”The first record I put out that really seemed to catch the white market was ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy,’” said Specialty Records founder Art Rupe. “Back then, our records were only sold in the black part of town, so maybe the whites had somebody go buy it for them, I don’t know. But after ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy,’ I found that white record stores were carrying Specialty records because market demand dictates where the product goes.” One copy of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” ended up in the hands of Elvis Presley, who recorded it for his first album. With heartstopping innocence, Elvis sang “you like to bowl in the morning” instead of “you like to ball in the morning.” It’s tempting to see the evil record company insisting that he make the change, but Elvis’ seventeen year-old mind probably heard “bowl,” and thus it remained.
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy” heralded the long, ongoing career of Lloyd Price. Born in what is now the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, Lloyd was the eighth of eleven children. His birth date is March 9 in a year variously reported as 1932, ’33, ’34, or ’35. His parents, Louis and Beatrice, stayed together sixty-eight years, and, as Lloyd told Seamus McGarvey, “they had a shop. They sold soft drinks and sandwiches, and there was a jukebox, and when people would come in, they’d call me ‘Mister Rhythm’ ‘cause I’d dance to the jukebox. Me and my brother, Leo, had a high school band, and we played proms, and such like.” Lloyd’s first instrument was the trumpet, but he switched to piano. After school, he worked at what is now Louis Armstrong International Airport (then Moisant Field), earning twenty-six dollars a week, but his goal was to make records that would be heard on the jukebox in his parents’ fish fry. Growing up in and around New Orleans during the late 1940s and early 1950s should have been a life-altering experience, but Lloyd doesn’t remember local acts like Roy Brown, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, or Smiley Lewis as much as he remembers national stars like Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, and Amos Milburn.
“There was a disc jockey in New Orleans called Okey Dokey Smith,” Price told David Booth. “He was the biggest thing to hit there during my time. He had a little saying, ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy, drink Maxwell House Coffee and eat Mother’s Homemade Pies.’ When we was talkin’ about girls, we’d say, ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy, she sure is fine.’ The one thing I could play on the piano was the eight-bar blues. Twelve bars was usual, but I played eight. I just began adlibbing words. ‘Please don’t excite me, baby, I know it can’t be me.’ [Fats Domino’s producer] Dave Bartholomew was out at my brother’s bar one night, and I was just picking it out on the piano, and he says, ‘I like that.’ He asked if I’d be interested in making a record. He said, ‘I got a guy coming to town, and I’d like for you to sing that “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” for him.’” That guy was Art Rupe. The success of Roy Brown and Fats Domino had drawn the independent R&B labels to New Orleans, and Dave Bartholomew had cornered most of the action on behalf of Imperial Records. Art Rupe was slow off the mark, but came to New Orleans shortly after Dave Bartholomew had fallen out with Imperial, and New Orleans would pay off for Rupe in both the short and long term. “I had never gone south,” he remembered. “All my friends, my black friends, said, ‘Man, there’s nowhere to go. You’ll end up in the jug.’ The only reason I went was I was very impressed with Fats Domino. I really dug Fats Domino. I liked his sound. The musicians in Los Angeles were getting a bit glib, doing the same thing. I didn’t feel the spontaneity.”
Art Rupe arrived in New Orleans in the early months of 1952. “I made an announcement on the Okey Dokey radio show that I was looking for talent. There was one little recording studio there in the French Quarter. I was having my auditions and I was getting ready to come back. I felt I had failed. They all sounded very amateurish. Lloyd Price was the last one to audition. He was rehearsing and rehearsing, and chewing up the clock. Finally, I said to him, ‘Look, kid, if you don’t get yourself together, I’m splitting.’ He literally began to cry, and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll listen to it.’ And he sang ‘Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.’ I should say he cried it. The kid got to me. It was very emotional. I canceled my plane trip and spent four or five days there.”
Lloyd Price doesn’t remember it quite that way. He remembers Rupe going on to New York and returning two months later to do the session, but the upshot was that Lloyd was called to the J&M Studio on March 13, 1952. Dave Bartholomew had assembled not just a band, but the band. Herbert Hardesty played tenor sax; Joseph Harris played alto; Ernest McLean was on guitar; Frank Fields on bass; and Earl Palmer played drums. The kicker was that Bartholomew had hired Fats Domino to play piano. Fats’ intro, repeated before the sax break, provided the “hook” that “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” otherwise lacked, and the entire band played with the elegant simplicity for which they’re justly renowned. “Then,” says Price, “I had to come up with a B-side. I had just got my draft papers. I said, ‘Okay, fine, I got a song, “Mailman Blues.”’ Fats picked it out on the piano, and that was it.” Originally titled “Korea Boogie,” “Mailman Blues” would prove to be a prophecy-in-song truer than Price dared believe. Fats, incidentally, can also be heard in fine form on “Oo-ee Baby.” Art Rupe packed up the tapes and returned to Los Angeles. “Two months later,” said Price, “my brother said they kept playing my song on the radio. I heard it and I said, ‘That ain’t me.’ ‘Cause I’d never heard myself, you see. My brother said, ‘Fool, that IS you.’”
At the time of the first Specialty session, Lloyd Price was hanging out with saxophonist Tommy Ridgely, and Ridgely claimed that Price had auditioned for other labels and was on the point of giving “Clawdy” to him when Rupe came to town. That’s probably true, but what made Price’s recording of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” so compelling was his lack of polish. It emerged as a cry from a teenage heart, set to the most glorious musical backdrop. “I was still working at the airport,” said Lloyd, “and the Dew Drop Inn wanted to hire me for fifty dollars a night. Within a month, the record kept getting bigger and bigger, and I went from fifty to $750 a day. And this was back in 1952. From there, it went to $2500 a day. And then I was a solider in the Army!”
Lloyd and Art Rupe tried hard to get a deferment or, better still, a discharge. “We tried to get out on a hardship discharge,” Lloyd said later. Apparently, Beatrice Price had six other sons in the service, but they weren’t in harm’s way so the Army wouldn’t excuse Lloyd. “We hired a lawyer who later became Fats Domino’s lawyer. He got me out three times. I would go in, do two months, get out, do another two months. Finally, they said, ‘Listen, you’ll have to stay in the Army.’ I did twenty-three months and eleven days. I was sent all over the Far East.” In one memorable episode, Lloyd was part of a detail assigned to pick up some dead servicemen from the DMZ between North and South Korea.
The latter part of Lloyd’s Army hitch was spent in Special Services entertaining the troops and acting as a go-fer for other touring stars. As the end of his two years came in sight, the Army allowed him to launch an R&B revue to entertain the black troops. The follow-ups to “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” hadn’t done especially well, but the two-year hitch placed a roadblock in Lloyd’s career. “I was in Tokyo,” he told David Booth, “and I spoke to Art Rupe. Art said, ‘You should be trying to make some records.’ I said, ‘How the hell am I gonna do that in Japan?’ He said, ‘You’re still a young guy. You’re gonna be a forgotten singer. You have to make records.’” In fact, Lloyd didn’t record at all from January 1954 until February 1956. When he returned, the world had changed.
In various interviews, Lloyd claims that he introduced Little Richard first to Duke/Peacock Records and then to Specialty. Richard bears this out saying that he met Lloyd in Macon, Georgia. “He had a black and gold Cadillac. I wanted one just like that. The only place that had one was the funeral home, and you had to die to ride.” It’s very likely that Price made the introduction to Duke/Peacock because the label was owned by Price’s booker, Don Robey, but Lloyd was in the Army at the time Richard went to Specialty. The fact remains, though, that Little Richard was recording for Specialty by the time Lloyd got out of the Army, and it was Richard, not Lloyd Price, on Art Rupe’s mind.
Lloyd Price recorded for Specialty until June 1956. There was nothing quite as incendiary as “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” but the New Orleans backings are never less than wonderful, and there are unexpected delights, like Lloyd shouting “then we all went to wailin’” on “What’s the Matter Now.” When Lloyd’s contract was up, he hadn’t seen a hit since “Ain’t It a Shame” exited the R&B charts two years earlier. Art Rupe probably thought that the game was over, and that everyone should move on.
Before entering the Army, Lloyd had engaged the services of a promoter, Harold Logan, and when Specialty Records didn’t renew his contract, Price moved to Washington, D.C. to join Logan and a pal from New Orleans, Bill Boskent, in a venture they called KRC Records. Lloyd adapted an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto into a tune he called “Just Because,” and recorded it for KRC. And then the story becomes very convoluted. Price’s cousin, Larry Williams, had toured with him as a valet, and, according to Price, Williams saw the initial response to “Just Because,” and rushed out to California to persuade Art Rupe to let him cover it. By Williams’ account, he hadn’t seen Price in a while, and was living in Oakland when he went to Specialty, and someone at Specialty recommended that he cover “Just Because.” The upshot was that Price had to lease his recording to ABC-Paramount to avoid being scooped by his now-estranged cousin and his now-estranged producer. ABC hung onto Lloyd Price and he rewarded them with three monumental hits, “Stagger Lee,” “Personality,” and “I’m Gonna Get Married.”
Many recording affiliations followed…too many to enumerate here. The Double L label is worth mentioning, though. It, too, was a partnership between Lloyd and Logan, but among the other artists signed to the label was Wilson Pickett, who came very close to the sound he perfected at Atlantic. As the hits tailed off, Lloyd Price and Harold Logan went into the nightclub business in New York. In May 1969, Logan was murdered, and Price began working with Don King in boxing promotion, eventually moving to Nigeria from 1973 or ’74 until 1984. At some later point, he was a housing developer. Gradually, though, over the last twenty years, he has become a fixture once again as a performer. In June 1986, he played his first gig in New Orleans since 1960.
Lloyd Price has been the ultimate survivor. He still tours, almost fifty-five years after setting the charts ablaze with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” His story, should he ever decide to set it down fully and frankly, would be absorbing because he mastered both the music and the business. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” not only set him upon his course, but reoriented Specialty Records. It opened the ears of many white teenagers, and one white teenager in particular. Above all, though, we hear the sound of New Orleans at one of its moments of shimmering perfection.