Lloyd Price has been successful for more than 60 years. He’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and winner of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award. He’s had his own record companies and nightclub, developed real estate, promoted boxing matches, served in the U.S. Army, lived in Africa and even designed his own sweet potato cookie for Walmart.
He is 80 years old, has a 201 bowling average and has bowled six perfect games.
You might know him for the bold shout, galloping rhythms and full-bodied horn arrangements of his classic rock’n’roll hits “Stagger Lee,” “Personality,” “Where Were You on Our Wedding Day?” and other tunes that dominated Billboard’s pop and R&B charts from 1958 to 1960.
But none of those accomplishments would’ve been possible without the unwitting influence of New Orleans DJ James W. “Okey Dokey” Smith.
“The first time I identified a voice on the radio as being that of a black man,” Price says, was when Smith began spinning platters by Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker and other R&B, blues and gospel artists on WBOK New Orleans.
Price is sitting on the terrace of an Italian restaurant in an upscale upstate New York town where he and his wife have lived for the last 17 years and, after all these years, he recalls Smith’s advertising patter. He gleefully imitates Smith’s shrieking sales pitch, circa 1950: “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat your mother’s homemade pies and drink Maxwell House Coffee.”
In his family’s hometown of Kenner, La., near the current site of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International airport, Price’s mother operated a fried fish restaurant. As a teenager, Price began imitating the songs on the jukebox-Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” was not surprisingly a favorite-while banging along on the piano.
The way Price tells it, he was making up a song about a girl named Nellie who had broken up with him. “Nellie” didn’t quite fit the eight-bar blues pattern, but “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” did.
“I changed words all the time. It was like these kids today rapping,” Price says. “We would take lyrics, some phrase — it would mean [the] same thing but we turned it around with different words. I never thought it would become anything more than me knocking around on the piano, playing with it.”
Fate walked in, and fate’s name was Dave Bartholomew, already renowned around New Orleans as a saxophonist and bandleader.
“Dave was my hero on the local scene,” Price says. While Price’s mother made Bartholomew a sandwich, the musician caught a taste of Price’s song. He not only liked what he heard but thought Art Rupe, owner of Specialty Records in Los Angeles, would be interested.
Price didn’t think anything of it. But three weeks later, Bartholomew called — Rupe was in town and wanted Price to come down to a recording session at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in the French Quarter. The piano player, Fats Domino, asked what key it was in.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about — I’m looking for a key in my pocket,” Price recalls. “So I sing it for him, and Dave says, ‘It’s A flat.’ Dave says, ‘Fats, play him an introduction.'” Domino played the rolling piano triplets, Earl Palmer kept time on the drums, and Price more or less improvised the words on the spot.
It was a watershed moment in musical history. It was a No. 1 record on Billboard’s R&B chart, one of the first songs to draw a large contingent of white record buyers, heralding the music that would soon be called rock’n’roll.
The persistent popularity of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” made Price famous by the time he was 20. But its crossover appeal was shocking to some in 1952, especially in the segregated, pre-civil-rights-era South, and Price believes it made him a target.
“I was accused of integrating; they called it ‘mixing,'” Price says. Concerts, of course, were segregated: When Price played in the South, at black dances in civic centers, whites were permitted to attend in a separate section as “spectators.”
“Wherever I went, they couldn’t keep them out, these [white] kids that would come to see me. There were more spectators than those at the real dance,” he says. “I was happy to see them in the dance hall. But when we got to Raleigh, N.C., I started getting the message about segregation. More white kids came to see me because of the colleges — it was a black dance, but you couldn’t tell. The security man stopped the show because these kids were dancing together.”
When Price got home, there was a draft notice, requiring him to report for induction into the Army. Price recalls a woman at the draft board telling him that he “had to go in the service because of what my music was doing. This ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ thing was causing integration.” (Elvis Presley years later recorded “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” at the same sessions where he made “Blue Suede Shoes” and “My Baby Left Me” for his first RCA album.)
Everywhere he went, from basic training in Arkansas, to the transport ship across the Pacific, to Camp Drake near Tokyo, to bases in South Korea, Price was startled that everyone seemed to know who he was. Though Price disliked being so far from home, his service paid dividends for the rest of his career. Between shows, he was assigned to an office with Army lawyers. “They were all curious about me, talked to me a lot, but I was uneducated. It was almost too embarrassing for me to talk to these guys. There was one guy in particular named Hotchkiss from Pittsburgh. He said, ‘Don’t be embarrassed, just talk to me.’ So he started talking to me about business. And he said, ‘The business of music is songs. You build catalogs and publishing.’ It didn’t make sense to me at the time, because I was having hit records, and that’s where my money was coming from.”
Meanwhile, back in the States, Rupe had released the few tracks Price had recorded before the Army. As a favor, Price put Rupe in touch with another young black performer he had met when he performed at a dance in Macon, Ga. — Little Richard.
After leaving the Army in 1956, Price bought out his contract with Specialty for $1,000 and started his own label, KRC Records. The same intuitive creativity that had resulted in “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” remained intact. Living with a girlfriend near Washington, D.C., Price heard Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” on the radio. A melody from the aria “Caro Nome” stuck in Price’s mind, and he started making up his own words: “Just because you went and said goodbye…”
“Just Because” became Price’s next big hit, though it had some competition. Price’s cousin Larry Williams had already gone to Rupe, claimed to have written the song and recorded it for Specialty, and Rupe promised to “bury” Price’s nascent label.
Price once again found himself in a fortunate place. The ABC network and Paramount theaters had joined to start a record label, ABC-Paramount: Their first No. 1 was Paul Anka’s “Diana.” ABC-Paramount wanted to release “Just Because” and offered Price a then-enormous advance of $25,000.
“That was almost like being a zillionaire,” Price says. “It was $15,000 for the record and $10,000 for the publishing. I was thinking back to my [Army] career, when they told me what the music business was, so I said, ‘I’d like to keep the publishing.'”
And Price has — ever since. While “Just Because” was sustained through many months on the pop and R&B charts, Price’s real crossover breakthrough was “Stagger Lee,” released in late 1958. It stayed at No. 1 for a month on both the pop and R&B charts. The song is based on a traditional folk and blues murder ballad, alternately known as “Stackalee” or “Stack-o-Lee” or “Stagolee,” with versions recorded by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt to Bob Dylan. None was louder, harder and faster than Price’s version.
In a chapter of the seminal cultural history “Mystery Train,” Greil Marcus writes of the multitude of versions: “It is a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their westerns…an archetype that speaks to casual violence and violent sex, lust and hatred, ease and mastery.” A code, if you will, for survival, entertainment and adventure under Jim Crow in the South.
Radio loved “Stagger Lee.” But the all-powerful Dick Clark thought Price’s lyrics, which stayed true to the gambling/shooting/rivalry foundation of the legend, were too violent for teenage America. Price had to recut the vocal for “American Bandstand,” and is appalled that this version has survived to be repackaged in some CD and digital reissues. Listening to the “Bandstand” version, you know why: It’s an incoherent ode to love, rivalry and friendship. “I had to go make up some lyrics about Stagger Lee and Billy being in some kind of squabble about a girl. It didn’t make any sense at all. It was ridiculous.”
Price found himself on the wrong side of a real life “Stagger Lee” situation when he opened Lloyd Price’s Turntable nightclub on the former site of Birdland at 52nd Street and Broadway in the late ’60s. He and longtime partner Harold Logan would get threatening calls for a year: “There are bullets with your names on it.”
Price ignored the calls, until Logan was found shot to death in 1969 in their office at the club. He says that after representatives of both the Harlem mob and the Italian mafia visited Price shortly after the killing to offer their “support” if he decided to join their team, he got out of the nightclub business, and New York. He moved to Philadelphia, which he realized wasn’t far enough for him to regain his peace of mind. So he went to Nigeria. With Don King, he co-promoted the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire.
After 11 years in Nigeria, a coup removed the government with which Price had been close. In exile in New York, he helped find housing for his African friends, and found he had a knack for real estate. Working with the Partnership for New York City in the mid-’80s, he built townhouses at 184th Street and Valentine Avenue in the Bronx.
Price is now working on a stage production of his life story, believing that the tale of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and the adventures that followed will have the same wide appeal as “Jersey Boys.”
“The story it’s going to tell is what ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ contributed to the social structure in America,” Price says. “Before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King, if you reflect back, you wonder what brought everything together. When I was a kid in Louisiana, if white kids and black kids were walking on the same side of the street, one group would cross over without touching or speaking to each other, yet we all lived in the same neighborhoods. Blacks couldn’t go to the same church [as white people]. But when ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ hit, it changed the sound of the music, changed the rhythm, changed everything that had to be with America. It’s what brought people together.”
Editor/writer/critic Wayne Robins teaches journalism at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y.