’ Russell Auction.