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Lawdy, Mr. Lloyd 

A conversation with legendary hitmaker Lloyd Price about rhythm & blues, censored lyrics, and dumb honkies

The word "white" shows up in Lloyd Price's new memoir, sumdumhonky, more than 450 times. The word "black," more than 400.

It's no surprise that race plays such a key role in Price's story, which includes growing up on the outskirts of New Orleans a decade before the Civil Rights Movement; writing and recording a hit single — the million-selling, stride-piano-driven "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" — at the age of 19; and becoming the sixth son in his family to be drafted during the Korean War.

click to enlarge Price in Korea: 'I never was supposed to go because I was my family's sole supporter.'
  • Price in Korea: 'I never was supposed to go because I was my family's sole supporter.'

Price believes forced enlistments like his were politically motivated during a time when a fast-emerging black culture threatened the white status quo.

"I never was supposed to go because I was my family's sole supporter, and it was against the law to take more than four boys from the same family," he tells me from his home in Westchester County, New York.

Price was stationed in Tokyo for two years, during which time Little Richard took over his role as Specialty Records' biggest star. But the musician started over again, using the proceeds from further hits like "Stagger Lee" and "Personality" to fund his own label while cementing his legacy as a pioneer of Southern soul and rock 'n' roll.

And while portions of sumdumhonky may seem strident, Price's worldview is more generous and colorful than you might expect from the black-and-white realities he describes. In the following conversation, the 80-year-old music legend discusses Dick Clark and discrimination, chasing "foxes" with Muhammad Ali, and missed opportunities to get hooked on drugs and drinking.

Indy: Your new book is as much a meditation on race as it is an autobiography. Was that because you'd already written an autobiography, or were there other things going on that made this seem like the right time for a book like this?

Lloyd Price: Well, a book called The True King of the 50's, which came out a few years ago, was almost an autobiography, but not quite. I haven't really got there yet. But this book here, sumdumhonky, I think the time for it is absolutely now. Because I'm seeing the same problems, not as bad, but almost as much, as it was when I was a young teenager in the '50s.

After so many years, are you surprised to be hearing the slogan "Black Lives Matter," something that seems like it should have been settled back in the '60s?

Absolutely. There are lots of things I never thought I'd see, but I'm seeing them. I went back and forth to Africa for 20 years, and in country after country, the minority is always the low guy on the totem pole. And what brought all of us together was the music of the '50s. The first song I wrote, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," was the beginning of rock 'n' roll, which started the youth movements in this country.

"Lawdy Miss Clawdy" included the line, "You like to ball every morning." Was that in the radio version? Or maybe I'm just hearing the lyric wrong?

No, you hearin' it right. You know, we just made up words, like what kids today call rapping and hip-hop. We used to just stand on the corner and make up words all day long, until we got called in to go to bed at night.

And where I got "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" was from hearing the first black disc jockey on the radio. His name was Okey Dokey Smith, from Laurel, Mississippi, and he came on the new station WBOK in New Orleans. He said, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat Mother's Homemade Pies and drink Maxwell House instant coffee!" And that's where I first heard that saying, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," was in a coffee commercial. So I just took it and kept making up words around it, and it became the first million-selling record ever.

So are you saying that "ballin' every morning" didn't mean the same thing it means to us now?

No, it does. [Laughs.] It's got the same meaning, Bill.

I guess that's nothing compared to the stuff that Little Richard tried to get away with when he was working with [New Orleans producer] Cosimo Matassa.

That's right. Actually, I'm responsible for Richard being recorded. I was playing in Macon, Georgia, just before I went in the service. And as I was going into the intermission, this really strange-looking character jumped up on the stage and started banging on the piano. He had this big pompadour hair style, had on a light green suit, a red tie, white shoes. I never did forget him.

And so Art Rupe, the president of Specialty Records, called me in Tokyo to ask about putting out some new music. I said, "There are no recording studios over here, and nobody here could play the stuff I do, anyway." He said, "Well, do you know anybody else like you, or do you know anybody who's got another song like 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy'?"

I told him about this guy, Little Richard, and they found him and the rest is history. When I came back, I wasn't even relevant. He took my spot that I had at Specialty. [Laughs.] But God bless him, I really love Richard. He's really an amazing person.

You always hear stories about record companies cheating artists out of royalties, but one of the worst I've heard was that Dick Clark would make artists give him songwriting credits if they wanted to perform on his American Bandstand show. Did you encounter that, or is it just a myth?

Well, I never encountered that. But I heard it. I heard those stories.

Do you believe them?

You don't get to be a billionaire, like Dick Clark Productions is, unless you did something. [Laughs.]

Didn't you go out on tours he sponsored?

Yes, I did about four of his shows. The Dick Clark Caravan of Stars. He'd have everybody in the Top 10 on those shows, over and over and over. And they didn't pay you — well, you know, they didn't pay you right.

But you couldn't turn him down because he had that Saturday night Dick Clark show, and he also had a show every day on ABC. We were with the same company — most of my hits was with ABC-Paramount — and he wouldn't even play "Stagger Lee," because Stagger Lee shot Billy. I had to go in and make a new song for him to play it. Take out the shooting. Can you imagine that? Suppose he was playing records today! [Laughs.]

What were your dealings with Art Rupe at Specialty like?

I still like Art Rupe because if it wasn't for him, I probably would be in Louisiana or under the ground somewhere. He gave me a good life, and he promised to pay me 3 percent, which at that point was more money than anybody was making on records. I didn't know the difference between 3 percent and 100 percent. It all looked like free money, doing what I loved to do, dancing and singing for folks. I would've done it for nothing. And he promised to pay me, and I still get paid on all the songs that was on Specialty Records.

When you were coming up in New Orleans, were there other R&B artists around that you wish everyone knew about, but maybe just got a bad deal or had something else go wrong?

Well, all along the way I tried to share whatever experience I had with most of the artists that I met. But they wouldn't listen to you. You know, it's very difficult to take that horse to the water and make him drink.

Can you give me a specific example of that?

Yeah, well, I offered to Fats Domino that he and I go into a record business. I say, "Fats, I have learned how to do this. What about 50 percent a record, instead of 5 percent?" But he didn't get it. He said [drops voice an octave or two], "No, man, no. Let me see what [Imperial Records president] Lew Chudd gonna give me."

People thought I didn't know what I was talking about, that I was bucking the record industry. But you could sell hit records from a phone booth. You just needed a phone where the distributor could call you back.

Wasn't it Clarence "Frogman" Henry who conducted all his business from the pay phone in a bar? It was some New Orleans artist from that era.

Oh, I remember Clarence "Frogman" Henry, he was always trying to sound like Fats Domino. But yeah, I think it might have been Ernie K-Doe.

So I guess that kind of proves your point, although he didn't sell as many records as you.

Well, I'll tell you who did prove it, is the hip-hoppers. No radio station would play their records, so they would have them made up and sell them from the back of their cars. And that hip-hop community took over the record industry, as far as the rhythm and blues piece of it went. That proved my point, very clearly, that you did not have to have the whole floor of 1650 Broadway to sell records.

When you diversified your business and got involved with boxing promotion, did you get to hang out with Muhammad Ali much?

Ali was one of my greatest friends. I knew him since he was 20 years old, before he got a title. And whenever I would go to Louisville, his place was not that far from the black guest house where we'd stay. We could not stay in the hotels, so we stayed in guest houses.

And Ali would come around and he'd sit in my car and say, "I'm gonna get me one of these." I had an El Dorado Cadillac, a red convertible, and he loved that car. [Laughs.] When he'd come to New York, he'd stay at my house and I let him drive my car. And he loved foxes, you know? It was like a wolf den at my house. I couldn't get rid of the foxes.

Nice problem to have.

That's right. [Laughs.] And we're still friends, I mean all the way until now. You know, he can hardly say anything on the phone because of his problem. But I love Ali. We went all through the Rumble in the Jungle, we was down in Venezuela when Norton and Foreman fought, we went all over the world together.

If my math is right, you had your 80th birthday last March. How did you celebrate?

In a bowling alley. I'm still bowling. I have a 204 average.

Nice. How long have you been bowling?

Since I was 9 years old.

That explains the average.

Yeah, I just love bowling. And besides, I never smoke and never drink or nothin' like that. Never use any drugs. So my one habit was the bowling alley. And back in the day, you could find bowling alleys open all along the road, all night long, everywhere. If I had to unwind, I would just go in a bowling alley and throw some balls.

So when you were touring back in those days, you had to be the only artist who didn't smoke or drink or do drugs.

That's absolutely correct. I was so embarrassed when they tried to give me a drink or something like that. I just couldn't get used to the taste of it. When I tried to smoke cigarettes, instead of me inhaling the smoke, I swallowed it and coughed half to death. I really wanted to do it. I really wanted to smoke pot, I wanted to do all that. [Laughs.] I'm so happy now that I just never could get the hang of it.

So do you still have a turntable these days? Do you still spin any of those old 45s?

I still have a turntable, yes, because I have a studio. And, to me, there's nothing like really good vinyl. You get a true sound. I like to hear the mistakes, you know? I like to hear that musician. But right now, with everything done on an iPad, it's too perfect. And most of it sounds alike. It's like, on every song, everybody uses the same track. Kind of like Motown did.

Lloyd Price's "sumdumhonky" is available online and in bookstores now.

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