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."
Mama's Pride played with Gregg Allman for almost a year and a half. Just as the group was making plans to cut an album together -- a move that would have secured mainstream recognition for Mama's Pride -- Gregg received a telegram from Capricorn Records owner Phil Walden and Paragon Agency booking head Alex Hodges, urging Allman to end his tour with Mama's Pride. He did. Allman went on, to the profit of Walden and Hodges, to re-form the Allman Brothers Band. The Pride went back to the studio and back on tour.
By 1977 Atlantic was ready to drop Mama's Pride because its two albums had failed to ignite more than a regional fire. In the end, Alan Walden and the band would part ways, with the manager holding a $25,000 promissory note hed never collect on. But in the meantime Walden passed along a Mama's Pride album to Ronnie VanZant, who gave it a listen and responded with, "I want to work with these guys." VanZant had always felt slighted by the southern-rock pigeonhole, and he heard depth similar to that of Skynyrd in the music of Mama's Pride.
"The Outlaws made it big when they did a Doobie Brothers tour," Liston says. "Lynyrd Skynyrd made it big when they did a Who tour. If you were going to make it, it was going to be when you did a big tour." One day late in October, Pat Liston's phone rang. "Ronnie called and said, 'The first thing I want to do is get you on this tour.' At this time, Lynyrd Skynyrd was the hottest band in the world. He said, 'Give me a couple weeks to work it out with the booking agency.'"
The band members were elated. Finally their career had taken a real turn. They went out to celebrate. "We were in a bar very similar to this one," says Liston, as his eyes wander around the interior of Pat's, a Dogtown pub. "There were televisions around just like these. All of sudden I looked up and said, 'Oh, my God.'" The breaking news flashed on the screen, and no one had to say anything more. The band members -- in fact, the whole bar -- filed out and went home.
Mama's Pride was not long for this world after its dreams crashed along with Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane. Dropped by its label and with no big tour to bolster it, the band continued to play for a few years until it simply petered out. Atlantic still owns the rights to the first two albums and shows no signs of releasing either on disc. Last spring, friends and fans anxious to hear the music of Mama's Pride in St. Louis once again made their reunion show the fastest sellout in the Pageant's history. Shocked by the response, the Liston brothers began to realize the effect their band had on its fans, and they planned a Christmas show for this season. The old dream may have died, but for Mama's Pride, the music is still very much alive.
Correction published 2/25/04: In the original version of this story, Mama's Pride band member Pat Liston complained about the contract his group signed with its manager, Alan Walden. Information received from Mr. Walden after publication of the article explains that the manager in fact came away from his relationship with Mamas Pride with $25,000 in unrecouped losses. The above version reflects the corrected text.