Lloyd Price is angry. His anger comes through on almost every page of a new memoir as idiosyncratic as its title: “sumdumhonkey.”
Original Interview Audio:
In it, you will find stories about Price’s musical career, such as how he came to record of one of the first rock and roll records, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, in 1952.” But music is not his focus. Another topic dominates: racism. Price suffered growing up as a second-class citizen in the segregated South. Things didn’t get much better even after he became a star – and Price, now 82, is righteously pissed off about it still. If anyone questions the need for a Black Lives Matter movement more than 50 years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ‘sumdumhonkey” tells what you need to know. Lloyd Price is angry for good reason. And you would be be too.
I spoke to Price the week before he performed on a package tour – the Royal Soul Revue – with Ben E. King, Chuck Jackson, Gene Chandler, Irma Thomas, Jerry Butler and Percy Sledge that played July 18, 1998 at Harborlights Pavilion in Boston, where Peter Wolf joined in as emcee. At the time, Price was enjoying renewed recognition. His friendship and checkered business dealings with boxing promoter Don King was a prime storyline of an HBO biopic, “Don King: Only in America,” starring Ving Rhames as King and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Price. And rectifying one of its most egregious oversights, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally had seen fit to induct Price, one of rock and roll’s unquestioned originators.
Then 64, Price talked enthusiastically and at length with me about his career ups and down – much of which goes unmentioned, alas, in “sumdumhonkey” and a previous, perhaps even more eccentric autobiography, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy: The True King of the 50s: The Lloyd Price Story” (Dig the double “:”!) written with William Waller. Perhaps someday someone will give a full accounting of Price’s life, because it is a story that goes far beyond the making of the big hits (“Personality,” “Stagger Lee,” “Where Were You on Our Wedding Day,” “I’m Gonna Get Married” that made him a superstar in 1959.
“I just didn’t accept whoever it was giving me a contract and telling me to sign it.” – Lloyd Price
By phone from his home in Pound Ridge, New York
July 9, 1998
You’ve released a new album [“Body With Nobody” on the KJAC label]. How long has it been since the last one you put out?
Actually it’s been, god, 22 years or better.
In the liner notes you say you felt you had nothing to say for a long time.
Yeah, you kind of burn out. Even in my early career with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and that stuff, I always felt that I believed what I was talking about and what I was trying to say. In trying to be a storyteller you have to lean a lot to the truth of how you feel about stuff. I felt I wasn’t really putting everything I had into my work. I was doing a lot of other things – trying to build buildings, running up and down to Africa, doing a lot of things that were contrary to what I do best and what I love to do, which is my music. So I didn’t try to look for a recording deal, didn’t try to put no company or nothing like that together. I was always in the music business because of my publishing business, I was never that far away from it, but I wasn’t in it in terms of my believability.
Did you miss making music?
Actually, I did. I would go and watch guys perform. People like Little Richard and Fats Domino, they would call me to sing. James Brown at Radio City called me up onstage and I did “Stagger Lee” and the people went wild. I thought maybe people still love this stuff and Lloyd Price still got a market out there and people want to hear it. So I started to begin to believe more in doing it again. In doing so and preparing this album here, it took a year or so to write the songs and build the studio here to do them in. I wanted to do everything I thought was best. I don’t know if I really got it on this, but I felt a lot better about doing it than the stuff I had done in the past.
I was a surprised that you sound so down and so blue on the album. I’d say it’s reflective and broken-hearted.
That’s exactly correct. Being in the mood I was in at the time…people mostly in my generation had experienced life and gone down that road. You’ll notice that there’s a line in there, “I’m sure you’ve been there before.” I was trying to give to people from 35 and beyond. It’s not like I’m out searching for a hit, it’s words that came from inspiration and that I felt motivated to do.
Did you, as you sing about on the album, lose your woman?
Not just me. Most of the men in my age group have experienced that, at least 80 percent. I had been married a couple of times, and I was able to experience feelings that I felt then that I hadn’t felt as a young man growing up. It was into my later years that I started to understand what those emotions and feelings were. Because being a teenage idol most of life, it never dealt with true feelings. It was always, “you meet somebody, yeah yeah yeah,” and that’s all it is. It never got to be something serious. It’s serious for the moment and that was it. But then, when you start dealing with feelings you haven’t felt before, you start missing people you never ever had to worry about missing. And at some point in your life you start having those feelings. And that’s what these songs represent and what I tried to put in words – individual feelings about how one would feel after being abandoned, falling into or out of love. Just trying to be real.
So would you say this is more of the real you than what’s been on record before?
In a sense I would say that side of it, that kind of emotional song. “Stagger Lee,” “Personality,” “Gonna Get Married,” “Where Were You On Our Wedding Day?,” these were just happy songs. It didn’t require anything except a hook that people could sing along and snap their fingers to. I wanted to show there was another side of seriousness about me and that I do have that same feeling that most everybody has. That was at least the projected idea.
At the end of the new record there’s a sudden switch to hip-hop. And some of it’s X-rated hip-hop, at that.
That seemed to be the community today, the record buying community. And Freddie Foxx, who’s doing the rapping on those two particular things, he was making a crossover introduction with me and my songs to the hip hop community. I’m not expecting too much of that for myself but for Freddie Foxx. If anything happens with those two tunes, than naturally I would be exposed to a new market. I guess that was the whole point of that. The songs [“Personality” and “Stagger Lee”] were used in the film “Only in America,” about Don King. Those two songs should have been throughout the film but the producer decided to only put “Personality” at the end. He didn’t think “Only in America” had the hip hop market. I probably made a mistake by putting them on the album, but it was a good idea at the time.
[Above: The opening of “Don King: Only in America.” Vondie Davis-Hall as Lloyd Price shows up at the 2:45 mark]
Are you still friends with Don King after making this movie?
I’ve been friends with Don King for nearly 40 years. I still think he’s brilliant and probably one of the smartest guys in the boxing business. I have been asked a lot if I’m still friends with Don King. I have never been angry with Don King. We talk periodically. But after the movie, I understand he’s had some bad feelings about it and about where I came from in the movie. But the actual fact is most of the movie is true. I did bring him in here. Whatever it says, I did it. Except a few things are out of sync in terms of him getting out of jail and things like that. But I still like Don. We don’t communicate as much as we used to. In fact, I’ve only spoken to him once since that film came out. He didn’t like it too much. He understood that that was his life and that was the way it is. There’s a lot more to his life too. It doesn’t reflect exactly what it is…I still like him, but we’re not as friendly as we used to be.
You were inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – finally. Did the induction inspire you to get active and make this album?
No, it had absolutely nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, I felt insulted by being left out so long since “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was a flagbearer and a pioneer for this music known today called rock and roll. It introduced the big beat. And everybody came three or four years after Lloyd Price, But I was probably one of the last of this generation to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I had mixed feelings about that. At first I said I would not accept it because of principle. I just thought that there should have been something different. I know the people who run it and understood the reason why it took so long, I guess because of me being a rebel. Overall, I guess I felt good because so many people felt happy to see it happen finally. And so many people had pushed hard for it to happen. In that sense I felt good. But in another sense, I thought it was blatantly disrespectful that it had taken them so long to do this. If you’re not equal at the Hall of Fame, then when are you equal? For example, it’s got to be a TV show. Acts who are TV friendly are the ones catered to the most. I resented that. Even though they were very qualified people – Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, the Mamas and the Papas – but in the advertising, and how it was presented, was all directed toward three particular people, not all the honorees. That’s one thing I think they’re doing real bad. And I think it’s going to backfire on them down the line. It should be a thing where those honored are treated with equal respect. I think it’s very wrong to direct it at a few who are TV friendly.
You did get to perform [with John Fogerty and Allen Toussaint] and from what I read you managed to steal the show.
Yeah, I was a little aggravated. It could have been a lot lot better. My speech was missing, it wasn’t on the teleprompter. And the little I did say was edited out [from the television broadcast, which aired at a later date]. There was a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes.
You mentioned your reputation as a rebel. Do you really think that was what delayed your induction?
I think so. I think that’s been going on since the late ‘50s. I had Wilson Pickett [whose first record deal was with Price’s independent label]. I was offered a deal to [bypass] Wilson Pickett in favor of Solomon Burke and I refused. Several things like this. ABC [Paramount] wanted me to break up the Lloyd and [business partner Harold] Logan relationship. They offered me a lot of money to dump Logan and I just would not do that because of principle and that caused our relationship to end. And that’s when I formed Double L. And of course Wilson Pickett came out of that. [In brief, Pickett submitted a demo of “If You Need Me,” which he co-wrote, to Atlantic, which gave the song to Solomon Burke, much to Pickett’s dismay. Price released Pickett’s version on Double L, but Burke’s became the much bigger hit.] I still think there’s some holdover from back there, because I controlled all of my songs. I was also told I shouldn’t produce. I write, I sing, I perform and I have hits. What is wrong with that? And that is the resentment I felt from way back there.
For example, when the Copa was really what it was I was told I would never work the Copa, I would never work Las Vegas. And most of it was true. But being that I did everything else so well, I never missed those areas. It never interfered with what I was doing as a human being by standing up for what I thought was right. I never thought, for example, if you create one of the fastest airplanes in the world and you take your design to someone to help you get it to the public and they tell you we’re going to give you two percent and take 98 percent, I never thought that was right. I still don’t. So that was part of the resentment period – because I was enlightening the artists at the time, I was forming Lloyd-Logan music. In 1958, nobody had ever done that before. In 1956, when I did my first record company, no artist, black or white, had ever done that. In fact, when I did my second company, Frank Sinatra decided to do Reprise. People started to realize that you don’t have to take it and you can get a better share of your creations.
But Frank Sinatra is the one who’s credited as the first musician to start his own record company.
Absolutely correct and it’s absolutely ridiculous. I guess because he’s Frank Sinatra.
Tell me about “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” Is it true that it was written first as a radio jingle?
Not the song itself. When New Orleans got its first [black] disc jockey, back in those days the radio stations was on from dusk to dawn. The black jockeys had to have a sponsor, that was the only way they got paid. So this jockey came in from Laurel, Mississippi. His name was Okey Dokey Smith. He had one commercial, Maxwell House coffee. So he had this little thing he would say every time he would come on the air, which at first I think was for 15 minutes in the early afternoon. He would say, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat mother’s homemade pies and drink Maxwell House coffee!” That was his commercial. And he would play three or four records and be off the air. So I got to listening to him because he was kind of like our hero. He drove a big brand new Oldsmobile when the Rocket 88 was the car. He would come out to the area where I would live and we’d watch ’em and shake his hand. He was also a baseball player and we’d watch him play ball. And I just got to humming this “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” It had no melody, nuthin’. I learned how to play what they call the eight-bar blues on the piano and it had that second line rhythm that they do in the Mardi Gras. So I’d learn how to play it and I would change the lyrics every time I’d sing it, but I’d sing about Lawdy Miss Clawdy. And I started picturing Miss Clawdy as a girl, a teenager, which in this case was Nellie Dukes, a little girl I was trying to go with [laughs]. And I’d start singing it, playing it, changing the lyrics every time I’d do it. and Dave Bartholomew somehow came out to – my mother had a little fish shop – he stopped there one day and I was on the piano playing that little melody and he said, “That sounds alright.” And Dave Bartholomew at that time was to me the biggest musician in the world – ‘cause I hadn’t been any place and he had the big band with Fats Domino. All the guys that I would love to be at that time were with Dave.
He took interest in hearing me do that “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” He asked me to do it several times and I did. He said, “There’s a guy coming to town and I might be able to get you recorded.” That was a whole new word in my vocabulary. And that’s how it happened. He stayed right on top of it until he got Art Rupe from Specialty Records to come out to my mother’s house to hear me do this “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and Art said, “It could be a smash.” I never heard that before. Another new word. He said, “We’ll record him in three weeks.” In three weeks, they brought me down to this little dusty room Cosimo [Matassa] had. Fats Domino was on piano, Lee Allen was on tenor saxophone, Frankie Fields [bass], Earl Palmer [drums], the best musicians in the world to me were in that studio and I didn’t have any words or nuthin’, I just ad libbed it twice. They said, “OK, that’s it.” I never knew what I sounded like, no playbacks, no nuthin’. It was on the air a week before my brother told me, “They keep playing this thing by Lloyd Price, this little guy from Kenner, Louisiana. Didn’t you do something with Dave?” Then it came to me that that’s what I sound like! [laughs].
So that was your first time in front of a mike?
In my entire life. It was never my plan. I was just doing it for fun. And Dave, he heard something in it. I had the honor about a month ago to induct him and Fats Domino into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
You became famous as a bandleader. You were the leader of the Lloyd Price Orchestra. When did you get a musical education?
I was in the process of taking trumpet lessons, but in terms of being a musician musician, I am not that. I am what you call, what everybody says, you play by ear. I can hear stuff, I can hear chords, but I can’t put ‘em all together. I’ve been trying to play guitar for years. I can’t sit down and write an arrangement, but what I can do is tell somebody how to do it. I can tell the arranger how things should go. In fact, when I switched over to jazz, I had a big band for a long time, with Slide Hampton. We did two albums and I would hum the parts to Slide. But as far as sitting down and playing them myself, I can’t do it.
When did you stop performing live regularly?
When I heard that Morris Levy was selling Birdland, I wanted to park the band in New York. I did finally get Birdland and renamed it Lloyd Price’s Turntable, right at 52nd and Broadway, and parked the band there for three years, from 1968 to 1972, changed the name once to Lloyd Price’s Crawdaddy following the interest in Crawdaddy magazine,. I bought some interest in Crawdaddy magazine. And that was when I started to deal with Don King and these fights.
And did you start to curtail your musical activities?
A lot. My whole thing with Don King was I really liked him. I knew him long before we ever started to do business. He was a real good friend. I would go to his house and stay. In fact, he built the Corner Tavern [in Cleveland], just as I did in New York, to house my band, so I wouldn’t have to travel so much. So we were real good buddies. When he wanted to go into the fight game, I knew Muhammad Ali. I knew everybody. I was kind of like the hero. I started introducing him to everybody I knew. You’ll hear him tell it that he just happened. That’s not true. I introduced him from California to Maine, from England to Africa, to just about everybody he knew. Under my own umbrella, because of all the records I sold before I met him.
So I did give up music. I saw another business where I did not have to go out myself. I had signed enough autographs. The man I wanted to recognize me was a banker when I walk in. I wanted him to say, “Here’s Lloyd.” I had played with the Supremes the first time they went on the road, I took practically all of the Motown acts on the road with me their first time because Berry Gordy and I were real good friends. After I had introduced these kids, when I came out to do my show, it didn’t have the dynamics it had after these kids. I said, well, I got to think about doing something else. I didn’t want to stick around like most fighters who can’t hear the bell when it rings. So I wanted to go away as who and what the public remembered me from, not one of those singers I hear about today crying in Washington about having no money. I never wanted to have that kind of stigma attached to me, I’d rather go drive a taxi or something. So that was one reason why I figured me and Don King should go do another business. I had visions of baseball, basketball teams. I saw opportunity. After Camelot in Washington, the doors had opened wide in this country for black men who could think. Opportunity was there. The way in was to go in with the heavyweight champion. That would give you part of an industry you never had before. And from that could come everything – basketball, baseball, whatever you wanted it to be if you were successful with the one thing. King was. And that was kind of when we parted. He didn’t want to switch hats, he wanted to stay with the boxing business. That’s not not what this is about. I’m a creator. You do one thing, you do it well, you move on to the next thing. I was kind of disappointed about how it turned out because we were successful with a few things. I went to live in Africa, in Nigeria. Just figured I’d work out things in my head from there. And that’s when I was away from my music a lot. I was there for maybe 12 years. I’d come into the county, spend two months, then go back, that kind of stuff. In Lagos, Victoria Island.
[Discussion of political trouble in Nigeria in the early ‘80s, particularly the short-lived regime of the democratically elected Shehu Shagari. Price said: “He was a very good man, but the army blocked him.”]
Your new album is on a new label, KJAC. What’s the meaning of KJAC?
Well, my wife’s name is Jacqueline. We’ve been friends for a very long time and married for a couple of years now.
Now that you’ve done one record, do you plan to make more records?
Yes, I have this studio here and I intend to do several things. Some big band things, some contemporary jazz and probably more rock and roll. I’m just trying to see exactly where I’m at. But this new one, I wanted to introduce myself again to the public as not what I was. This album is different than anything I’ve done in the past in terms of the emotional feeling of the songs.
Would you ever want to do a New Orleans-flavored album?
Well, actually Allen Toussaint was inducted into the Hall of Fame the same day I was and we were talking about how wonderful it would be to do an album together. I think it’s a great idea and I hope we get to do that.
And I hear there’s been some talk about an HBO movie about you.
I think it’s going to happen. I got a call from a producer just this week and I’m going to meet with him next week. The movie would be based on part of a book I’m working on. I’ve already written 846 pages. There’s many parts to the things I’ve done. I’m calling it “Vision and Deception,” because you see that a lot in this business. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go in this business. I know almost all the players. It’s not negative, but it’s about how things are done. You cannot blame a guy for wanting to make money on his investment, but the guy who comes in with the creation, he’s not left aside – because if you don’t have anything to begin with and you get something, that don’t mean you’ve been robbed, it just was not correct. I hate to use the term fair because that’s not it either. Fair applies to the weather [laughs]. But when you have a first timer with no training sitting down to negotiate a deal with a Wall Street lawyer, that’s like a criminal trying to negotiate his freedom with the prosecutor. You’re just not trained to do that. In that sense, it’s unfair. There’s got to be a different kind of justice system for where we stand as artists. And that’s what the book is about.
Where did you get the strength and resolve to stand up against the record companies?
I think it was Logan. He was like 15, 20 years older than I was. I was just a kid. I instantly took a liking to him in West Virginia [where] he was a dance promoter. He loved to skate and bowl. This was one guy, I didn’t look at him as just a promoter. I’d work for a percentage and he’d always have the money right. So when I got drafted in the service, I started corresponding with him. And it was the things he would say to me about, “Man, you’ve got to watch this. Watch yourself, do this, do that.” When I came out of the service I went to see him. I asked him to come in the business with me and he said no, he never wanted to be more than he was, which was a hustler. So from his hustling experience, just sitting and talking and riding with him, it kind of rubbed off and I was able to apply his wisdom to what I was doing. I found out that if you don’t speak up when you have an audience, when will you talk? If I didn’t know something, I would ask a question. That might appear to be arrogant, but it wasn’t. I just didn’t accept whoever it was giving me a contract and telling me to sign it. [Logan was murdered in a gangland-style slaying in 1969 in the nightclub he owned with Price. The crime remains unsolved.]
Most of the people who got ripped off, it was the advance that got ‘em. Here’s a thousand dollars. It’s that instant money thing. But I never drank, smoked, used drugs or had bad habits. I’d drive a taxi cab to get me the food I need to live. I never was starstruck. I had 23 hit records and I never looked for the next record to hit. I never had that need that they had to be somebody. I just wanted to be. And if I had a job, whether it was construction or working on a computer, I’d ask, “What am I doing? What am I getting for it?” And whoever I’m doing business with, I expect to hear it from them. If I don’t, I put it on the table and ask, “Why aren’t you asking me what this is about?” [laughs].
[Above: “Just Because,” from 1957, Price’s first record to chart on Billboard’s Top 100.]