EAST HELENA — East Helena is honoring a music superstar who started his illustrious career there.
Mayor James Schell and the East Helena City Council have proclaimed Wednesday, December 23, 2020 as “Charley Pride Day,” recognizing the country music legend who passed away earlier this month at the age of 86.
“On this day, we shall officially honor Charley Pride and recognize the joy he has given so many in this city, community, state and country with his incredible singing and musical talents,” the proclamation read.
While it’s been more than 50 years since Pride’s time in East Helena, many in the community still have fond memories.
“I would say a large majority of the people around here have a story about Charley Pride,” Schell said.
Pride, a native of Mississippi, came to Montana in 1960 to play baseball for the Missoula Timberjacks of the Pioneer League. After he was let go, he took a job at the ASARCO lead smelter in East Helena and pitched for their semi-pro Smelterites baseball team.
Pride’s singing career began in earnest when Smelterites manager Kes Rigler paid him $10 to perform before – and sometimes during – games. East Helena resident Buzz Helfert remembers working at one of those games while he was in high school.
“Charley came up and he sang ‘There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea,’” he said. “And it goes on and on and on, and I thought to myself, ‘Mister, don’t quit your day job, because you’re not going to make it in the music business.’ Little did I know.”
Helfert’s assessment aside, Pride began building a reputation singing at clubs in East Helena and Helena – sometimes solo and sometimes with a combo called the Night Hawks. His music eventually got him attention across the state and beyond.
After several years, Pride signed a national record deal, going on to fame with dozens of hit songs like “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.” He became one of the first black country stars.
Schell, who grew up in East Helena, said he first learned about Pride from his father – a fan of his music and baseball talent. He said Pride’s songs matched well with the community.
“I think Charley Pride resonates with folks like my dad, who grew up in a working-class town, and he sang about things that he and people from East Helena could really relate to,” he said.
While Pride eventually left Montana to continue his music career, he spoke fondly of his family’s time in the state – including in an interview with MTN this June.
“We went and saw him in Missoula perform several years ago,” said Helfert. “He always mentioned East Helena, and he had several people in the audience from East Helena stand up and he introduced him. He always had good memories of East Helena.”
In East Helena, the feeling was mutual.
“Everybody knew him,” Helfert said. “He was a nice guy, he was friendly, and his family was great people.”
Charley Pride was even briefly an East Helena city employee. The proclamation notes that, in 1961, the city council approved him as one of several new “labor or truck drivers.” Schell said that wasn’t uncommon for smelter workers, as the city and the smelter often coordinated deliveries.
Pride and his family also lived on Peosta Avenue in Helena for several years. As Helena City Commissioner and former Helena Fire Department chief Sean Logan noted on Facebook, he took an exam in 1964 to join HFD, but he wasn’t selected.
This article has been updated to reflect the final broadcast story.