Price Is Right
In 1952, when he was only 19 years old, Lloyd Price cut a record titled “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”. Having written the melody originally for a radio advert, he was encouraged by friends to re-work the song and release it as a single, which he did, adding lyrics and pounding piano rhythms that he lifted from New Orleans R&B. In the liner notes for this new collection, Joseph Laredo explains, “Price recorded the tune for Specialty Records . . . and soon found himself with a #1 R&B hit that remained in the top position for seven weeks. Its popularity led to numerous cover versions, including a 1956 effort by Elvis Presley.”
In the months immediately following the single’s release, Price appeared to be standing on the verge of stardom. But then the army drafted him, and, for the next three years, he appeared before military audiences in Asia, fronting a mobile big band outfit. When he returned to the states, though, he turned away from swing and cut another bluesy stomp, “Just Because”. The single, which was picked up and promoted by ABC-Paramount, a national label, eventually rose to #3 on the R&B chart.
Price, however, wanted a huge, name-making hit and he understood that in order to get this, he had to cross what W.E.B. DuBois called “the color line”. Already in the late ‘50s, rock and roll—a style of dance music that mixed black and white musical forms—was tremendously popular. And to capitalize on the trend, Price started mixing the swing sound he’d worked with overseas into the hard blues he’d grown up hearing in New Orleans.
His first attempt at this fusion resulted in “Stagger Lee”, an updated version of an old blues about a man who murders his friend in a barroom. Built with swinging horns, peppy ‘pop’ background vocals and shuddering piano, the song titillated audiences around the world with its ‘low’ subject matter. It also troubled powerful figures like Dick Clark, as well as the Legion of Decency, a watchdog group that threatened radio stations with boycotts and bad press if they continued to play the song. To save the record, Price reluctantly cut a new version, which replaced lyrics like:
“Stagger Lee went home and he got his .44
Said ‘I’m goin’ to the barroom just to pay that debt I owe’
Stagger Lee went to the barroom and he stood across the barroom door
He said ‘Nobody move’ and he pulled his .44
Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet came through Billy and it broke the bartender’s glass”
“Stagger Lee went home and he fell down on the floor
He said ‘Billy did me wrong and I don’t wanna see him no more’
Oh Billy felt bad because he hurt his poor friend Stag
‘I’m gonna give him his girlfriend and everything that I have’
Stagger Lee and Billy never fuss or fight no more
Because he got back his girlfriend and Stagger Lee was no more sore”
Fortunately, the original (which, by the way, is the oldies station standard these days) appears in this collection, rather than the remake.
For a year-and-a-half, Price’s pop-blues formula produced several more hits, including “Lady Luck”, “Question”, and, perhaps his most second most famous recording, “Personality”. But as the decade ended, and new performers infiltrated the charts—like California pop bands and girl groups—audiences turned away. And after one last big hit in 1963, a jazz cover of Johnny Mathis’ “Misty” (which, sadly, doesn’t appear here), Price shifted his attention from performing to producing and promoting, eventually becoming a recording label executive.
Forty years may have passed since “Mr. Personality” cut his most important material, but his music has influenced—and continues to influence—artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, the Clash, the Replacements, and even Nick Cave (who reworked “Stagger Lee” on Murder Ballads). That a figure as important as this—who like Chuck Berry and Otis Redding sits on a throne in the rock and roll pantheon—is so little known today escapes understanding and forgiveness.