Rock Pioneer Lloyd Price Has a Couple of Stories to Tell

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and rock pioneer Lloyd Price’s life has been much more interesting than yours or mine, from writing hits with Fats Domino to playing an influential role in the Rumble in the Jungle. Yet Price still has many more yarns to spin even now.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and rock pioneer Lloyd Price’s life has been much more interesting than yours or mine. I interviewed Price, aka “Mr. Personality,” the other day with regard to his new book sumdumhonky. Halfway into the interview, Price mentioned, just as an aside, that at one point in the ’60s he lived in the same apartment building in Philadelphia with his close friends Philly all-time boxing legend Joe Frazier and larger-than-life Philly all-time basketball legend, Wilt Chamberlin. Smokin’ Joe, The Big Dipper, and Mr. Personality all ran together, running Philly. That is a crew. A crew among crews. I have a feeling that those stories are a book in-and-of-themselves. Maybe a comic book series? But we didn’t even have time to get into it. For Price, that stuff is only a footnote.

That is how it goes when in 1952, at age 19, you sat down with Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew and cranked out one of the truly special and important early rock and roll songs: “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, a smash that became a staple of Elvis Presley’s live shows for his entire career and was covered by the Beatles. Price also recorded “Stagger Lee”, helping bring some black folklore and a harder edge to the rock and roll scene, and then he had a massive pop hit, “Personality” (hence the nickname), both in 1959.

Price discovered Little Richard. As a black man barely in his 20s in the mid-’50s, he started his own successful record label and music publishing company. He signed Wilson Pickett. He helped promote close friend Muhammad Ali’s biggest fights, “The Rumble in the Jungle” and “The Thrilla in Manila”. Actually, it was Price that got legendary fight promoter Don King into boxing’s big time. All of this checks out, by the way. A successful club owner in Manhattan. Served in Korea. Lived in Nigeria for over a decade. And so on.

Price, now 82 years old, wrote an autobiography in 2011, The True King of the Fifties: The Lloyd Price Story, and is working on a Broadway musical, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, with producer Jeffrey Madoff, coming, according to Price, in January or February of 2016.

sumdumhonky is a different kind of book; it is part memoir but really it is Price’s essays focusing on race relations throughout his rather extraordinary life. Price was born and raised in little Kenner, Louisiana, and from there he helped integrate popular culture through rock and roll, something which he is extremely proud of. He then found his way through the entertainment business and the rest, and learning a whole lot through it all. Over the phone for our interview, Price was exceedingly personable, Mr. Personality, even, with a very easy laugh. Sixty-three years since “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was the number one R&B song of the year, Price still has a lot to say

* * *

It’s interesting: I know your biography, I feel like you have lived many different careers, maybe a couple of different lifetimes, right?

[laughs] I was thinking about that today, I said “Whoa,” ya know, just reviewing all of the things that I’ve been into in my life because [producer] Jeff Madoff just finished the script for The Lloyd Price Story: Lawdy Miss Clawdy. And I was reading it and I had to say “Wow,” it was amazing all of the things I have been touched with and touched by.

Yep. Pretty amazing.

It was a wonderful thing.

I was thinking of Forest Gump, not because you are like Forest Gump but because you have been involved with everybody from Muhammad Ali to Fats Domino.

That’s right, that’s absolutely correct, from Fats Domino to Muhammad Ali. That tells the whole story.

So your book is not your typical memoir. You obviously had something to say about race. What made you decide to approach it that way?

Well, because it was a memory, it was things I have lived through. I have seen the way the political, or how the politics today in this country haven’t changed that much, but in spite of that, in spite of all of that, there’s no place like America. After traveling from one country to the other, from one capital to another, and meeting different people and everywhere I went I was welcome, except the early years of my life in Louisiana … I don’t think there is no two other men in the world as closely associated on this earth as the black American and the white American. Of all the different religions and all that in the world, these are two people that knows each other. [laughs]

Obviously it is a deep, deep topic. Coming from where you are coming from, I am still a bit shocked almost, I think; I know what Jim Crow was, but when I read the details it is always a little shocking. And do you think that is pretty common? I mean, people know but they don’t know, do you know what I mean?

It was intended, the title was intended to get attention.

From the white perspective, most white people looked at segregation back in the day by the color of someone’s skin, but the black man, to the person of color, it goes a lot deeper. Because how could a grown man be insulted and he can’t say anything back? If he does, his life depended on it. And that is almost the same thing that is happening today. The only difference is, it’s the police. You talk back, your life depends on it. I don’t think white people, or white men, ever have trouble talking to each other. But a black man talking to a white man of authority, there is just something there that makes you uneasy. You just don’t know when the lid is going to fly of. I’m talking about form a black perspective, Jim.

But you know something else, Jim?

What’s that?

Look at the other side. I wonder how it would have been had I been the guy in charge. [laughs] Now think about that.


You know the big people never give the little people nothing but more trouble. But that’s not just here in America, that’s everywhere in the world. It’s in socialist, it’s in communist, it’s in capitalist, it’s in whatever one of those “-ist’s” you would like to avail. It is the same thing, the big people give the little people nothing — but more trouble. And more hardship. So, you have to wonder, how would you have felt, if you had came over, and had been able to, “win” a country? What would you have done, if you printed money and dug up the gold, you know what I mean?


Different that, I don’t know what I would have done, but I guess I would have been just like the other guy you know, “This is our territory and we own it.” [laughs] Period.

So how do you think you got to that point where you managed to avoid, I guess, pure hate or bitterness?

I guess it is just not in my soul, you know, because I was fortunate enough to always understand the difference. I know the difference. I knew my position and when it got so I got to making records as a teenager and got to making some money, I was able to evaluate and see the difference. So, it was never any reason about me being angry because the guy who was talking to me probably was making about $125 a week and I was making three or four hundred a day. So it was not any reason for me to be pissed about. I just sat there and listened to whatever came. I took it. I knew it would be better in a few hours because I was going to where it would make me feel better. […] Because there was a helluva lot more poor white people down in the south and they lived just as hard as we did. But somebody always had to be above somebody and that was the problem. Politics. The word that divides and conquers.

Right. And race made it pretty convenient.

And that’s absolutely correct. That was the ticket for division. Because you know what, you put a bunch of babies together, they don’t know, it’s just a bunch of babies playing, you can put them all from different nationalities put them all together, they’ll play as babies.

I think you even mentioned that in the book, black and white kids in the Jim Crow South played together, until a certain age, and then the parents would separate them.

That is absolutely correct. Absolutely. And I’ve never seen anybody out on the dance floor dancing angry …

Do you think some of your white fans that are reading your book will be surprised when they read what you went through, because obviously nobody thinks it was easy, but I think when you actually read it really broken down, it has a different impact. Everyone knows, “Jim Crow — bad,” right?

Well the ones that were living knew about it because they were there. Before Rosa Parks was able to sit on the bus, these young kids were together listening to this music. This music had started a youth movement. Almost four years before Rosa Parks sat in the bus. That was the reason she sat on the bus. Back during that time Rosa Parks would no sooner have sat on that bus than I’d leave this chair and fly through the roof like Superman. There had to be a reason. And ten years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King was able to march in Washington. Well those same kids who cause the youth movement in the 1950s, are the grandparents today of the children that put Barack Obama in the White House. This was a youth movement, you know, everything happens in time, but if you were there to see it all unveil, you know exactly what happened. I just happened to know exactly what happened and why it happened because I was there …

I also wanted to ask you, in, I think it is your Dedication [in the book], I think it’s dedicated to all of the people that helped you “lose your innocence.”


[laughs] I had to ask you …

That’s about this business. Show business got more surprises than stars falling out of the sky, and nobody knows how many that is. There is always something … you know as a kid, as a teenager, you know, your eyes are filled with truth and belief, you believed in Santa Claus. When you get to be a young teenager, you start making some money, you don’t know anything about that. I had no history with money. No one in my family had no education or history with money. So you stop trusting people. That’s all you have. You don’t know nothing else to do but to trust people. And each and every one of them, took advantage of me, and the truth that allowed them to have. But it wasn’t for long, because I never drank, I never smoked, I’m going to be like George bush, George Bush said “You may get me once, but you’ll never get me again.” [laughs] He forgot all about twice. So for me it was all an education. Every day I learned something different and I never forgot it.

Right. That’s nice. Ok, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”. One thing that shocked me … is that you were only 19 when you sang that for the first time?


That’s pretty amazing. That’s a really soulful song. How did you get so much soul at 19 years old?

Well, I had a little band for two years, maybe two-and-a-half years before that, the first band in my town. Me and my little brother Leo. And when I heard [the phrase] “Lawdy Miss Clawdy!” maybe a year before I recorded it, I heard a black disc jockey, the first black voice that I was ever able to recognize on the radio. His name was Okie Dokie Smith and he came on and said, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy! Eat your mother’s homemade pies and drink Maxwell House coffee!” There was no way I could mistake him for a white man. So when he said “Lawdy Miss Clawdy!”, the only time we ever said anything about the Lord in our house was on Sundays and he would say it all through the week. But somehow that phrase just stuck with me.

And I tried to learn how to play piano like Professor Longhair, and he played what they call an eight-bar blues. So “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” I learned how to play — he would play either that Mardi Gras music, but it was eight bar. I decided to play triplets like Fats Domino, and that’s how I came up with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”. Fats Domino was on the piano. He was the hottest thing in town at that time with “The Fat Man”. So he was a local star around New Orleans three years later. So he came to the studio, Dave [Bartholomew] told him to play the piano. I had heard of these people, but I had never seen them before, I’m a country boy. So when Dave Bartholomew asked me “What key was it in?” I though he was asking for my house key. So, “Tell Fats what key.” So Fats called me over to the piano and asked me to do it in, so I guess because the soul in it, I was so nervous singing it, you know, to Fats Domino, I [laughs] … I couldn’t even tell. I was just shaking trying to make sure I got it right and I kept doing the same words over and over, and they said you can’t say the same words over-and-over, you have to tell a story. You have to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I understood that. So I just made up stuff and two takes it was done.

So you just made up the story on the spot?

Right, on the spot, yes. And the same thing for the b-side, “Mailman Blues”, one take, I just made it up.

So Muhammad Ali, you helped promote I guess his two biggest fights.

Right, Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla.

Right. So how did you get involved with that?

Well, I was trying to make Don King a promoter. Don and I was real good friends. Still are. What I really wanted to do was shoot a pilot on Don King and see could I sell it to one of the networks, and put him against Johnny Carson. That was the whole idea. I had known Don for some time. He had a club in Cleveland where I used to house my band at the corner tavern. So when it came to boxing, the most money that had ever been paid fighters was five million dollars: two-and-a-half million to Joe Frazier and two-and-a-half million to Ali.

And Jack Kent Cooke, the guy that used to own the Lakers, put on at Madison Square Garden. So when Don King got out of jail, he wanted to [laughs] know what he could do in show business, and there was only two things a black guy could do in show business, he could promote or he could dance or play music. It had to be about sports and entertainment in that time in America.


So he started promoting local fights around Cleveland because you know he had a numbers book, he had a numbers game and he always had some cash, you know for little small things.


So Ali, I had known Ali since he was 20 years old, he was my good friend, he stayed at my house when he come to New York, drive my cars, I’d get the foxes for him. [laughs] We were really good buddies. And so when George Forman won, I was living in Philadelphia right there in Society Hill. Me and Wilt Chamberlin and Joe Frazier was in the center building [of the Society Hill Towers complex].

[laughs] That’s trouble.

[laughs] Second and Locust. Ya, so I knew George had a girl pregnant in Philadelphia. And Don came to Philadelphia with a Kansas City bag of money, you know, a bunch of fives and tens in a grease bag.

Oh my God.

So George Forman singed on for five million dollars, and there’s no way in the world we can come up with that kind of money. “How much money am I gonna get?” “Five million.” And they thought that was a joke. And he signed. But we had to give him a hundred thousand, or something like that, down, and had to pay him every month. So Don, being the hustler that he is, said he could hustle that every month to give him until we could try to get somebody to buy the fight. That’s how the Rumble in the Jungle came about. Nobody in America would take the fight because they thought we was insane offering these guys ten million for a prizefight. For the biggest sporting even ever in the world. But here’s what came from it. All of the baseball, and basketball, and tennis, the record business, every sport and entertainer, paychecks went up from that fight.

Why were you so confident that you could come up with that kind of money?

Because heavyweight fights was the biggest sport in the world. We were not able to get it in America but Mobuto [then king of Zaire] put it up in Africa.

Why wouldn’t they put it up in America?

Well it was just was ridiculous to get paid that kind of money. Willie Mays, I believe, was making one hundred thousand dollars a year — no I don’t think he was even getting that much. Mickey Mantle was getting less than two hundred thousand dollars a year.

As far as your book, what do you hope people get out of it?

Just the history. The history and what really caused the youth movement in America was music.

Yep, I agree

And African Americans should start calling themselves black Americans, ‘cos that’s what they are. ‘cos no one in Africa will ever call them African American. And I lived in Nigeria on and off for 10-15 years. And it was amazing in that I didn’t go into the army as an African Americans, I went into the army as an American soldier, ‘cos we were all living there in the foxholes together in Korea as American soldiers. So if it achieves just that, I’m happy.