When I first heard of Lloyd Price’s passing this month, I felt a bit of a shock because not too many days before I had a particularly spirited impromptu sing-along to his 1959 hit “Personality.” Often known as “Mr. Personality” himself due to his celebrated song as well as his own persona, there is so much more to Lloyd Price than catchy, upbeat tunes (although he was influential in shaping that kind of music). I find him to be one of the great underrated musicians of the twentieth century, having paved the way for many artists in the world of rock’n’roll and beyond, as well as preserving and building on older music traditions and distinctively Black American themes. In today’s article, I examine three Lloyd Price recordings and their stories within the history of American music.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy–1952
So knock me down, step in my face, slander my name all over the place…(actually, don’t), but I find Price’s original 1952 delivery of this song entirely more soulful than Elvis Presley’s famous cover of 1956. The pain in Price’s voice is palpable here. He sings it with a bit of a whine and a rawness that listeners of more polished vocals may not appreciate, but to me it makes his emotions sound more “real.” His voice has not reached the fullness and maturity of his better-known hits like “Personality” and “Stagger Lee.” But it it comes from his own experience of being nineteen and sore from love gone wrong. (1) The phrase “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” comes from a popular Black DJ at the time who used it as his catchphrase. (2) None other than the great Fats Domino provided the trilling piano intro. (3) Along with producers Art Rupe and Dave Bartholomew, what is considered one of the first rock’n’roll recordings was born. (4) The song brought a melody typical of Price’s native New Orleans to the nation with lyrics filled with heartbreak and lust that resonated with teens not only in the Black community but across racial lines as well (5):
The melody of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” has a history in New Orleans music, as heard in Fats Domino’s 1949 “The Fat Man,” also produced by Bartholomew:
The same melody can be heard in Champion Jack Dupree’s ode to happiness without drugs “Junker’s Blues” of 1941:
And a similar melody can be heard in Professor Longhair’s 1953 classic “Tipitina.” Like Price, Fats, and Champion’s tunes, The Professor’s song springs from a tradition of New Orleans rhythm-and-blues sound:
The theme of the song, about murder over a dispute between gamblers, references the real-life 1895 murder in St. Louis of Billy Lyons by Lee Shelton, the latter known by the handles Stack Lee, Stack-o-Lee, Stagger Lee, and other variations. Shelton, “Stagger Lee,” was a supposed political rival of Lyons and captain of the Black St. Louis social and political Four Hundred Club. (4) Shelton was also known as a nightclub owner and a “mack” or pimp, and he had significant status within the St. Louis underworld as well. (5) As the story goes, when Lyons stole Shelton’s Stetson hat during a tussle, Shelton shot and killed Lyons, a crime that would go down in music history.
Early songs referring to Shelton began as blues and folk songs within Black communities. As the almost mythical intrigue surrounding Stagger Lee as an outlaw rebel grew in popularity throughout the country, he fascinated both Black and White musicians alike. By 1923 White collegiate jazz band Waring’s Pennsylvanians recorded the instrumental “Stack o’ Lee Blues,” a jaunty foxtrot in devious minor chords.
When Price created his iconic “Stagger Lee” in 1958, he was no longer a teen and had returned from fighting in the Korean War. (6) His sound changed. He introduced a new, fuller production for the song featuring a rousing background chorus and excitingly fast tempo. “Stagger Lee” took off on the charts.
Dick Clark asked Price to perform “Stagger Lee” on “American Bandstand” due to its popularity with teens. However, due to their criminal nature, Clark ordered Price to change the lyrics of the song and he reworked them into a “clean” story of Stagger and Billy fighting over a girlfriend and reconciling as friends in the end, with no murder or gambling involved. Aired as Stagger Lee (Bandstand Version), Price found the cleaned-up song “ridiculous.” (7)
A 1923 instrumental titled “Stack o’ Lee Blues” by Waring’s Pennsylvanians:
Ma Rainey’s 1926 “Stack O’Lee Blues,” an original version placing the singer as the lover of “bad man” Stack O’Lee:
Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 blues song “Stack O’Lee” that contains some similar lyrics to Price’s version:
For a more modern interpretation with a Delta Blues intro, the Black Keys’ “Stack Shot Billy” from 2004:
Ending this analysis of Lloyd Price’s music on a cheerful note, the bubbly “Personality,” recorded in 1959, another massive hit, we can hear Price’s signature orchestral production with the multi-vocal chorus as in “Stagger Lee” and a strolling beat. This is the song that earned Price his life-long nickname “Mr. Personality:”
I particulartly enjoy the following video, because it shows Price, his singers, backing musicians, and the audience all enjoying themselves immensely:
As you can see and hear, Lloyd Price is a musician who should be remembered not only for having hit songs, but for introducing very specific musical styles and cultural themes from New Orleans and Black American culture to the wider world before Little Richard and Elvis. According to Price himself, “I revolutionized The South. Before ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy,’ white kids were not really interested in this music…[at his concerts]…they were putting up ropes to divide the white and black spectators. But by 10 o’clock at night, they’d all be together on that dance floor.” (8).
In Memory of Lloyd Price,
Featured Image: Publicity Photo of Lloyd Price, Photographer Unknown, University of Houston Digital Collection.
(1) Jim Beckerman. “Lloyd Price, Early Rock Influence Who Sang ‘Stagger Lee,’ ‘Personality,’ and ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ dies at 88. NorthJersey.com. May 9, 2021. https://www.northjersey.com/story/entertainment/2021/05/09/lloyd-price-r-b-singer-who-died-thursday-trailblazer/5007326001/ Accessed May 15, 2021.
(4) Ron Soodalter. “The Real Story Behind that Bad Man ‘Stagger Lee.'” Missouri Life Magazine. February 25, 2020. Originally published April 2017. https://missourilife.com/real-story-behind-bad-man-stagger-lee/ Accessed May 14, 2021.
(5) Bruce Haring. “Lloyd Price Dies: Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Who Hit with ‘Stagger Lee,’ ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy,’ & Others was 88.” Obituaries in Deadline. May 8, 2021. https://deadline.com/2021/05/lloyd-price-dead-hall-of-fame-lawdy-miss-clawdy-obituary-1234752407/ Accessed May 16, 2021.
(7) Soodalter. Accessed May 14, 2021.
(8) Haring. Accessed May 16, 2021.