The list of musical pioneers who blew up rock and roll culture in the 1950s is full of instantly recognizable names.
Little Richard. Elvis Presley. Chuck Berry. Fat Domino. Jerry Le Lewis. Ike Turner. And finally getting the attention she deserves, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel-rock guitarist.
But there is another artist who is often left out, and whose career not only as a chart-topping hitmaker, but also as an owner, manager, songwriter, bandleader and music and boxing promoter black pioneer seems tailor-made for the scene.
That would be Lloyd Price.
The story of the Louisiana-born singer and versatile force to be reckoned with is told in Personality: The Musical Lloyd Price, written by B. Jeffrey Madoff, with Price. It will have its world premiere at People’s Light in Malvern this month.
The piece takes its name from the 1959 hit that is Price’s best-known and most hummable song, which gave him his “Mr. Pseudonym “Personality”. It is directed by Sheldon Epps and employs two actors to play Price, who died in May 2021 of complications from diabetes at age 88.
Saint Aubyn, who originated the role of Dennis Edwards on Broadway in the Tony award-winning musical Temptations Ain’t too proud to beg, plays Price as an adult. And singer-actor Nathaniel Washington plays the young Price, who had a smash hit at 19 with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the first song he ever wrote, which hit number one R&B in 1952. then inspired a line of Price-owned Lawdy Miss Clawdy food products.
The show begins previews on March 9 and runs until April 3.
“This is one of the greatest shows we’ve ever done,” says Zak Berkman, artistic director of production at People’s Light. With up to 18 actors and five band members on stage at a time, he says, “this could be our first song-and-dance musical.”
Personality The path to People’s Light began in 2014 in an ophthalmologist’s waiting room in New York City. There, Price bumped into a friend of Madoff, who works primarily as a filmmaker.
“He called me and said, ‘Do you know who Lloyd Price is? I said, ‘Sure, you mean, Mr. Personality?’ Madoff recalled in an interview with Berkman at People’s Light last week.
“Then he asked me what I knew about his life, and I said ‘Nothing’. But ‘Stagger Lee’ is one of my favorite songs.
Madoff was about to learn about Price, who grew up the eighth of 11 children in Kenner, Louisiana, raised by a mother who ran a fish restaurant. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
After the pair met, Madoff produced an as-yet-unreleased short documentary about Price in which the charismatic Price – who Madoff said “had a 1,000 watt smile” – tells his story.
This story involves seeing his first jukebox at the age of 7, working in a segregated bar in Kenner, sweeping the floor on both sides of the racial divide. The title of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was inspired by a black DJ named Okey Dokey Smith, whose catchphrase was “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat your mom’s homemade pies and drink your Maxwell House coffee!”
“I was always looking for a way out,” Price recalls in the film. “And I knew if I could find something, I could get on a bus and get out of Kenner.”
The reasons Price wanted to leave Kenner are documented in sumdumhonky, his 2015 book in which he talks about the racists he faced growing up, “who thought black people were less than nothing. They thought dogs were better than colored people.
Price was playing “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” on the piano when bandleader Dave Bartholomew heard it, which led to a recording session in New Orleans. The song became a million-selling sensation that was popular with black and white teenagers.
“I interviewed him for the movie for three and a half hours,” Madoff said. “I said to him, ‘I think you have an incredible story that no one knows and needs to be told.’ ”
The two spoke again for about 25 hours, Madoff says, and he got to work writing Personality,a sight Price may have seen in shop versions before his health deteriorated.
It chronicles a life of cultural adventure and entrepreneurial endeavour. It includes two years in the military during the Korean War and a 1959 appearance on American bandstand in Philadelphia where Dick Clark had Price sing a castrated version of “Stagger Lee,” his hit about a murder in a bar.
He founded KRC, one of the first black-owned labels, in 1954. In 1962 he started another label, Double L Records, with his longtime partner Harold Logan, whose signers included a young Wilson Pickett .
Price was influential as a black artist who refused to be taken advantage of. “He was a great guy who helped me, Leon [Huff]and Thom Bell a lot in the beginning,” said Kenny Gamble Billboard about Price, who also owned Turntables nightclub in Manhattan. “He was a fearless and independent force.”
“He was a businessman, more so than other artists,” says Jerry “The Geator” Blavat, a longtime friend of Price who last signed him to perform at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia in 2015. “He had all the publications of all his songs, which was unheard of at the time.”
Price had a long relationship with Muhammad Ali and boxing promoter Don King, with whom Price teamed up with the legendary Ali fighting the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 and the Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975. was a neighbor to Frazier when he, boxer and Sixers great Wilt Chamberlain lived in Society Hill Towers in the 1960s.
The second time Personality was studio-worked, it was filmed, and in 2019 the video and script made their way to People’s Light, as a potential place where, Berkman says, “it could be developed outside of the pressures of New York, where the focus could perhaps be more on the story than the spectacle.
Like Madoff and Berkman, Aubyn and Washington, the two actors who play Price in Personality, only knew a few of his songs.
“One of the reasons I’m so happy to be involved with this project is to learn about things he’s done that no one seems to know about,” Aubyn said via Zoom. “Like, he was the first black artist to have his own label and a distribution deal with ABC-Paramount, and he’s helped a lot of other singers, like Sam Cooke. It’s time for the world to hear his story. And it’s not just a black story, it’s an American story.
‘Personality: The Lloyd Price Story’ at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, March 9-April 3. $40 to $45, 610-644-3500. For all performances, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours is required, and wearing a mask is mandatory in the room. Additionally, some performances will offer socially distanced seating. To verify peopleslight.org for more details.