Sunday, October 11, 2015

Not The Price But The Cost

Lloyd Price, the untold story.
In 1969, 17 years after his first million seller, Lloyd Price nearly cracked the R&B Top 20 with the funky social criticism of Bad Conditions. "Psychedelic age on campus grounds/Tear gas, billy clubs and vicious hounds/People making promises that they can't keep/System's turning over for its final sleep/We're living in bad conditions!" That's a long way from Lawdy Miss Clawdy. It's also quite an accomplishment for a founding father of rock and roll to so successfully insert himself into late 60's culture. 

Lloyd Price NOW!, the album that contains Bad Conditions, also delivers credible takes on Light My Fire, Hey Jude, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, For Once In My Life, and other songs. It's a solid album, with Price in fine, soulful voice, but you won't hear a word about it in sumdumhonky, Price's new memoir. Except for a picture caption, you also won't hear a thing about how he ended up working with Don King to produce the notorious Rumble In The Jungle, or about how one of his labels released early sides by Wilson Pickett.

What you will hear a lot - and I mean A LOT - about is Price's disturbing and disgusting experiences with racism in the Jim Crow south. Growing up in Kenner, LA in the 1930's was a profoundly demoralizing experience for anyone of a darker tone, ruled as they were by all the iterations of "sumdumhonky" you can imagine, and some you likely can't. Casting a long shadow over Price's childhood was Ol' Jake, the barely literate local lawman. His idea of a good time was to hang around the railroad tracks with his friends, lying in wait for Price and other kids. "They'd stand to block our path and laugh their asses off. We were scared half to death because we didn't know what they might do next," Price writes in Who Feared Whom, the first chapter. "Sometimes they'd grab one of our hands and hold it to their ass and laugh while they farted on it and scream, "Boy, spot that!" This is what they called having fun: scaring little boys who were just eight and nine years old."

This is obviously horrendous and, along with cross-burning and lynching, forms a background which would be a challenge for the strongest among men to overcome. As Price puts it: "As we grow older we tend to let our minds review our souls and sometimes we are amazed at ourselves - and the things our hearts have withstood. As I see it now, the white man of my younger days was a master sociologist - and a brutal one at that - because he knew how to downplay a black man's pride, not taking account of the fact that we had limited opportunities." 

But overcome it Price did, following his desire to make music and also help support his family in the wake of his father's workplace injury. Of course, becoming a national celebrity with Lawdy Miss Clawdy at the age of 17 came with its own challenges, some of them the usual music biz tales of woe, some of them due to becoming a prominent black man in an America that rejected the very notion. Also, there's the fact that his music had a way of bringing black and white kids together on the dance floor in a society where race-mixing just wasn't done. Understand, Lawdy hit in 1952, which puts Price on the leading edge of both the rock and roll and civil rights revolutions.

But what of the music? Where did it come from and what were the roots of Price's creativity? Besides a few paragraphs here and there, we get precious little about it. We also don't hear much about trying to stay relevant in the rapidly changing world of pop culture - no thoughts on the British Invasion, the rise of James Brown and funk, not to mention disco and hip hop. While he does have some interesting things to say about being placed in the "oldie but goodie" ghetto, he spends more time asking questions with no answers like "Can you imagine an entire race of people who are afraid that God didn't like black people?"

Don't get me wrong - the tales of late-night drives through Mississippi in a brand new Cadillac or of bribing his way into Nigeria only to find "people, black people, peeing and pooping on the road" - range from harrowing to hilarious and are written vividly. But I ultimately found sumdumhonky to be an unsatisfying read. I couldn't help but feel that Ol' Jake might have won the day after all. To my mind, this makes Price's experience of racism even more tragic. It also makes sumdumhonky an important but deeply flawed book.

When I got sumdumhonky, I turned first to the pictures. Great shots abound - the trip to Hollywood for the 1953 Cash Box awards, getting down in a huge-collared jumpsuit in 1968, receiving an honorary doctorate in 2001. When I looked back at the photos after finishing the book, I was struck by the chasm between the story they told and the one the words depicted. Perhaps a good, tough editor or co-writer could have helped bring the two closer together.

One gift the book gave me was the discovery of Price's later music. Perhaps you'll enjoy it, too - here's a quick mix.

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