Paying Tribute to Lloyd Price

17 May 2021 ☼ Pop MusicCommentaryArtist: Lloyd Price

Lloyd Price died two weeks ago, on May 3rd, and it feels to me like the tributes were more muted than they should have been: he received obituaries from Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and the Guardian, but not the kind of appreciative tribute essays that, say, DMX got. Which doesn’t matter a whole lot, really, except that Lloyd Price clearly thought and cared a great deal about media and promotion all his life. You don’t do something like help arrange the Rumble in the Jungle if you don’t pay attention to when people pay attention.

Price claimed to have been fundamental to the development of rock n’ roll: here’s a 2015 interview where he claims that Lawdy Miss Clawdy was the first recording with a backbeat. I see no reason to argue with the man—“Lawdy Miss Clawdy” feels like a blues song with a lot of energy rattling the lid of the pot, barely contained—but I would say his case for immortality rests on his 1959 single Stagger Lee”:

That is a song. One of the most shocking things about it is its length: the whole journey takes less than two minutes and thirty seconds. The other is how unambiguously, unapologetically, even exuberantly Price takes Stagger Lee’s side. There are apparently hundreds of different versions of the Stagger Lee story, and the actual historical record suggests that Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons as the result of a heated argument. But narrator Price assures us that this Stagger Lee was wronged, and in wonderfully compact terms: Stagger Lee threw a seven, Billy swore that he threw eight.” The chorus starts chanting Go, Stagger Lee,” immediately after this, as Stagger Lee declares he has to react to the wrong done him; then after Stagger Lee has obtained the murder weapon, Price throws in his own, Go, Stagger Lee!” The chanting doesn’t let up even after Billy has begged Stagger Lee / Price / the audience for pity; instead Price gives the gruesome play-by-play, finishing with, Look out, Stag!” This is a deeply anarchic song. I’m not sure that James Hauser is right when he argues that Price was covertly invoking slave spiritual songs and by extension positioning Stagger Lee as a symbol of Black price standing up to racist injustice, but I can see why Hauser drew the inference.

Stagger Lee” is angry and violent, but it isn’t tragic, for Stagger Lee at least. I wouldn’t be surprised if Price’s Stagger Lee, after the song’s conclusion, walked out of the bar as calmly as he walked in, and returned home to put away his .44 and his regained Stetson hat. (In real life, according to this American Blues Scene article, Shelton was tried twice for Billy Lyons’s murder; he went to prison in 1897, two years after the murder, and was paroled in 1909.) Reading about Price, I’m tempted to call the song’s combination of righteous anger, energy, and lack of tragedy emblematic of its singer. Price did not make a secret that growing up Black in Louisiana in the 1930s, and then having to serve in a segregated Army in the 1950s (according to one story I saw, ardent segregationist Senator Richard Russell made sure Price was drafted, to scuttle Price’s career), meant having to be on the receiving end of some horrible racism. One of his memoirs is titled sumdumhonky, after all. Which makes it all the more remarkable how much he got done in the face of that racism: he did his own music publishing, ran his own nightclub for a while, started up a line of Lawdy Miss Clawdy sweet potato cookies, apparently did some real estate development in the 1980s. I’m not sure he had the cleanest hands ever; my sketchy knowledge is that it was hard for anyone of any race to work with Don King (or in real estate development in New York in the 1980s, for that matter) without having to do some under-the-table deals. But you have to admire Price’s commitment to seeking opportunity wherever it might be. Plus the man had charisma to burn well into his eighties.

This is not to imply that Fifties singers, or hard-working Black veterans, should only earn our respect if they stay hard-working. But I still think we should be collectively making more of Price’s tenacity, storytelling abilities, and sheer self-respect than we have been.

(And while we’re at it, let’s make sure Jerry Butler, the singer of the song my husband and I danced to at our wedding turned longtime Cook County, Illinois, commissioner who is fortunately still with us, gets his fair share of admiration too.)