Rock And Roll Legend Lloyd Price Talks ‘sumdumhonky’, Reflects On Race, Life, Writing Hits
Lloyd Price is a man who should need no introduction. Getting his start in the 1940’s when he was still just a teenager, the young performer from Kenner, Louisiana released some of the biggest and most widely covered songs of all time. Songs like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, “Personality”, and “Stagger Lee” sold millions of copies and were some of the first recorded by a black man to top the charts. Price’s music was universal and connected with the mainstream at a time when “race music” and R&B – what would soon be called rock and roll – was little known outside of the Chitlin’ circuit clubs that could be found all across the South. This was the music that brought the white and black youths together at a time when America was entrenched in racial prejudice, to say the least. Alongside legends like Little Richard and Fats Domino, it is safe to say Lloyd Price is one of the godfathers of rock and roll. His influence on American popular music as a whole should never be understated, and it should come as no surprise that he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1998.
At the age of 82, Lloyd Price has spent his life writing hit songs and venturing into everything from the food industry to nightclubs and real estate. He had his own record label and is credited for discovering Wilson Pickett. Much of that stuff is behind him, but even in his older years Price still has more ambition than people half his age and he most definitely has a lot to say about what it was like growing up as a groundbreaking artist during a major shift in race relations in America. Understandably, much of Price’s feelings about that time period are anger, which he dwells on in his new memoir sumdumhonky. The new book avoids the standard rock and roll bio clichés, focusing instead on Price’s many experiences and encounters that came as the result of being a black man in a racist society. Price balances anger and frustration with wit and humor while reflecting on his life in a way that can also serve as a commentary on the state of race relations today. Above all, Lloyd Price is determined to let people from all walks of life know that the American dream is possible. Taking time from his bowling league and hanging with his beloved dogs at home in New York, Mr. Personality himself recently took the time to chat with me about sumdumhonky, his legacy, and where we are as a society in America today.
I guess a good place to start is, when did you have the idea to write this book, and given all of the racial tensions that dominate the news these days, was that a motivator?
Actually, I had been working on this for a long time. Even back in the day when I would run into a problem, I would just keep a little note in my mind hoping that one day I could write a book and tell my story. It’s been a long time coming, but I finally got it done. Those experiences, my son and daughter don’t believe that this country was like that. So I think the historical part of it is the contribution that brought the youth together in the 1950’s was [rock and roll] and it was responsible for a lot of stuff and should be told. That was the motivation, of telling the story of [that time period] in comparison to what’s going on now. In my view, after all of those years have gone by, a lot of things have changed and a lot of stuff hasn’t. That’s the whole point of the book.
It’s interesting how you chose to focus on your experiences as a black man as opposed to sticking to the standard memoir of a musician. How come you didn’t want to get too deep and tell that story?
Well, I told that story in the book called Lawdy Miss Clawdy: The True King of the 50’s and normally there’s more to a musician than just being a musician, if he was like me. I was one who wanted to experience things and be able to talk about them because I had the megaphone to do so. Everybody knew me as a singer and a songwriter but they never knew me as a person with feelings who goes through the experiences of furious brutality and lived in the age where, being a black man whether I was an artist or not, anything I thought about was against the law, including going to the bathroom or working in some of the biggest establishments in America and I couldn’t go to the bathrooms. I cannot tell you how that felt. The easiest way to tell [my story] without getting emotional about it was to write it. The [worst] part was that all these insults were done by people I knew well, the people we call brothers, the caucasians in this country. There’s nobody closer than a black man and a white man on Earth than in America, which is the greatest country in the world. But we did have that problem and you cannot sweep it under the rug, so the only way we’re going to get it resolved, even now, is by talking about it, and that’s what this book is about.
You say in the book that when you were drafted in 1953 (pg 51) you felt it was illegal. Can you elaborate on this, and do you think it happened to others?
I’m sure I wasn’t the first one who that happened to, but I’m also sure of this: when I was drafted it was illegal. I had four brothers in the armed services and one brother in the Coast Guard. The law at the time was that only four members could be taken into the service. You couldn’t even volunteer if you were the fifth brother; I had five brothers in there. And I was drafted because in the Top 10 or the Top 20 I had hit after hit after hit and had started a youth movement that started bringing the world together as we know it today. Young kids got hooked on that beat. They had never spoke, touched, or even looked at each other before, and I know that because I was one of those young kids. The contribution of that music from that time – three years after I recorded my first record – Rosa Parks sat on the bus in Montgomery, AL, which never would’ve happened had there not been a movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to have a march in Washington, and the grand children of those kids elected a black president in 2008, all from the movement of that music. I’m really proud of it and I think that the historic value that I’m trying to speak about from those experiences should be known.
Fairly early on in the book you talk about one of the first times you went out on the road and you were playing a show in Raleigh where they separated the mixed audience with a rope. Did you ever think that years later the civil rights movement would happen and one day we’d have a black president?
I never ever envisioned, I couldn’t have imagined that in a thousand years [laughs], because when I left Kenner, Louisiana as a teenager with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, I think we had just gotten our first black policeman. He was not allowed to carry a gun or arrest any white people. As I got older I thought his job was cleaning the bathroom with a police uniform on [laughs]. He had no authority. He’d come in the black neighborhood, he called himself a policeman, but he wasn’t. We called him everything except a policeman. When they first hired black cops in Chicago or Detroit or wherever, they were not allowed to ride in the same vehicles as white policemen. They later let them start carrying guns but that was for arresting people in the black neighborhoods across the tracks. The black man when I was a teenager had no rights, none whatsoever, a dog had more rights than he had. A dog can go inside the front door of a restaurant or a white church, but a black person could not do that. It’s going on right now; [black people] have been here over four hundred years as American citizens, and every ten years there has to be a committee to vote for civil rights. The other point is that anybody from any other country can come to America and spend seven years with a green card and pledge allegiance to the flag and become a full citizen. It didn’t stop in the 50’s, it’s going on now, the difference is it’s all in suits and for different reasons. Yet, it’s the greatest country in the world because if you have an idea that you believe is marketable, you have an opportunity to do it. Me, a little half-educated boy from Louisiana, I was able to write the first rhythm and blues song to sell a million copies. It’s been recorded a 178 times by the biggest and greatest acts in the world. I was allowed to go on and do another 15 hits, I’ve been on the charts 30 times – that can only happen here in America! Now it’s happening in England and maybe Australia, but as far as a person of color, this is his part of the earth that God has blessed him with. There’s no other country in the world where he can make those contributions as we made here in the 50’s. And it’s being taken back in a sense because all of the radio stations in the world you can’t turn on without hearing flavors of the 50’s. But yet, it’s been given a name like “oldie but a goodie” that’s a negative name so the black artists who created it felt less than the white artists who re-recorded the music. Again, it’s an invisible case of separation, but it’s nothing to be mad about, it’s just knowing that it’s there.
Yeah, and you talk about in the book how the press was always bias towards black performers and it still is.
It might be a little different now, but it ain’t that much different. When Ted Koppel was doing Nightline he gave Eminem three nights and called him the greatest hip-hopper in the world. What happened to Tupac and Sugar Hill Gang and all the folks that started it? I mean, it’s so obvious to see where this thing is going. Maybe Ted Koppel did it out of ignorance, but he did that! Eminem is a great musician, but he didn’t invent hip-hop, so how can he be the greatest one who ever did it? For example, if you didn’t know Elvis was dead, you’d think he’d be around the corner doing a movie. If the music from the 50’s is oldie but goodie, what about the music recorded in the 40’s? It’s just unbelievable when you see these things, and most people don’t pay attention to it, especially black people. They go right along with it. Use whatever term you want, but don’t give it a special category like oldie but goodie.
To me it’s just rock and roll.
Yes! It’s unbelievable the way these things are done. The reason I say that is because when you get a call from a promoter, they offer you the prices they gave you in 1950 in 2015. True, you don’t have a hit, but don’t insult with these deflated prices. That’s what the other gets, and most of them die without ever knowing their true value.
So are you saying that when people refer to your music as “oldies” it’s insulting to the music?
They never call Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen an oldie. It only applies to the blacks! Even Paul Anka and all those folks, you don’t see that, they say “here’s Paul Anka”. It just never felt right to me and that’s why I’m talking about it.
It was interesting what you said before about how you could only do what you did here. But in the 40’s and 50’s jazz musicians were treated like shit in America and then found great success in Europe.
You can go back to Paul Robeson. He was a great actor and singer and he got labeled as a Communist so he got sent packing. Did you ever hear Paul Robeson?
He sings “Old Man River” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.
Exactly! I’m just saying that whenever a black guy breaks the glass ceiling, there’s something wrong with him. If today he wears lipstick and calls everybody mudderbutter and all the women bitches and five or six felonies and uses a whole bag of coke, he will get the headline. But if he’s somebody like me who never drank or smoked, never used any drugs, there’s never been one bad thing said about me ever all the years I’ve been in this business, I mean I wrote one of the first million selling songs, been on the charts 30 times, had the biggest nightclub on Broadway, and my own record label and publishing company at 21. I created Wilson Pickett, Don King, the rumble in the jungle, the music on When We Were Kings, I wrote all of that music but it was stolen by [director and producer] Leon Gast and they got an Oscar. All of that is my work, but nobody writes about it. I laid the path for James Brown and Ray Charles and Earth, Wind and Fire. I was the first one with a big band in the 50s. I was the first one who used Don Costa and the Ray Charles Singers, I used a white chorus, I integrated musicians in New York to record my music. It’s all there and you’d think it’d be written about, but it hasn’t been. That’s why I think the media is bias. It was not just me – when Billy Eckstine was huger than everybody – they wrote about Satchmo. Not that he didn’t deserve it – Satch truly deserved it – but what about the other guys?
Well, if anyone should say these things it’s you, because you’ve accomplished what the true version of the American dream is.
Yes! I’m a little rock and roll singer from Kenner, LA. I had my Lawdy Miss Clawdy Sweet Potato Cookies in 486 Wal-Mart Supercenters. I had Lawdy Miss Clawdy pizza, cheesecakes, energy bars, all kinds of stuff! I’ve done that without ever forgetting that my background is writing songs, but this is America. Those opportunities are there for you. My big problem is that they’re not in the banks, the real estate, they’re not where it makes sense. I took my food idea to Chase Bank and three executives came to my house and said it was a wonderful idea and then they never got back to me. Those are the things where [black oeople] become invisible. I’m sure it didn’t happen to Domino’s Pizza or Papa John’s. I still have the greatest cookie on earth, it’s made out of sweet potatoes, there’s no white flour. What a great cookie! And we almost outsold Mrs. Field’s, which was the number one cookie in America.
So the cookies are no more?
All I gotta do is make them up! The recipes I still have. I got out of Wal-Mart because the smart thing to do is open up cafes and sell them myself, and that’s part of what I intend to do.
Do you intend to bring them back?
Absolutely, by all means. My nephew is opening a dessert cafe in New Orleans, we’ll make the cookies and sell them to the store, and as we grow that’s how we will get this product on the market. Kind of a franchise thing.
I’ve never had a sweet potato cookie but it sounds delicious.
That’s exactly what I’m saying [laughs]!
Your songs have been covered by so many different famous acts over time. Do you have a personal favorite cover of one of your songs?
Neil Simon with “Stagger Lee” and Joe Cocker with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, and Caterina Valente with “Personality”; Paul McCartney with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”; Elvis did a great job with it and so did Mickey Gilley. Neil Diamond did a killer “Stagger Lee”.
These days do you still work on music?
Yes I do. My playwright just called and he just finished my story, the Lloyd Price story, it’s going to be called Lawdy Miss Clawdy. In January we hope to have a full reading of it. Jeff Madoff did a wonderful job, it’s going to tell the true story about [the song’s] contribution to the youth movement from the 50’s all the way until now. That song brought teens around the world together, and that’s when I really realized that a hit in Germany is a hit in Japan, and a hit in Japan is a hit in Georgia, I mean all over the world. Music is universal, but the youth music started with that New Orleans beat with Fats Domino and all these other guys in the band that played on those first records I made; Dave Bartholomew, Lee Allen, Earl Palmer, great great guys and we came up with the New Orleans beat. Mostly it’s those chords, and the only thing that’s changed is the people who’ve played it. I took those blues chords and sped them up a little bit, and I can’t tell you what it was like in 1952, there was nobody but me. I learned how to play Professor Longhair’s, what they called an 8 bar blues. We didn’t have videos or cameras, and whoever thought that 50 years later I’d be talking about those nights. Nobody [laughs]!
Do you still talk to the godfathers of rock and roll from that time, like Little Richard and Fats Domino?
I talk to both of them, I was at Fats’ house two years ago and filmed him because he has dementia and I didn’t want the time to pass without me getting some footage of our life together because he played piano on my first five records. Little Richard – I got him recorded with Art Rupe when I was drafted in the service. I talked to him from Tokyo and he asked me if I could make a record over there because I needed a new record. I said no way, so he said, “do you know of anybody that has another song like ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy'”? It just so happened that before I got drafted I was in Macon, GA and Little Richard jumped up on the stage. He had on a light green suit, a yellow shirt, red tie, white and green shoes, and that high pompadour hair up on his head. During intermission he got up on the piano with no mike and started screaming “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”. I noticed that this guy did the same thing I did, and my bother Leo took his address. I told Art Rupe that Leo probably knew how to find him, and when he found him he was in Houston, TX with Don Robey traveling with Johnny Otis’ band. They arranged for him to go to New Orleans and record “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti”, whatever one was first.
Wow! That’s unbelievable hearing these stories firsthand. So, I’m just curious, what’s a day in the life for Lloyd Price like these days?
I’m here knocking out stuff. I’m still publishing and I’m trying to do a deal with Sony to do the remainder of time on the copyrights. I’m doing new music that will coincide with the play, and other than that I’m just here in the house. When I’m not doing this I’m a bowler, I got anywhere from a 199 to a 204 average, I bowl twice a week in leagues. Ain’t bad for a guy over 80 [laughs]!
That’s pretty damn good!
Yup, that’s my day.