R&B singer Lloyd Price

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame R&B singer recounts stories from his 60 years in the music business.

Dubbed "Mr. Personality" (for one of his best-known songs), Lloyd Price is celebrating 60 years in the music business. His very first hit—“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”—was described in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio as "a rhythm & blues classic that helped give birth to rock and roll," and he went on to become one of the premier R&B artists of his generation. The Louisiana native developed his trademark combination of orchestral background, R&B vocals and New Orleans flavor while in the army's Special Services branch. Price is also a savvy businessman, who's helmed record labels, promoted pro boxing matches and managed food brands.


Tavis: So Lloyd Price was there from the very beginning of rock and roll. His song “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” crashed through musical barriers, taking an R&B song to mainstream radio. He followed that with so many other hits, including songs like “Personality” and “Stagger Lee.”

One of the first African Americans to own his own label, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1998. Now just in case you don’t immediately remember “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” I think this will jog your memory.

[Audio of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”]

Tavis: Now, Wikipedia says that you turn 80 in March, but I don’t – I’m looking at you, and that cannot be possible.

Lloyd Price: You know what? It is. (Laughter)

Tavis: That could not be – you’re clean as a Sunday chitlin. Look at you. (Laughter) Look at – the board of health, you cannot be turning 80 in March.

Price: Well, it’s true, Tavis, and it don’t seem like it, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Right.

Price: I don’t feel like it, and I do everything I’ve done all my life. I love sports and I’m a bowler, and I just – I ain’t never slowed down about nothing.

Tavis: Yeah.

Price: Yeah.

Tavis: Okay, so go ahead and brag about your bowling. How good are you?

Price: I got six perfect games.

Tavis: All righty. (Laughter) You know how many I have? (Makes “zero” motion with hand)

Price: Well, it’s very difficult, yeah. Seventy-three million people bowl every year.

Tavis: Right.

Price: Since the infancy of bowling only 2.5 percent of people ever shot a perfect game.

Tavis: And you have six.

Price: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: How’d you get turned on to bowling?

Price: I was the pin boy when I was nine years old, and they used to allow us to bowl once a week. It was in the South. We could bowl Sunday nights, one game.

Tavis: Right.

Price: Tell you how long ago that’s been – bowling was 11 cents a line then. It’s $8 a line now in most places. (Laughter) For the same 10 frames.

Tavis: Other than the fact that you’ve been doing it since you were nine, what do you get out of it? What does bowling bring to you? What does it do for you?

Price: That’s the only thing that cleaned all my channels, because nothing I can do about that. Once that ball leave your hand, it’s gone. You had to have it figured out before you throw the ball where you’re going to throw it, which arrow you were going to hit or whichever line you use, and that’s what bowling does.

It gives you a chance to be competitive with yourself. Ain’t nobody there – it’s all you. You win or you lose.

Tavis: I want to pick up on that metaphor and ask how that philosophy, that bowling philosophy of competing against yourself, how that’s applied to your professional music career. I ask that because I think you’re right about that, and too often human beings, we miss this point.

Life is not about competing with other people. When I talk to students who are in business school when I’m on the lecture circuit all the time and I get invited to a particular business school to talk about my business and how I started my company, et cetera, you can always see the professional rolling his eyes or her eyes in the corner of the classroom when I tell them it’s not about competing with the other guy.

Price: It isn’t.

Tavis: But people think in business, of course, that it’s about company X competing with company Y and competing with company Z, and the point I try to make that life and business, it’s all about competing with yourself. This is my product, and ultimately, I want to know how well I can produce this product.

Price: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: How can I make this – so the point is even in business, it’s really about competing with your own self and your own product, but how has that bowling philosophy been applied by you to your musical career, competing against your own hits?

Price: Well, it’s almost the same formula.

Tavis: Right.

Price: I use it all the time. It ain’t nobody but me. I have to do this. To get back to that bowling thing, what makes a great bowler – if you notice when they’re on television bowling they hardly even look at each other.

Tavis: Right.

Price: Because there ain’t nothing you can do if that guy struck. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to do it. It’s the same thing I apply with my business, writing songs and stuff. Every song I’ve written, and I’ve been on the charts 34 times, every song I’ve written, everybody said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” I said, “Well, I do.” Bang. (Laughter)

Tavis: I ain’t mad at you. Did you feel that way about “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” but more importantly, because I’m curious now, what did the other folks say about “Lawdy Miss Clawdy?”

Price: Oh, well, everybody thought I was insane.

Tavis: Right.

Price: When I recorded “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” I was still in school. They used to call me Mr. Blues in the Tubs, washing dishes. I wanted to get out of Louisiana because of the conditions and the way things were there. I said, “I’ve got to do something to get out of here.”

There was two things: Joe Louis and Louis Jordan. I tried boxing. I got knocked out in the second round. (Laughter)

Tavis: There goes that.

Price: That was all.

Tavis: Worse than a bowling ball. (Laughter)

Price: So then Louis Jordan was the king. He was our Elvis, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Right, oh, yeah.

Price: I said, “Oh, man, this cat’s got nice hair.” I said, “How’d he get that hair like that?” I didn’t know anything about (unintelligible) yet. (Laughter) First time I went to do that it burned my head. I said, “Oh, no, no, no.” (Laughter) This is not it.

Tavis: That reminds me of that scene in “Malcolm X.”

Price: Yeah, right?

Tavis: It’s like, Malcolm (unintelligible). I digress. Go ahead, I’m sorry.

Price: Absolutely correct.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Price: So we had our first Black jockey came on the air in New Orleans, and he was talking about Maxwell House Instant Coffee. His name was Okey Dokey Smith.

Tavis: Okey Dokey.

Price: He said, “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, eat your mother’s homemade pie and drink Maxwell House coffee.” Well, I’d never heard a Black disc jockey before. I’ve heard the radio, I guess they was on, but it was always “This is WDSU, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” So I knew that wasn’t him.

When I heard Okey Dokey, I said, “Oh, man, there’s a Black guy on the radio.” That was like Joe Louis knocking out Rocky Marciano or something like that. A little, small kid in the South, we had nothing to look forward to. We didn’t even know who we were.

So oh, man, this cat’s on the radio. If he was on the radio, I knew I had a shot at it. I wanted to be like Louis Jordan on the jukebox. So when he said “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, eat your mother’s homemade pies and drink Maxwell House coffee,” I was thinking he was talking about a woman. He just was saying stuff – his phrase of trying to sell that coffee.

He didn’t have on particular time, Tavis. He would come on and he would – 20 minutes today, a half an hour tomorrow, that kind of stuff.

Tavis: That’s how you knew he was Black.

Price: Yeah, because (unintelligible). (Laughter)

Tavis: He just went whenever he felt like coming on the air (unintelligible) yeah.

Price: During that time, when we knew it was Black radio was on Sunday, when they start singing and shouting and the preacher asking for $5. That was our radio.

This guy was something different, and I started listening to him every day, and I started trying to figure out how to play piano. The first thing I learned how to play was the eight-bar blues chord, and I just took that, “Lawdy, lawdy, lawdy, Miss Clawdy.”

But what’s so amazing, I used the same chords with “Stagger Lee.” I just picked it up a little bit.

Instead of doing the triplets I just did the Louis Jordan shuffle, and that put me on the way. It always was against me, and everybody thought that it was crazy. Then when I took “Misty,” Erroll Garner’s great song –

Tavis: One of the greatest pianists ever, Erroll Garner. I love him.

Price: Absolutely. And Erroll was the good one. I opened the club on Broadway, he used to come see me all the time and I’d say, “You know what? I Love ‘Misty.’ I’ve got to figure out a way to do it. I can’t sing it like Sarah Vaughn,” so I swung it, la, da, t-day, and then everybody started calling it jazz fusion.

I’m saying you always have to work things out for yourself first, and then you’re the only one know it didn’t work. (Laughter)

Tavis: If it don’t work.

Price: If it don’t work.

Tavis: When you said a moment ago that you were – you said two things about growing up in the New Orleans area that I want to go back and pick up on. One is I thought I heard you say that when you first heard Okey Dokey on the radio you never heard that.

You didn’t have a whole lot to look forward to as a Black kid in the South. That at the time, you didn’t even know who you were.

Price: That’s right.

Tavis: How did you discover who you were? How did you come into your own humanity?

Price: Well, you know what, Tavis? I have traveled many, many miles across this country. It was in 1957. I went to a family’s day and heard the Honorable Elijah Muhammad at Madison Square Garden.

Our Cassius, I knew Cassius since he was 19 years old. I love Cassius. He said, “Man, you’ve got to come here. You’ve got to come here (unintelligible).”

Tavis: For the young people watching we’d better make it clear that Cassius that you’re referring to –

Price: Muhammad Ali.

Tavis: – Muhammad Ali, yeah. (Laughter) For all the young folk, he was Cassius Clay; he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. All right, go ahead.

Price: We were there and he talked about – it wasn’t about somebody going to come and save you, it wasn’t about somebody flying through the clouds. He says, “You’ve got to save yourself. You are somebody.”

Now, I had sold maybe 15 million records by then, and every time I would go down South, when I would get these attacks – because I’m driving big cars and stuff like that – it would be, “Boy, get out of the car,” and I always wondered how much do you have to weigh to be a man? Five hundred pounds?

Wilt Chamberlain, is he grown yet? He’s seven feet tall. These questions used to come into my head, because I never drank, never smoked, never got high. I always had my same mental stable like I have now, and I just couldn’t adjust to I didn’t know who I was.

Until I went and heard Elijah Muhammad. He said, “You’re somebody.” But you first have to believe that. If you keep letting other people identify you of who you are, you’re always going to be a nobody.

Tavis: Yeah.

Price: You’ve got to stand up. What every other man stand for, I stand for. I’m a veteran. I am a veteran. I’m entitled to whatever a veteran get, which I’m just saying this hypothetically.

But what really drove it home for me is I never understood how the immigrants could come here in this country and after eight years become full citizens. I’ve been here, I’m saying as a Black man, ever since the country exists, almost, and I’m still living under civil rights.

I watch a guy take an oath and pledge himself to be an American, and he’s a full-blooded American, and every 10 years I’ve got to get renewed. What is this? I started trying to compare those things in my head, you know what I mean? I’ve done everything right in trying to be an American.

So I quit accepting “African American.” I am an American. I stand up front and that too works inside of myself as being a positive person. I’m as equal as anybody else who calls himself whatever they think they are.

Whatever America is, I am. I don’t know anything else about anything else, and why, when I really (unintelligible) that, I lived in Africa for 15 years. I lived in all alone, Nigeria and Ghana, back in – drove all the – 1978 I was there when the government got elected, the second republic. All these was my boys.

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. Speaking of Africa, I don’t want to miss this. I’m trying to jump in as you tell these stories. (Laughter) I don’t want to interrupt, but Lloyd Price co-produced the Rumble in the Jungle.

Price: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: With Don King. So for experienced sports fans, if you know anything about sports, you know about the Rumble in the Jungle. So he was in Africa living for 15 years and was one of the producers of one of the greatest fights of all time. But I digress. Go ahead. You said living in Africa.

Price: Yeah, and I was watching how things operate in terms of the corridors of power, and how the world is divided and the haves and the have-nots. Why should I be always stepped back and take a – I’ve been re-named eight times.

Tavis: Colored, Negro, Afro American –

Price: Yeah, right. (Laughter)

Tavis: – Black, African American, yeah.

Price: Yeah. What really drove it home to me, I was sitting with a guy called General Okon (sp) in (unintelligible) Nigeria, and he said, “Why you guys always come over here like you’re going to help us? Help me do what? We never lost our language, we never lost our home, we never lost our culture.” He said, “Who are you?”

I says, “Well, I’m an American.” He said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” He says, “You don’t have no land, you don’t have no – what is your political philosophy? What is your culture? What is your tradition? Even what is your religion,” you know what I mean?

That made me start thinking. The best I could come up with, I took it and turned it around into an almost – it was hilarious. I said, “I am a clone.” I said, “I’m the clone of the white man. Anything he think about, I think about. This is what I know.

“You could call me whatever you like to call me. I don’t know nothing else to be but who I am.” He said, “That’s how we deal with you.”

Tavis: See, you done gone to meddling now. (Laughter) My grandmother would say, “You done gone to meddling.” I want to turn this whole conversation around to unpacking this formulation about being a clone of the white man, because there is something there, and God knows if I had the time with this program I would go – you’ll come back another day and we’re going to talk just about that subject matter.

Price: Oh, it’s important.

Tavis: This is February, so it is Black History Month.

Price: That’s right.

Tavis: There is no better time to have a conversation about Black folk being clones of white folk than right now, but I digress. That’s a very deep point that I want to kind of marinate on that myself. So we’ll talk about that at a later point.

Price: Okay.

Tavis: I do want to come back, though, to this point about your being a veteran, because you are a veteran.

Price: Right.

Tavis: You became a veteran after you were a star already.

Price: That’s right.

Tavis: That Miss Lawdy Clawdy song was already out, you were on the charts, and you end up being drafted.

Price: That’s right.

Tavis: So you go to fight.

Price: Yeah. What happened, why they took me, Tavis, before I went in, no family was entitled to have more than four men from the same family. At that time I was drafted, I had five brothers in the service.

My fifth brother could not be in the armed service because he was too many, so he had to join the Coast Guards. They took me because I had started something that had never happened in America before. I had started integration with my music.

First teenage idol in America who could sell a million records. They had never sold a million records before. I didn’t know nothing about this. All this was like Chinese to me. But the guy who produced me, Art Rupe, later wrote a book about this being the first million-selling record ever of that genre of music in the United States.

What happened? Well, me being from the South, I understood it. We as kids never even spoke to you – like white kids and Black kids. But when that music came out, skating started. Like everything has a fad? There was a skating fad.

These kids started skating together, and the parents couldn’t stop them from going to listen to this music. I had five records on the charts before I got drafted. The order came down to my draft board in Metairie, Louisiana, I had to go.

I had my lawyers, I had everybody there trying to keep me out, and they said there was nothing they can do about it because what I was doing was breaking a law. We got these kids get – and it was things happening that never happened before.

Tavis: So it was a way to get rid of you by getting you out of the country.

Price: Absolutely, and they figured they’ll stop it.

Tavis: By getting you out of the country.

Price: That’s right. Every time when they did that, that craze started something in America. If they didn’t have me, somebody had to have a Lloyd Price or a “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”

Tavis: In fact, by the time you got back from serving your time, Little Richard essentially had taken your spot.

Price: I had Little Richard recorded on the label.

Tavis: Right.

Price: I was talking to the president of Specialty Records. He said, “Well, you didn’t have any records in the can. I told you, record something.” I had heard Little Richard. The first time I saw Little Richard, Richard had on a pea-green suit, white shoes, his hair – I’d never – men never wore hair like that.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Price: He’d come in a big pompadour, and it was in Georgia, Macon, Georgia, and I’m a kid. Five of my brothers was with me, it was eight boys in our family, and it was four or five of them with me because they was my guardians, protecting me.

This kid jumped up on the stage and jumping on the piano doing the same thing he’s doing now (screams). They thought it was crazy. (Laughter)

Tavis: That was a good impression of Little Richard. All you didn’t say was “Shut up.”

Price: Yeah, right.

Tavis: Yeah, but go ahead.

Price: So when I was – I happened to call the record company out here who I was recording for, and when he was (unintelligible) product, I remembered that. I said, “Well, there’s a guy, he’s calling himself Little Richard in Macon, Georgia. You should find him. My little brother, I think, knows how to find him. (Unintelligible) get in touch with him.”

Anyway, they all got together and found Little Richard, and Art Rupe sent (unintelligible) Blackwell to New Orleans and recorded him with that same band that I recorded “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” with – Fats Domino on piano and the Dave Bartholomew and Herbert Hardesty and Lee Allen group – which was the sound, where that beat came from, from New Orleans.

Tavis: And the rest, as they say, is history for Little Richard.

Price: The rest is history, and Richard burned the country up. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yes he did. My time is running so fast here. I’ve got to get to this, your latest project. It’s called “Lloyd Price – I’m Feeling Good: Standards in Swing.” I read a funny story about this, that this, that this project was actually – you were actually inspired to do this by watching “American Idol?”

Price: Yes, because I was watching these kids.

Tavis: Right.

Price: They’re doing these great standards. I said, “Oh, good music is finally coming back, where you hear mistakes. You don’t hear all this perfect beat and all this harmony without mistakes.

Good entertainment is mistakes. Everything ain’t played so perfect. The tempo don’t be right sometimes, but you manage to do it, and this is creating artistry. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to do another album,” because I had went in the food business, so I’m selling product in Walmart, my cookies.

Tavis: Which are pretty tasty. I’ve had them, yeah. Probably too many of them, but anyway, yeah.

Price: So I said, “You know what? I need to record again, because this industry needs great music.” Music business is great songs. It all starts with the song, and the way the business is going, in a few years there will be no music business left.

So I’m going to just try to make some music, and maybe people will fall in. I’m noticing now.

Tavis: You’re making these young folk respect it.

Price: Absolutely.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Tell me about this book I have in my hand here.

Price: Well you, being in the business that we’re in, Tavis, you know how people don’t tell the truth. The story begins with the writer.

It don’t begin with the true history. It begins of how he saw it, and he might have been born 20 years before it started. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yup. That’s how it works.

Price: Yeah. So he starts there. What I tried to do was, in creating this book, is to have exactly whoever and whatever they contributed, and I use their pictures to identify them and the date they did it.

For example, until 1952 there was no backbeats. It was drummers, but no backbeats, and there was no guitars. They were there, but they weren’t featured. The featured instrument was the piano, and there was no such thing as big albums, one long-playing album.

It was a group of records in a book heavy enough if you got caught with it people would think you stole something. You had all that weight in there. (Laughter) So what happened, this book tells you exactly what happened.

B.B. King had the first record with a guitar solo in it, “3:00 in the Morning,” and Gatemouth Brown had the first instrumental. What that contribution was –

Tavis: This book tells the truth.

Price: Yeah.

Tavis: The music, authentic, the historic truth about who did what, when, where, and how.

Price: That is correct.

Tavis: It’s a great book, man. I was thinking about what you said about the truth that that old adage that the hunter’s view is only relative to what the lion has to say.

Price: Yeah, right. (Laughter)

Tavis: The hunter tells you some fantastic story, the lion said, “It did not go that way, man.”

Price: Yeah, right.

Tavis: “That’s not how that happened. It was eight of them; they threw a net on me.” (Laughter) Anyway, Lloyd Price is still doing his thing. His latest CD is called “I’m Feeling Good: Standards in Swing.” You want to add this to your collection.

For those music buffs who want the true story, “The True King of the ’50s: Lawdy Miss Clawdy, the Music.” Authentic, historic truth about all these great artists whose pictures you see on the cover there about who did what, when, and where. Lloyd Price, I am honored to have you Hall of Famer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, on this program, and thank you for coming by.

Price: Tavis –

Tavis: If you come here next time – you didn’t bring me no cookies – we’re going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting. (Laughter)

Price: You know what, I’m going to make sure you get a truckload. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. Appreciate you, man.

Price: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Take care. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 21, 2013 at 3:45 pm