How Lloyd Price changed the world

In 1952, teenage singer Lloyd Price recorded his debut 45. Lawdy Miss Clawdy, a rambunctious slice of R&B that patterned the New Orleans sound, was issued on Art Rupe’s Specialty label and hit the US R&B No.1 spot, eventually selling a million copies. Not only was it musically significant, but its social and cultural impact was huge too.

“What it did was bring about a crucial chain of events,” says Lloyd Price today from his New York home, where he’s lived since 1959. “Before that record, if a bunch of black kids and a bunch of white kids were walking down the same side of the road, the black kids would have to cross the road to the other side: you didn’t talk to each other, you didn’t look at one another, you lived separate lives. That’s how it was.

“After Lawdy Miss Clawdy, suddenly black kids and white kids were coming together through music. White kids were buying the record, dancing to the record, and that was the catalyst for the first youth movement.

“Four years after Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Ms Rosa Parks sat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Where did that come from? Six years later, Martin Luther King marched in Washington with nearly 300,000 people. That could not have possibly happened if the young black kids and the young white kids hadn’t got together and started having music in common. Those young kids of the 1950s, they are now the grandparents of the kids who voted in President Obama.

This music played such an important role, not just in the US but around the world. This record caused the bell to ring for civil rights. People heard the call through the beat of the music.” Lloyd Price first heard the beat of the music on the jukebox in his mother Beatrice Price’s Fish ’n’ Fry. Born in Kenner, Louisiana on March 9, 1933, he sang and danced along to the songs being played on it from an early age.

“When I was seven, I saw an aeroplane in the sky and I said to my mother that I wanted to fly aeroplanes,” Price says. “My mother said coloured people don’t do that, so then I said I wanted to be a musician. ‘Now that you can do – you can sing and you can dance and you can make music.’

“Well, there was a jukebox in the Fish ’n’ Fry. There were only 10 records on it – that meant 20 songs with the A and B sides, and it cost five cents to play a side. Customers would put records on, I’d sing and dance to them and they would throw quarters to see me do it. I remember to this day the records on that jukebox: Louis Jordan, now he was the king; then there was Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, Lucky Millinder, Rosco Gordon. There was Nat King Cole too. That’s where it all started for me, with that jukebox.”

Price took up the piano, his touchstones being Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. “Fats Domino had had a hit with The Fat Man – that was the hottest record in town and I wanted to play that kind of music. One time I was playing and my younger brother Leo joined in on a beer case, using it as a drum, and from that moment we were a band and we spent all our time playing – at home, at school on lunch break.”

After school, Price worked at the airport, loading food onto planes. It was there he met Mr Morgan, a co-worker who ran a club in Kenner.

“He said he’d heard of our band and did we want to try out for a slot playing Friday and Saturday nights at Morgan’s. I couldn’t believe it. I got some friends from school to join me and my brother and we started practising. We got the gig.”

By 17, Price had written an eight-bar blues called Lawdy Miss Clawdy, inspired by a radio ad for Maxwell House instant coffee he’d heard on WBOK in New Orleans. “There was a DJ on there, James ‘Okey Dokey’ Smith. He was our hero and his catchphrase was ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, and he’d make up these jingles: ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat Mother’s Homemade Pies and drink Maxwell House coffee’ was one.”

Price’s big break came as he was singing Lawdy Miss Clawdy in the Fish ’n’ Fry and producer Dave Bartholomew walked in and heard him. Bartholomew was then working as an A&R man for Art Rupe, the owner of the Specialty label, home to The Soul Stirrers, Sister Wynona Carr and Roy Milton. He was looking for a young artist to make records for issue on Specialty.

“I didn’t know how a record was made, didn’t know what a recording studio was, didn’t know about studio musicians and suddenly Dave Bartholomew was telling me about Art Rupe and how he’d want to make a record with me,” says Price.

An audition was arranged at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio. Two months later, Price was back in the studio recording the song. With Dave Bartholomew producing and Bartholomew’s band – guitarist Ernest McLean, bassist Frank Fields, drummer Earl Palmer and tenor and alto saxophonists Herbert Hardesty and Joe Harris respectively – augmented by Fats Domino on piano, Price took the mic and wailed his heart out.

After Lawdy Miss Clawdy, suddenly black kids and white kids were coming together through music

“I went into the studio, Fats Domino was on the piano… man, that was amazing. Dave Bartholomew was producing and I sang my song. I never knew that it was going to change the world, that it really was going to change absolutely everything. I just wanted to impress the girls in high school and hear my name said on the radio. All the artists in that period, whoever they were, they just wanted to hear the DJ say their name on the radio so they could swing their swagger a little bit more.”

Issued in 1952, it hit the US R&B No.1 spot, remaining there for seven weeks. At the end-of-year polls, the song was awarded R&B Record Of The Year in both Billboard and Cashbox magazines. It also provided the blueprint for New Orleans R&B and was instrumental in the breaking of racial barriers. It made Price the first black teen idol.

“I couldn’t walk down the street when the kids found out I made that record,” says Price. “I was all the great artists rolled into one, from Monday to Sunday. I was bigger than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson put together. They had to put me in the army to stop me, but they couldn’t stop the movement. While I was away, Little Richard popped up, then Elvis Presley popped up and the black and white kids kept dancing together.”

Lawdy Miss Clawdy has since become one of the most covered songs in history. Both Little Richard and Elvis Presley recorded it in 1956, while Fats Domino, Ronnie Hawkins, Carl Perkins, Eric Burdon et al have covered it too. In 1953, Tommy Ridgley recorded an answer record, Oh Lawdy My Baby, while Larry Williams used it as the foundation for Dizzy Miss Lizzy in 1958. Hearing the record today, it still resonates.

Buying his contract back from Art Rupe for $1,000, he relocated to Washington DC. There, with his friend, promoter Harold Logan, he launched the KRC (Kent Record Company) label. This was a revolutionary step for a black musician in the late 50s.

“Don Robey already had his label [Peacock Records] but I was the first black artist to have their own label. When they drafted me into the army, I was so popular I went immediately into special service, where I met a group of lawyers. They wanted to know why every soldier knew who I was, so when I said I was in the music business, they taught me about the actual business side, how it wasn’t about having a hit record but about the song, and owning the publishing of that song et cetera. Since then I’ve done it all on my own, everything, from the writing, singing, recording and producing to the releasing, publishing, promoting and booking. The industry doesn’t like it but there’s nothing they can do to stop me. A hit record is a hit record and everybody wants a hit record.”

KRC was primarily used to issue Price’s singles, and when 1957’s Just Because caused local ripples, Price was picked up by ABC, who distributed it nationally, helping make it Price’s first US Top 30 pop hit. 1958’s Stagger Lee, meanwhile, returned him to the top of the US R&B chart and provided the first of three US pop No.1’s (1959’s Personality and I’m Gonna Get Married, both co-authored with Logan, were the other two).

This record caused the bell to ring for civil rights. People heard the call through the beat of the music

When Price performed Stagger Lee on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, the host requested that he water down the lyrics. An old folk standard relating the murder of Billy Lyons by ‘Stag’ Lee Shelton in St Louis, Missouri in 1895, Price changed the shooting to a quarrel. His 45 version, however, became a message song, the characters representing the freedom struggle from white oppression.

“But,” Price says, “I really wasted no time on the recording of Stagger Lee. I needed a B-side to a song I’d written called You Need Love, which I thought was just about the greatest thing I’d ever done, so I did the arrangement, got it down in one take and forgot about it. Two months after the record came out, it still hadn’t done anything, and a DJ from Spokane, Washington called up, said, ‘Stagger Lee’s the hit here.’ We flipped the record and by the next afternoon we had sold 2,000 copies of Stagger Lee and that was the beginning of a three-and-a-half-million run.”

Stagger Lee yielded the first of four UK Top 30 hits for Price, peaking at No.7. The success of his version also led to a slew of covers by the likes of Pat Boone, Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown and Wilson Pickett. It has remained a favourite of soul and blues acts ever since, from The Fabulous Thunderbirds – whose version appears on the 1985 soundtrack to Porky’s Revenge! – to The Black Keys, who paid tribute with their track Stack Shot Billy on their 2004 album Rubber Factory. Like Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Stagger Lee also spawned an answer song. In 1959, Titus Turner issued _Return _Of Stagolee on the King label.

After Price’s contract with ABC ended in 1963, he founded Double L Records with Logan, which provided a platform for a fledgling Wilson Pickett.

“I was a big fan of Bill Doggett’s Honky Tonk,” says Price. “He was playing in Flint, Michigan and I wanted to hear him play the song in person so I went along. Wilson Pickett was his singer and that night I heard Wilson sing for the first time and I thought he was a star. I tried to get ABC to sign him but they laughed at me, so I had Robert Bateman, who had just produced The Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman at Motown, take him in the studio and do a demo. His first record, [1963’s] If You Need Me, was an absolute smash.”

Double L also put out records by Buddy Lamp, Candy Carroll, Gerri Granger, Pookie Hudson and Roy Tyson, although it was Price’s own output on the label, like his 1963 take on Erroll Garner’s Misty and the following year’s Billie Baby, his version of _Bill _Bailey, that provided the label with its main success.

Next Price launched Turntable, putting out what have since become three highly sought-after 45s by Howard Tate – That’s What Happens, Plenty Of Love and My Soul’s Got A Hole In It – plus Tate’s album Reaction, all from 1969. It also issued Price’s covers of I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Bad Conditions, also from 1969, the latter providing Price with his last R&B Top 30 hit.

By this time Price had also purchased the famous jazz club Birdland at 1674 Broadway, New York. He had played the club in April 1964 and after renaming it The Lloyd Price Turntable, he started booking acts to perform.

“There were all these R&B acts having huge hits, but they could only work in one location in New York at the time, which was Harlem and the Apollo,” he explains. “So I got the Lloyd Price Turntable on Broadway and started booking them and suddenly the youth were descending on Broadway. I got James Brown and each time he played, we’d line them up round and round the Broadway – it almost became a riot. We also had Maxine Brown, The Coasters, Chubby Checker, Patti LaBelle And The Bluebelles, Bernard Purdie, King Curtis… you name them, they all worked at the Turntable.

“It was the biggest club in town. We had 378 seats with a cabaret licence and it changed the way New York worked in terms of clubs – the stage came out of the floor, we had disco lights, strobe lights, we had a recording studio and we recorded all the shows. It was a magnificent operation. It also provided the prototype for the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood. We had young adults eating hamburgers and french fries and listening to music. That’s where the idea for that type of thing began.”

Price’s plans ground to a sudden halt, however, when Harold Logan was murdered in the office above the club in May 1969. “I was due to go on TV, co-host the Miss Universe Pageant with Bob Hope, then Harold Logan was shot and that put paid to me going on TV. It was a race thing, had to be. We started getting these telephone calls – we got so tired of answering them. ‘There’s a bullet with your name on it too,’ ‘Your car is going to explode,’ all that stuff. It was real dramatic, and all these years later we still don’t know who it was.”

Disillusioned, Price turned his back on music, moved to Africa and teamed up with his friend Don King, a boxing promoter. Together they put together the Rumble In The Jungle – the 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire – and the accompanying concert featuring BB King, Miriam Makeba, the Fania All Stars and James Brown.

“You could not go back to Africa without doing a festival,” says Price. “It was just a simple case of getting on the phone and calling the acts. I was the most popular black guy in New York with my record labels and my club, and we ran with the slogan ‘From slave ship to championship’. I said, ‘Fancy it, Mr Brown?’ and he said yes!”

Two years later, Price and King formed the LPG label, which issued Price’s last hit. What Did You Do With My Love barely scraped the US R&B Top 100. Price then ducked the spotlight until a 1993 tour with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Gary US Bonds reawakened his musical drive. “It was the first time I had played in the UK and it was a wonderful experience,” he remembers. “We played Wembley in front of 11,000 people. Little Richard was a riot. Little Eva was on the bill too.”

With his critical stock high again, Kenner City Council honoured the singer by renaming a street Lloyd Price Avenue in 1995. That same year, he received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm And Blues Foundation. In 1998, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and in 2010, into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame. The following year he published his autobiography, The True King Of The Fifties: The Lloyd Price Story; then in 2015, Sumdumhonky, a collection of essays on the African American experience.

“The motivation for writing Sumdumhonky was because after all these years I’m really not seeing that much change since the arrival of Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” he says. “In fact, sometimes I think it’s getting worse. And there’s got to be change because we’re really not that different and we’ve really got to start getting along.”

His musical Lawdy Miss Clawdy, co-written with producer Phil Ramone, and driven by the same cause, is due to premiere later this year.

“The script is done, Paul Shaffer is our musical director, we’re rehearsing for 30 days and then we’re ready to go. It’s telling the story of the youth from 1952 to the present day and the role Lawdy Miss Clawdy played in it. As with Sumdumhonky, I’m just hoping it will bring about some form of change. It would be great if it did.”

Sumdumhonky is out now, published by Cool Titles