Lloyd Price, early rock influence who sang 'Stagger Lee,' 'Personality,' 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy,' dies at 88

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Lloyd Price was always ahead of his time.

He was rock 'n' roll before there was rock 'n' roll. He was a music entrepreneur before there were African-American music entrepreneurs.

Maybe that's why the singer of "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Personality" and "Stagger Lee," who died Monday at age 88, always seemed a little old for the crowd he was running around with on "American Bandstand."

"I remember seeing him on 'Bandstand' as a kid," says Tommy James, a later-generation hitmaker. He could tell, he says, that Price was somehow more mature than the other 1960s pop stars on that teen-centric show.

"You could tell Dick Clark was acting differently with Lloyd Price than with Frankie Avalon," James says. "He would talk to him about the music business. It was more inside talk."

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Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lloyd Price has died at 88.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lloyd Price has died at 88.

Price, a 1998 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, lived in Pound Ridge, New York.

"I was a big fan," says James, famous for his own hits like "Mony Mony" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion."

"I remember him coming on "American Bandstand," and he was almost a comedian. The guy had a great personality. And of course, he had a song by that name. He was a different kind of singer. 'Personality' and 'Stagger Lee' were big, theatrical songs. They weren't the usual three-chord rock 'n' roll."

R&B singer Lloyd Price led the way when rock began to roll

When Price had his breakout hit, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" in 1952 – he was 19 – there was no rock 'n' roll.

It had only been three years earlier, in 1949, that Billboard has rechristened what used to be called "race" records with a new, less cringe-worthy name: "rhythm-and-blues." Fats Domino had been having crossover hits. But "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" was gutbucket, juke-joint stuff. It was the first song of its kind most white teens had heard. It's one of the great proto-rock records.

"Three years before anybody got ahold of the music, it was just me from Monday to Sunday" Price told 91.1- WFMU-FM's Michael Shelley in 2017. "I was The Beatles, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones. I was everything in one."

Price, who hailed from the New Orleans suburb of Kenner (where Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is now) was of that early Crescent City R&B generation that included Domino, Professor Longhair, Shirley & Lee and many others. Not quite rock 'n' roll – but it paved the way.

"If you break down the timeline, you can't say he was influenced by Elvis Presley or 'Rock Around the Clock' or Little Richard," Shelley says. "He didn't hear any of those people."

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Born in 1933 to a mother who ran a fish fry restaurant, Price got two things from his upbringing: a taste for the entrepreneurial and a determination to get out of Dodge.

"There were police who treated them terribly," Shelley says. "He came from that kind of impoverished, racist childhood. I really do think it was that sort of one-way-ticket future that the people in his neighborhood were shown that made him say, 'No, I'm not going to do that.' He always tried to have his business stuff together. He was a hustler in a lot of ways."

He got his chance when Art Rupe, the owner of the Los Angeles-based Specialty Records, came to New Orleans on a talent-scouting expedition. Producer Dave Bartholomew, then the kingmaker of the New Orleans music scene, had heard Price's song "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" – it was inspired by a New Orleans disc joceky whose tag line was “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat homemade pies and drink Maxwell House Coffee!” – and thought it would be perfect for Specialty.

The record, with Domino pounding out the triplets on piano, became a monster hit. The song was No. 1 on the R&B charts, and had considerable crossover success. "If he had just done 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy,' it would have been enough," said WFDU-FM 89.1 radio host and music scholar David "Ghosty" Wills.

It wasn't quite enough for Price, who got drafted in 1954 (he beat Elvis to this, too) and returned to find that the rock 'n' roll revolution was in full swing – without him. Elvis, to add insult to injury, even had his own hit, in 1956, with "Lawdy Miss Clawdy."

Price regrouped by forming KRC Records with Harold Logan and Bill Boskent, and began issuing records under his own label: a groundbreaking thing for the time. One of them, "Personality" (1959), with its distinctive New Orleans "stroll" rhythm, became his signature song. "Mr. Personality," he was dubbed.

"I remember it from 'Happy Days'," Wills says. "Because when they were coming back from commercials, they would have an establishing shot of Arnold's (Drive-in) – and they played 'Personality.' It helped set the scene."

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'Lawdy Miss Clawdy,' 'Personality' set the stage for watershed 'Stagger Lee'

But another of Price's hits, "Stagger Lee" (1958) was a bit of a cultural watershed.

It was a song deeply steeped in African-American folk culture. The genesis was a real incident: the shooting of gambler Billy Lyons by "Stack-O-Lee" Shelton in a St. Louis saloon in 1895. The song "Stack-O-Lee" or "Staggerlee" had been free-floating in blues and folk for more than a half-century. But when Price put it on the charts in 1958, it was a window into a totally new world for many listeners. "Stagger Lee shot Billy, shot that boy so fast, the bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender's glass …"

Jim Croce admired it enough to do what was essentially an imitation: "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." And Clark liked it enough to feature it on his show – but not without cleaned-up lyrics. "Listen, you can't use that lyric because it has shooting and cussing and crap games in it," Price remembered Clark telling him.

In the redone version that many teens grew up with in the '60s and '70s, Stagger Lee and Billy might as well be a couple of parsons. "Billy felt bad, because he hurt his poor friend Stag …"

"It's strange that 'Mack the Knife' wasn't censored at all," Wills says. "It wasn't OK for a Black guy to sing about murder, but it was OK for Bobby Darren? It could also be because 'Stagger Lee' was a rock 'n' roll record aimed at teenagers, whereas 'Mack the Knife' was going for a more adult audience."

Price formed other labels: Double L (where Wilson Pickett got his start) and Turntable. He opened a New York club, Lloyd Price's Turntable, on the site of the old Birdland jazz venue in 1968. He teamed up with promoter Don King to promote the epic "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. He marketed his own line of branded products, including breakfast cereal, granola and sweet potato cookies.

"A lot of people, because of his success and influence, certainly listened when he had something to say," says Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers. "His word was significant."

And all the time, he kept making records. "He was a mythical figure," says Dennis Diken, music scholar and drummer for The Smithereens.

He got to play with Price once. He's never forgotten.

"It was a big thrill," he says. "One of the great nights of my life."

Diken had been called by guitarist Jimmy Vivino to be part of an ad hoc band for an after-Grammy party, in a New York hotel, in 1990. Max Weinberg was sharing drum duty: guitarist Marshall Crenshaw, bassist Garry Tallent, the late Pal DiNizio of The Smithereens, were some of the musicians in the lineup. Ben E. King, Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love and Lloyd Price each took turns fronting, doing a couple of songs apiece. "He was so upbeat, so much fun, a really cool guy," Diken says. "Everything you might expect from his records."

He even had a chance, during sound check, to shoot the breeze.

"We kind of spoke, and there was a moment when I brought up a rare record, called 'Bad Dreams,' and mentioned it and he cracked up, because I knew a rare side of his. It was just one of those moments. A dream come true."

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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Lloyd Price dies: 'Stagger Lee,' 'Personality' R&B trailblazer was 88