Lloyd Price - Biography
By Jimi McCluskey
Though probably best known for the most popular take on the American standard “Stagger Lee,” as well as other hits of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Lloyd Price has had a long and fascinating career, both inside and outside of the music business.
Price was born March 9th, 1933 (the consensus date, although years vary from ‘32 – ‘35 depending on the source) in Kenner, Louisiana on the outskirts of New Orleans. His business acumen and love of music can easily be credited to his parents, a loving couple whose marriage would surpass the 65 year mark and who ran a local market, or “Fish Fry.” That establishment would provide two important influences for young Lloyd: a model of how to run a successful enterprise and, probably more importantly for his fans, a Jukebox in the corner that would be the love of his early life. The man who would later be known as “Mr. Personality” would earn his first nickname,“Mister Rhythm,” from his obsession with that jukebox.
Soon Price was starting his musical training, initially on the trumpet but then moving on to the piano. As a teenager, he played in a high school band with his brother Leo, performing at proms, etc. He also earned spending cash after school at what would later be called, Louis Armstrong International Airport. His dream of becoming a recording artist and making records that would be played on his parents' fish fry jukebox was in full swing.
No small amount of fate brought legendary New Orleans bandleader and record producer, Dave Bartholomew into Lloyd’s brother’s club in 1952, where Bartholomew overheard the teen messing around on the piano. Bartholomew was scouting and producing for Specialty Records, following the souring of his relationship with Imperial Records. Specialty Records owner, Art Rupe, was looking to broaden his Los Angeles base, and despite discouragement from many of his friends, he came to New Orleans to sign new talent. After making an announcement on a radio show, Rupe set up shop in the soon to be legendary J&M studios. According to legend, Price was the last artist auditioned and accounts vary about the audition. Rupe claims he was agitated because Price took a lot of time to prepare, and the despondent Price wound up crying throughout his audition. This passionate delivery of his song, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” was a stunning performance which ultimately led to Price’s debut recording session with Specialty Records.
Because young Price did not have a band for his first recording session, Rupe hired Bartholomew's band which included Fats Domino on piano. This collaboration between Price and Domino would be the start of a life-long friendship, who played together as recently as 2007 at a gala event in New York. Art Rupe would later say that “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was the first record that appealed to a white audience as well as to African-American fans. “Lawdy” also was a big inspiration for a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi by the name of Elvis Presley, who later became one of the first of hundreds to cover Price’s songs.
Unfortunately, by the time the recording session was taking place, Price had his marching papers to serve in Korea. Not so fortuitous for a fledgling career, it at least provided inspiration for another song to fill out the session: “Mailman Blues.“ By the time “Lawdy” was rockin’ the jukes and climbing up the charts, Price would already be in basic training. Much finagling from Art Rupe and their lawyers would only result in some temporary breaks from serving, which allowed him to record, play concerts and nurture his career. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” became a huge R&B hit, not only topping the Billboard R&B chart, but also staying at its upper numbers for months. The following releases on Specialty, “Oooh, Oooh, Oooh” b/w “Restless Heart,” and “Ain’t It A Shame” b/w “Tell Me Pretty Baby,” were both two-sided R&B top ten hits. Price was definitely making a name for himself, though subsequent releases did not fare well, causing Rupe and Specialty Records to lose interest in his career.
By 1956, Price had served with honor and was discharged from the army. But by the time Price arrived stateside, Art Rupe was much more interested in the rocketing career of Little Richard than revisiting Price. Ever the savvy businessman, Price took it in stride when Specialty did not renew his contract. He then relocated to Washington DC where (with partners Harold Logan and Bill Boskent) he started up KRC Records.
Taking inspiration from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Price penned the soulful ballad “Just Because” as the first single for his new label. ABC-Paramount Records picked up the single in 1957, and for the next two years Price continued to release chart-topping singles for the label. By 1959, he had a string of top 40 hits with such gems as “Personality,” “I’m Gonna Get Married,” and the most successful version of one of the most important songs in music history, “Stagger Lee.”
Before the story can progress, some back history is required. Somewhere around 1890 a bad man, Stagger Lee (Stack-O-Lee or Stack Lee, depending on the teller of the tale), shot Billy De Lyons. Countless retellings of this tale--spoken or as folk, jazz or blues ballads--would be communicated over the next 70 years or so, making for enduring folklore. In 1958, Lloyd Price shot “Stagger Lee” all the way up to number one on the pop and R&B charts, adding his unique intro to the classic tale and forever cementing it in popular history. “The night was clear and the moon was yellow, and the leaves…came …tumbling…down.”
Price had numerous hits for ABC-Paramount over the next few years, with both “Personality” and "I'm Gonna Get Married" topping the R&B charts and making #2 and #3 respectively on the pop charts. Despite such strong showings, and possibly due to his entrepreneurial talent, by 1962 Price left ABC and founded another independent label, Double L Records. Double L was formed with his old KRC Records partner, Harold Logan, and it saw its biggest hit in 1963 with Price’s cover of Errol Garner’s “Misty.” The label also released early records by such Soul legends as Wilson Picket and Howard Tate.
Throughout the rest 1960’s, Lloyd Price would see little success with his own releases, and by the end of the decade he had opened a nightclub in NYC and another label, Turntable Records. When his longtime label partner, Harold Logan, was murdered in 1969, Price left the business of music to pursue other interests.
An enthusiastic boxing fan, Price is known to have supported a young fighter named Cassius Clay when he was preparing for his historic fight with Sonny Liston. After relocating to Africa, Lloyd Price began a long and fruitful relationship with boxing promoter Don King. A glimpse of Price can be seen in the brilliant and award-winning documentary “When We Were Kings,” about the great heavyweight championship fight in Zaire, Africa between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.
Upon returning to the US in the early '80, Price shyed away from the music business and did not perform live until 1993 when he joined Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gary “US” Bonds on their European tour. Currently, Price is still going strong well into his seventies, with a schedule of live dates every year, usually as part of the 4 Kings of R&B (Price, Jerry Butler, Ben E. King & Gene Chandler). Of course there are also other business ventures like, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy Sweet Potato Cookies,” just one of many products from his Lloyd Price Icon Food Brands. The food brand is only one of many companies that Price has founded, and through them he has always given back to his community. His endeavors have raised tens of millions of dollars for charity organizations. Recently, Price created the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall Of Fame, located in Harlem, New York.
Truly a giant of entertainment and industry, Lloyd Price was given the Pioneer Award in 1994 by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.