Lloyd Price, who dominated the pop charts in the late 1950s with hits like “Stagger Lee” and “Personality,” died from complications of diabetes at the age of 88. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, Price was a legend for his voice, songs and visionary approach to his business.
Price was a gifted songwriter who understood the importance of his own song copyrights and insisted on maintaining control of his work in a way that was almost unique in the early years of rock ’n’ roll. That determination insured his financial security in later years, but the singer believed that it cost him opportunities in a business built on artists who weren’t supposed to ask too many questions.
Price, one of 11 children, was born in Kenner, Louisiana, in 1933. He dropped out of high school and was working construction and singing in a band when legendary New Orleans producer and World War II veteran Dave Bartholomew auditioned Price at age 19.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Price played Bartholomew a song that he’d written and the old hitmaker knew he had a winner. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was a No. 1 R&B hit in 1952.
It’s hard to believe a kid wrote this song. There had been records by Black artists that scored on the pop charts before, but “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was the first record aimed at a Black audience to have a huge impact on White teenagers.
One of those teenagers was future Army soldier Elvis Presley, who recorded a spectacular version four years later during sessions for his debut album.
Price was on a roll with five top-10 hits on the R&B charts when the Army drafted him in 1954. He believed it was because White Americans saw him as a threat.
“Truly, that’s one of the reasons why I got drafted in the service,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “It was a revolution underground that nobody could stop. The lady at the draft board said Washington wanted me in the Army. Their children were dancing to ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy.’”
While Price served his country in Korea, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino came on the scene and took advantage of the crossover path that he had blazed for them. When he returned to the states, Price started his own label, KRC Records.
“Just Because” was the first release, and its early success led Price to lease the recording to the ABC-Paramount label, which helped him take the song to No. 3 on the R&B charts and gave Price his first Top 40 hit.
Price hit a slow patch over the rest of 1957, releasing a series of singles that didn’t chart as he worked out his sound and prepared from the massive success that would arrive in 1958.
“Stagger Lee” is one of the core texts of American popular music, telling the story of “Stack” Lee Shelton’s murder of Billy Lyons in St. Louis during Christmas 1895. The first mention of a song about the incident was in 1897, but the first recorded version was by Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1923. The song was passed around and mutated at the hands of blues musicians all over the South, most of whom worked out their own take on the story.
Price shared songwriting credit with Harold Logan on the version he released in late 1958. The recording took the country by storm and reached No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts by early 1959. This record was so huge that Pat Boone recorded a toned-down version of the hit as part of his careerlong campaign to drain all the groove out of R&B hits.
Price and Logan wrote the singer’s next big hit from scratch. “Personality” shot to No. 1 on the R&B charts and camped out at No. 2 on the pop charts. It was blocked from No. 1 by the cultural phenomenon that was Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” a song whose story amounts to most of what Americans know about the War of 1812.
“Personality” may not have gone No. 1, but it defined Price’s career and he advertised himself as “Mr. Personality” for the rest of his performing career.
I’m Gonna Get Married
Price’s last top-five hit came in 1959 with “I’m Gonna Get Married.” He had some middling chart action over the next couple of years, but the hits had dried up by the time the Beatles arrived and kicked off the British Invasion.
Price adapted and continued to succeed. He formed the Double-L Records label with Logan and discovered Wilson Pickett, releasing the singer’s first album. In 1968, Logan and Price opened Lloyd Price’s Turntable Club in New York on the site of the old Birdland jazz club on Broadway. The pair had some threats from organized crime, and Logan was shot and killed in 1969.
Price packed up and moved to Nigeria, where he eventually reinvented himself as a fight promoter, partnering with Don King to promote the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle bout in Zaire in 1974. Price organized the Zaire 74 music festival starring James Brown, B.B. King and Navy vet Bill Withers.
Price returned to the United States after the 1983 coup in Nigeria and went into the real-estate development and construction businesses. He ran a food distribution firm called Global Icon Brands.
When Price was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, he considered turning down the offer because he thought it had taken the organization too long to recognize his achievements. Fortunately, he cooled down and showed up for the ceremony, performing “Stagger Lee” with an all-star band led by fellow Army vet John Fogerty.
Price’s name might not be at the top of the list when you think of the pioneering rock and R&B artists of the 1950s, but James Brown, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and dozens of others built their careers on top of his early successes. Rest in peace, soldier.
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