By Melinda Cooper
By RFT Music
By Allison Babka
By Daniel Hill
By Drew Ailes
By Brian Heffernan
By Joseph Hess
By Joseph Hess
Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.
On October 20, 1977, a small plane en route to Louisiana crashed in the swampy marshes of Gillsburg, Mississippi. Of the eight passengers -- members of the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and their road manager -- only four survived. Among the lost was singer, songwriter and legendary guitarist Ronnie VanZant. Along with him died not just the dreams of Skynyrd as it was, but the dreams of an up-and-coming band from St. Louis called Mama's Pride.
But the story of Mama's Pride begins not with rock & roll lore, but in the Irish home of Pat and Danny Liston. Born and raised in Dogtown, the Listons came from a traditional and musical family. Their mother sang on live KMOX radio broadcasts during the 1930s. Her husband shared her love of music, and singing was constant in the Liston home, giving Pat and Danny an early appreciation for vocal harmony. As they got older, they added the modern influences of folk and rock to the mix and formed a band with their best friend, guitarist Max Baker.
In 1972 the group set off for California. Three cars made the caravan west from St. Louis, and at every stop the guys exchanged suggestions for a band name, finally settling on Mama's Pride as a tribute to Mrs. Liston. "We played virtually every night," remembers Pat Liston. "Six nights a week, five sets a night, seven sets on weekends."
At the heart of Pat Liston you'll find a solid St. Louisan, which, as most natives know, makes it hard to leave this town -- and even harder to stay away. When the members of Mama's Pride found themselves touring as far east as Nebraska, Liston pushed to return the rest of the way home.
"There was a place at Kingshighway and Manchester called Rusty Spring Saloon," says Liston. "The guy who ran the place was a friend of mine. He wanted us just because we were 'from' California. We told him a price -- it was three times what we were making. And he jumped on it. So when we came back to St. Louis, we hit the ground running. We walked in and took over."
After two years on the California circuit, you either get good or you break up. Mama's Pride opted for the former. They layered R&B-influenced vocal harmonies over the smoky guitar rock craved by club owners and audiences. St. Louis embraced Mama's Pride, and fans encouraged the band to play original material. Liston calls the sound of the Pride circa 1974 "the Temptations meets Sly and the Family Stone." When second drummer Kevin Sanders joined the band later that year, he turned the group on to Marshall Tucker and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Mama's Pride began to steer toward the southern rock sound popularized by Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band. The group started playing a new venue down by the river called Mississippi Nights.
"Mississippi Nights has never sounded as good as it did then," Liston recalls. "It had vermiculite on the ceiling and concrete floors, and when bands played there, it was incredible. It was a great room with a natural theater slope to it. When the Outlaws played there, they had just gotten their record deal. Their road manager came down, really liked the band and ended up telling Alan Walden, who managed Lynyrd Skynyrd. His brother Phil Walden owned Capricorn Records."
Capricorn Records was the bastion label of southern rock, its two pillars being the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd. Alan Walden dropped in on Mama's Pride a few months later when the band was playing a gig in Augusta, Georgia, not far from Athens. Mama's Pride had run out of original material and was deep into a cover of Skynyrd's "Free Bird" when Walden walked in the club. Liston's hopes sunk.
"I didn't want to be doing 'Free Bird' when he came in, because that's his band. Well, as it turned out it was serendipitous, because he thought we just killed the song. He said, 'I can get you a deal,' and three months later he did."
Mama's Pride cut its first album, a self-titled LP featuring many of the songs ("Blue Mist," "Missouri Skyline," "Old St. Louis") that won over its original St. Louis fans. Things were going well.
Throughout the mid-'70s, Mama's Pride toured the country. The band's best crowds were in the Midwest and on the southern circuit. One leg of a tour brought them down to Daytona Beach, where they pulled up to the sandy Rec Bar and read the marquee: "Tonight, Gregg Allman." Mama's Pride walked into the sound of Gregg playing with a backup band made up of, as Liston remembers, "local glue-head losers." It was awful.
The next night Gregg was back, but this time he joined Mama's Pride onstage. "We had a ball," says Liston. "We played all night long."
Eventually, Pat Liston approached Allman with a natural proposition: "If you want to play, Gregg, play with us. Our road manager could book this whole thing. We'll open the show then come back out as your band. Whatever we get, we'll take half and you get half."