ONE OF THE GREATEST R&B ARTISTS STILL ALIVE, LLOYD PRICE, IS HAVING A RESURGENCE OF A CAREER. STARTING IN THE 50’S WITH SONGS LIKE ‘LAWDY MISS CLAWDY,’ HE WAS ESSENTIALLY ONE OF THE PROGENITORS OF WHAT BECAME ‘ROCK AND ROLL.’ HIS HITS LIKE ‘PERSONALITY’ AND THE ICONIC ‘STAGGER LEE’ ARE SOME OF THE GREATEST SONGS OF THE 20TH CENTURY.
NOT ONLY HAS THE VENERABLE STAR RELEASED A NEW ALBUM THIS IS ROCK AND ROLL, BUT HE’S WRITTEN A PAIR OF EXCELLENT BOOKS, THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL, AND THE IRREPRESSIBLY TITLED SOME DUMB HONKY WHICH IS A FRESH LOOK AT AMERICA AND RACE.
WE RECENTLY CAUGHT UP WITH MR. PRICE, STILL FULL OF ENTHUSIASM, JOY OF LIFE, AND A GREAT PERSPECTIVE ON AMERICAN MUSIC.
HOW DID YOU START SINGING? WAS IT IN THE CHURCH?
I never sang in church. I think I went to Sunday School 3-4 times in my life (laughs).
I always loved to sing; I tried to make up lyrics as long as I can remember.
I might have been 15-16 years old, and we had our first real black disc jockey on the radio in New Orleans, Louisiana. He would come on and say “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy! Each your mother’s homemade pies, and drink Maxwell House coffee!” That absolutely got my attention.
My mother had a sandwich shop, and there weren’t more than 10 records on the juke box, but I knew all 20 sides, both the “A” sides and the “B” sides. I’d sit there and listen to them as people came into the shop for sandwiches. It only cost a nickel, and I would dance and they’d throw pennies on the floor. I think that’s how it all really started. I just thought I could do it.
WAS THERE ANY ARTIST THAT GOT YOUR ATTENTION? I HEAR A LITTLE LOUIS JORDAN IN YOUR EARLY MATERIAL.
I really loved Jordan, and also Louis Armstrong. He was The Ambassador of Jazz from New Orleans. All you heard was Louis Armstrong.
YOU WALK INTO YOUR FIRST EVER RECORDING, AND FATS DOMINO IS THE PIANIST. DID YOU KNOW HIM AT ALL AT THIS STAGE? NOT MANY PEOPLE WALK INTO A STUDIO THE FIRST TIME AND GET A BIG HIT.
That’s right. Fats Domino just dropped by. The original piano player was Salvador Doucette. Dave Bartholomew had just produced Fats Domino’s first hit “They Call Me the Fat Man.” So Domino knew about the session.
What was so strange about that time was that there was no place for blacks to record unless Cosimo (Matassa) allowed us to come in and record at his J&M Studios on Rampart Street.
I knew nothing about this at all. It’s like me trying to fly the Concord. They heard me play this thing I’d sing at my mother’s sandwich shop. He walked in one day for a sandwich and I was sitting there banging at the piano what I had heard Okey Dokey Smith sing on the radio, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and I was just singing that. “Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, you sure look good to me.” That’s how it happened.
THAT ERA WAS SO FERTILE BACK THEN, WITH YOU, LITTLE RICHARD, LARRY WILLIAMS AND FATS. WHAT MADE THAT AREA SUCH A MUSICAL BREEDING GROUND?
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy” opened the door for all of that. Art Rupe, founder of Specialty Records, wanted to do something for black kids that were a little younger than Fats Domino. I was a teenager, and they heard this record. Dave was what was then called an A&R man (producer) for Specialty Records, looking for talent.
He told me “Man, I think this can be a hit with the kids.” The kids didn’t have any record performers or personality jockeys. It was all an adult business. An “album” was twelve 78 rpm records; it weighted 3-4 pounds! (laughs) No kid would carry that around. There was nothing for the kids.
What was becoming very popular was skating. So the kids were able to skate to the New Orleans music, and skating rinks were popping up like ipads are now, all over America.
PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE HOW MUCH SPECIALTY RECORDS CHANGED THE DIRECTION OF POPULAR MUSIC. THEY HAD THEY HAD THE CORNER ON NOT ONLY R&B, BUT ALSO ON BLACK SPIRITUALS, LIKE THE SOUL STIRRERS (WITH SAM COOKE), DOROTHY LOVE COATES AND WYNONA CARR, JUST TO NAME A FEW.
That’s right; they were big in gospel. Black music was gospel music. Aretha Franklin’s father, CL Franklin, then you had a guy named Father Divine, and Bishop Jones. You’d listen to the radio all day Sunday, and that was radio in the black neighborhood.
Specialty Records changed music. Art Rupe had Johnny Vincent do promotion and he went to form Ace Records, but that didn’t change the music. Rhythm and Blues music was all dark, “I lost my baby; I’m gonna kill myself.” That was the lyrics back then. John Lee Hooker had “Boogie Children” as his first record.
You could hardly hear them. Nobody played in key. It sounded crazy; it was just something to do. You couldn’t sign a black artist to a major label; it just wasn’t expected . You had to have a degree to be a record artist. It was called “Race Music.” It’s just what was happening.
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy” changed all of that. Never was “Race” put on any of my records, and I was in that period.
EVERYONE STOLE THAT SONG FROM YOU, FROM YOUR CHAUFFEUR LARRY WILLIAMS TO ELVIS PRESLEY.
I’m happy that it’s been recorded 168 times.
I never met Elvis; I talked to him a few times. I talked to Colonel Parker. I tried to book him when I came out of the army (in 1954). I said “Who is this white boy that’s so hot and so popular with ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ I thought he was just amazing.
Elvis extended the black music into all areas.
HE MADE SURE YOU GOT A FEW ROYALTY CHECKS
He recorded “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” over 20 times. Every show he sang it, so he sure did (laughs).
WHO HAS GIVEN YOU THE BEST ADVICE OR BEST HELP IN YOUR CAREER?
The guy that put his name on my records, who was Harold Logan. I started Lloyd-Logan music because of him. He was a numbers guy out of West Virginia who was also a promoter. He promoted in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan and Boston. We became really good friends, and when I got real big I asked him to come on the road with me because I had so much respect for him.
My publishing company was called Delco Publishing, and we changed it to Lloyd-Logan music. He was with me until he died.
EVERY KING DAVID HAS TO HAVE A JOAB TO DO THE TOUGH WORK.
No question! (laughs)
YOU SANG AT A TIME WHEN THE TENOR SAX, AND NOT THE GUITAR, WAS THE KING OF INSTRUMENTS. DID YOU HAVE A FAVORITE TENOR PLAYER?
My favorite was Stanley Turrentine, and his records with Shirley Scott. I loved Lee Allen, who played on my records. Willis Jackson really played and moved me’ Herbert Harvdesty from New Orleans…and I’ve used them all.
YOU HAD THE SAXES WAILING ON “FROG LEGS.” THAT SONG REALLY CAPTURES THE SWEAT OF NEW ORLEANS.
Frog Legs! (laughs real hard) There was a guy in Cleveland that had a restaurant, and he tried to get me to eat some of them freakin’ frog legs. He said that it tasted just like chicken, and I said “No, no no; I ain’t goin’ there.” That’s where that song came from.
THAT WAS FROM THE EARLY DAYS OF YOUR CAREER.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE A FEW MAJOR STAGES OF YOUR CAREER. THE FIRST WAS STUFF LIKE “LAWDY MISS CLAWDY” AND “FROG LEGS”: SWEATY JUKE JOINT STUFF. THEN AFTER YOU CAME BACK FROM THE KOREAN WAR YOUR SOUND AND STYLE CHANGED PRETTY DRAMATICALLY.
Yes, it did, with “Stagger Lee.” When I came out of the army I ran into Don Costa, who was an arranger. I didn’t want to sound like an ordinary band. Back then, the Doo Wops and the John Lee Hookers all sounded alike.
I knew that I had to do something special, and I didn’t know what it was. But the drive in me and the motivation was “Use white voices for your background. Use big bands. Use an arranger.”
Logan helped me along with that, getting back to your earlier question. He said “Everyone is using six men; you use twelve, ‘cause no six men are ever going to beat twelve good men playing.”
WHEN YOU WENT INTO THE STUDIO TO DO “STAGGER LEE,” DID YOU FEEL THAT THERE WAS SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT IT?
“Stagger Lee” was a “B” side. One take; I spent no time with it! Don Costa laughed, because I put it on the back of a song called “You Need Love.” That was supposed to be the hit: strings, nice voices (singing “You need Loooooove”). He said, “You’re gonna put this on the back of ‘You Need Love’?” and I said “Yes.”
We “You Need Love” for about two months trying to get it to happen, and nothing happened.
I think it was a disc jockey from Spokane, Washington who called us up and said “You guys are on the wrong side; “Stagger Lee” is the hit.
The next afternoon, the distributors ordered 200,000 copies.
WHAT’S INTERESTING IS THAT “STAGGER LEE” IS SIMILAR TO BOBBY DARIN’S “MACK THE KNIFE” WHERE YOU HAVE AN “UPBEAT SONG” WITH A DARK AND FOREBODING MESSAGE.
(laughs) I actually wrote that song when I was in Korea (during the Korean War ed). I wanted to do something different for the field gade officers, and I had soldiers that acted out Stagger Lee and Billy. They’d build a stage with big dice and stuff; it was fun!
It’s a mini-story. Years later, when I realized what it was about after it became a hit. It’s a mini-story two guys at a crap game.
I then found out that the phrase “The night was clear…” that particular interval had 17 words. I later found out that 17 words in Japanese is some sort of historical and classic poetic phrase in Haiku. That’s why they love it so much in that part of the world.
YOU WERE THEN ON A ROLL WITH “JUST BECAUSE” AND “PERSONALITY.”
Regarding “Personality;” I was on the road driving to Pittsburgh, because we didn’t do a lot of flying back then. It was 400 miles from New York to Pittsburgh. I got a call from the general manager at ABC Records, saying “You’re going to Australia. We need to have a new record before you go.”
This “Personality” thing had been on my mind because everybody was saying things like “walked with a personality, talked with a personality, smiled with a personality”…I’d been hearing all of this. So, I figured “That’s the song!” So, that’s all I did. BANG! It came on the charts and reached #2.
AND THE BEST PART OF ALL OF THIS IS THAT YOU WROTE THESE SONGS!
That’s correct, and “Personality” is just freakin’ amazin’!
For example, “Just Because” is in the movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard with Samuel Jackson! I didn’t know what I was doing with that song; it was from an opera, Rigoletto. I heard it with a string orchestra playing that melody, and thought “I LOVE THIS” and I just added the lyrics “Just because you…” and BOOM!
A FEW YEARS LATER YOU GOT INTO BALLADS LIKE “TALKE TO ME” AND STANDARDS LIKE “A FOGGY DAY.”
Ya know why? It was because I was told by agents back then that the only time you get into the big clubs, you ‘ve got to have a different kind of act. That was absolutely ridiculous. The people were buying what I was putting out, and I’m now trying to change from what people to something I didn’t know anything about.
But I was told, “Hey, man, you gotta change your act if you’re going to work The Copa, or The Coconut Grove in Hollywood. You gotta have that kind of act.”
It was the dumbest thing in the world. These kids today are just doing what they do, and they’re drawing thousands of people and getting paid, without changing anything.
And “Talk To Me” was a great song, and Sid Feller did a bang up job on it. I love those songs, and I put them in the act and I get generous applause for them. But it was not the stuff I really felt I could do, but I did it.
DID YOU FEEL OUT OF PLACE AT REPRISE RECORDS?
No, because Sinatra was asked who he thought was his favorite artist, I think it was by a professor in San Diego during a lecture down there. Sinatra said “Lloyd Price is the best overall entertainer.” So, they called me to do a record with them at Reprise, Sinatra’s new label, and I said “With Pleasure.”
“somewhere we’re (all) relatives. Under that little boat that landed in Virginia and at Plymouth Rock had just over a few hundred people, and now we’ve got over 350 million.
So, all of us blacks and whites in America are from Some Dumb Honky; we just may not know which one!”
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR MOVE TO AFRICA?
I always had thoughts about Africa, because as a kid in Louisiana I had heard that was where all of the black people were from. We were taught in school that there was nobody in Africa but pygmies, and that they’d eat you up! (laughs)
I had mixed feelings about Africa; it was about in 1965 when (Joshua) Nkomo got Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain. They had ships coming into where I was living in Philadelphia, and a captain came to my house. Disc jockey Steve Bird brought him to my house. He made an arrangement for me to meet the ambassador to Washington DC.
I went to meet him, and I was so impressed with him. He’d ring a bell and guys would run in and out of the kitchen. I’d never seen anything like this, so I said “I gotta go to Africa.” From then on I had a deep desire to go to Africa.
I had met Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali) when he was 20 years old. He was a good friend of mine. I knew Don King; he had a club in Cleveland. He was a numbers man; I played for him. It was the ghetto then, and the guys who had the numbers and fixed the cards were the big guys.
He was the big guy at 78th and Cedar, and he wondered why all the black acts would play in the white clubs and wouldn’t come to his. I said, “Because your club isn’t big enough. You don’t have a club; you have a barroom, a juke.”
So we built a thing like the “Cleveland Copacabana.” A big thing with a canopy outside; the doorman had spats. There was some place I could park my van.
By knowing (Clay) Ali, and Don King coming out of jail, he said to me “I don’t ever want to go to jail again; you’ve got to make me big.”
There were only two ways back then that you could be big; you could be in either sports or entertainment. But guys like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays…they weren’t making any real money. So Don did some charities and fights, and he got the bug about fights. “You’ve got to introduce me to Ali” he told me.
So I called Ali from Don’s house, and we met with him. King really got bitten by Ali about wanting to do fights. The next thing you know, we had the Rumble in the Jungle in ’74.
WITH THE TEMPTATIONS!
Yeah. We had Bill Withers, James Brown, Etta James, Johnny Nash and Hugh Masakela booked. If the plan had gone down with who I had booked…Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin…but they bugged out at the last minute, and do you know why? They had black pilots on Zaire Airlines!! They all said they didn’t want to ride with any black pilots. Some of them still went, but Aretha, Marvin and Stevie didn’t go.
I even said to Stevie, “Hey, you’re blind! What difference does it make to you?”
Then, the last minute of his practice session, George Foreman was working in the ring with his sparring partner and got cut under the eye. The fight gets set back six weeks, and that whole thing is what really got me hooked on Africa.
I was able to stay there and understand the people. They didn’t cook anybody (laughs), they were wonderful, great music that made the fish come dancing out of the sea. It felt so good there.
I was able to promote Don King as “The Messiah of Boxing” because there was nobody else there except us and the fighters.
So when you get anyone in the press asking me who was the promoter of the fight, I’d tell them it was Don King, even though he really wasn’t at the time. We still had Hank Schwartz and Berry Bernstein from Video Techniques, who were actually the real groundworkers of those fights.
But we came out of that fight with Don becoming the biggest promoter ever.
WHAT DO MOST PEOPLE NOT KNOW ABOUT KING THAT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
Don King was a jewel of a man; he was just such a nice, honest and innocent person. Naïve to the world. He absolutely loved America; this was his country.
Today’s blacks know no other place than where they are. They don’t know any other country. When I was a kid we were told “Go back to Africa” back in the South, it was amazing. So, I wanted to see these civilizations, as that’s where everyone said that we were from.
ANY SECRETS TO ALI’S LIFE?
No, he was just a genuine, kind and honest man.
YOU STARTED OUT IN THE MID 50s. YOU HAVE SURVIVED DOZENS OF FADS AND TRENDS RANGING FROM ELVIS, TO FABIAN AND THE WHITE BOYS TO THE BEATLES, TO “SOUL” MUSIC AND DISCO. HOW DO YOU MAKE A CAREER ENDURE THROUGH SO MANY DIFFERENT ERAS AND TRENDS?
I just have to keep re-creating myself. I’ve built houses; I was a developer in New York State. I built about 160 houses and a club down on Broadway. I’ve kept knowing what time it was, but I never let the music go.
For example, the new album I have out right now, This is Rock and Roll, looks like it’s going to be all right. I stick to my craft and do my work. I watch the inside of what’s happening.
SOME OF THE TUNES HAVE THAT VINTAGE 70’S R&B GROOVE
Yeah, like “Smoke and Fire.” It’s a great song.
AND YOU”RE SONGS HAVE IMPORTANT MESSAGES FOR TODAY, SUCH AS “NOBODY LOVES ANYBODY ANYMORE.”
What time would be better than now for that song? It’s a classic, and right on time.
YOU DISCOVERED WILSON PICKETT. WHAT DID YOU SEE IN HIM THAT FIRST TIME?
I saw a little kid singing on the stage with (organist) Bill Doggett. Both shoes were crooked; it seemed like he was walking on his ankles (laughs hard) in Flint, Michigan. But I heard that voice; I couldn’t a word that he said, but I had (singer/songwriter) Robert Bateman go and do a demo on him. Bateman produced things by the Marvelettes like “Please, Mr. Postman” on Motown.
Robert sent me that demo. I just took the demo and put it out there. “If You Need Me.” It became a smash. Ahmet Ertegun tried to kill me by putting out singles by Solomon Burke, but we outsold him with that demo (laughs).
IS THERE ANY PHILOSOPHY THAT HAS GUIDED YOU THROUGHOUT YOUR LIFE?
Every day, when I wake up, I ask myself the question “Which of God’s blessings can you deny?”
If you didn’t know what the bad one was, you wouldn’t know what the good one is.
That’s why, when you initially asked me about church, I just need to walk outside and look out the trees and grass and think of the bounds of community while walking on the grass; the ticks and bugs.
It’s unbelievable; you just can’t imagine how wonderful God’s creation is. There’s got to be some Power out there to make you ask the question “Which of God’s blessings can you deny?”
GIVE ME THE REASON FOR THE TITLES OF YOUR TWO BOOKS?
The first one, King of the Fifties, is because it’s true. There was nobody but myself for three years, and most of the music was based on what I did.
The other one, Sumdumhonky, is because of the way things are here in America.
The Africans have been here nearly 500 years, and the wonderful thing that was done by the white man was that he had sex with black women and so the first thing he did was create a clone.
There’s nothing that you might want that I don’t want. Why? Because I was brought up under your banner. Every desire, every hope, every practical thing, everything I’ve learned was from the white man.
So, somewhere we’re relatives. Under that little boat that landed in Virginia and at Plymouth Rock had just over a few hundred people, and now we’ve got over 350 million.
So, all of us blacks and whites in America are from Some Dumb Honky; we just may not know which one! (laughs hard)
But I also write in the book about Africa too. I didn’t have a great time in Africa; I didn’t realize how ‘racist’ all of the black tribes were towards each other. It’s worse than black and white in Mississippi.
Rhodesia was gorgeous, and Mugabe and those guys made it a disaster.
WHEN I TRAVELLED AFRICA FOR A YEAR BACK IN THE 80’S, I WAS AMAZED THAT I SAW NO BLACK AMERICANS TRAVELLING OR VISITING THE CONTINENT.
IT WAS A VASTLY DIFFERENT WORLD 40 YEARS AGO, WITH SO MANY BLACK ARTISTS HAVING A MAJOR IMPACT ON THE CULTURE IN A POSITIVE SENSE.
It was completely different. Totally.
WHAT DO YOU WANT THEM TO WRITE ON YOUR TOMBSTONE?
WHETHER ON THE FOREFRONT OF MUSIC, PRODUCING MAJOR BOXING EVENTS OR WRITING ABOUT CULTURE, LLOYD PRICE HAS, FOR OVER 60 YEARS, ENHANCED AMERICAN MUSIC AND LIFE WITH, SHALL WE SAY, “PERSONALITY.”