Featured Interview – Billy Price

Cover photo © 2023 Jim Hartzell

imageSometimes the key to success is simply being persistent. If you believe in yourself, stay true to your vision, and keep plugging away, sometimes the Gods of Good Fortune finally decide to smile in your direction. But the music business can be a harsh mistress, certainly not a career for the faint of heart.

Singer Billy Price (William Pollak) has seen it all. After decades of trying to gain recognition beyond the local market, and not quite capturing it while working with one of the greatest guitar players on the planet, Price in recent years has finally been rewarded, first for an album done with a legendary soul singer, and more recently with two albums that show the world that he is a masterful singer, songwriter, and band leader.

Celebrating a career that now spans five decades, he has released a three disc collection entitled 50 +Years of Soul on the Get Hip Recordings label. The deluxe package includes a 16 page booklet with period photos and notes from Price recounting the highlights of each era of his career.

And what a career it has been!

“I was born in 1949, and grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, about a 20 minute drive from New York City. I first became aware of music in the 1950s. For some reason, my ear always keyed into rhythm and blues. I remember there was a record chart countdown show, similar to what Casey Kasem did some years later. They had a Country music chart, one for R&B, and then the Pop chart. I always waited for the R&B chart with records by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Larry Williams.

“Vocal groups were also really big when I was growing up, acts like the Moonglows. I loved all of that stuff, what they now call do-wop groups. So the radio was always on, and any money I had was invested in 45 rpm records, allowing me to build a big collection. I played a little bit of guitar at at young age, doing Elvis Presley tunes for my parents and their friends. That helped me figure out that I could sing. I also took part in amateur talent shows at school.

“The 1960s decade was the hay day of soul music. There were two AM radio stations around in particular, WWRL at the end of dial in NYC, and WNJR in Newark, New Jersey. This was the time when Otis Redding was first recording, and Sam & Dave had their hits. Of course, I loved Motown records a lot, especially the Temptations. For some reason, over time, that music hasn’t endured with me the way Southern soul has.

“One moment that touched me was one of the first times I heard Otis Redding sing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” After the verse, he goes up to a high note on “You are tired, and you want to be free..”. There is something about the tone of his voice that hit me down deep, giving me chills and feeling it on the back of my neck.. I was certain that I wanted to do something like that.”

Some of the disc jockeys on WWRL were probably from the South before migrating up North, and they would feature artists like James Carr, O.V. Wright, Lowell Fulson, Little Milton, and B.B. King, artists who began their careers playing for audiences across the Southern states. That sound had a deep appeal for one aspiring singer.

“When I was a senior in high school, I was a member of the Otis Redding National Fan Club. My friends and I would go to the Fox Theater in Brooklyn several times a year for shows that another disc jockey, Murray the K (Kaufman) would put on. He was know as the 5th Beatle. There would be one house band backing up up all of these great R&B and rock artists. So on one show you might get to hear Patti LaBelle, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and on, and on, and on. Each act would do 2-3 songs, then get off the stage. I got to see some amazing stuff.

“Another highlight happened because a friend of mine’s father was on the camera crew for the Ed Sullivan TV show. He was able to get us tickets to see James Brown on Ed Sullivan. This was around the time that Brown was just starting to cross over with white people. James was just absolutely unbelievable on stage in a small theater. In 1967, I had the opportunity to see Brown and his entire revue at Madison Square Garden.

“I will tell you, any spectacle I have ever seen including any sporting event pales in comparison. That was the single greatest thing I have ever witnessed in my life, seeing James Brown. By then, I was singing in garage bands. After that night, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. It was like seeing a UFO, or having God reveal himself in front of your eyes. It was that stunning! I couldn’t believe how tight, soulful, and well-rehearsed the band was. Over the years, I have had a lot of bands, and I certainly hope that some of that tight professionalism that I learned from watching James Brown was evident in some of the bands I’ve put out there.”

In his first high profile gig  as the lead vocalist for legendary guitarist Roy Buchanan, Price had to deal with a different approach to making music.

image“The whole mindset of Roy’s band was aimed at jamming, which gave Roy plenty of room to just play guitar. His guitar playing was the reason that people came to a show, more than anything else. But what I was into was putting together a tight, well-rehearsed performance. That was an entirely different ethos from what someone like Roy Buchanan was all about.”

In high school, his group, Billy & the Uptights, were the band everyone wanted to see on weekends, doing songs from the British invasion mixed in with R&B tunes, and standard bar band stuff like “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “Good Lovin’,” and “Hi Heeled Sneakers”.

“We were a little bit blues based, and did some soul music too. We even covered the James Brown song “Lost Someone” from the Live At The Apollo Vol.1 album. It is a long, 10-15 minute song. I used to do it verbatim with my high school band.

“Once I got to college at Penn State University, I was in a band that was pretty popular at fraternity parties. My next band was the Rhythm Kings. At first, we were doing a wide variety of material, but during the hippie era we morphed into more of a blues and swing band. I think we were very similar to what Roomful of Blues was doing at the same time. I ended up moving to Pittsburgh with that band. At times we had four horns, playing some hip stuff.

“By that time, I had become an enthusiast and a collector of blues music, particularly the Texas and Kansas City styles of the music, becoming a real fanatic for Bobby Blue Bland. We also did material by other artists like Roy Milton, T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris, and Roy Brown. The band became quite popular in the Pittsburgh area.

“I think one of the reasons I settled here was a DJ named Porky Chedwick. He was the Pittsburgh equivalent of Alan Freed or Wolfman Jack. He was the first white disc jockey on a Black station playing R&B music, and white people started tuning in, similar to the Alan Freed story. But Porky was different in that he didn’t play the doo wop stuff. Instead he was playing records by the artists that the Rhythm Kings were doing, so there was already a cultural legacy for that type of music in the area, which is why the band became real popular real quick.”

Around that time, Roy Buchanan’s manger heard Price singing at a live show. The guitarist was about to cut an album for Polydor Records, and the decision had been made to bring in a singer for the project, as Buchanan was a far better guitarist than vocalist. Price got an invitation to fill the slot, which kept him busy for several years. He appeared on two albums, That’s What I Am Here For, released in 1974, and the classic Live Stock, capturing a live performance at the Town Hall in NYC, released the following year.

“I did the studio sessions and spent a year on the road with Roy, then went back to working with the Rhythm Kings. There was a second studio album, where they brought in another singer from Atlanta named Billy Sheffield. He was a really good singer, but that record didn’t do too much. They owed Polydor one more album, so they brought me back to do the live album, which among Buchanan fans is the record that really endures. Not a whole lot of people remember the studio album, which is probably just as well!

“Roy was a stunningly amazing guitar player. He was also a very unusual guy. But he loved music as much as anyone I have met. I would make cassette tapes from my record collection and from albums friends had before I went out on the road. Roy and I would stay up all night drinking and listening to music from 2 am to 7 am, just talking music all night long. He was amazing to be with.

“The problem was Roy was so great that there were people in the music business who wanted to do something to capitalize on his greatness, to build a career around his greatness. But he was kind of ambivalent about all that. He certainly wanted to earn more money for his family. But he was deeply skeptical about the music business. His ambivalence is evident in some of his recordings.

“I saw that on the studio record I did with him. He would lay down a really tasteful solo, then the people around him would be saying no, no, Roy, you’ve got to throw more of those tricks in there, more of the bullshit the kids want to hear. He wouldn’t know what to do. It was the first time I encountered this whole “guitar God” mentality, where people put Roy on a pedestal and idolized him. It made me scratch my head.

image“And his live performances could be extremely erratic. I might sing two verses at the start of a song, then he’d start playing After he was into his 15th or 16th chorus, I would go off to the side of the stage and sit down until he was done. Sometimes he would bring me back for a third verse, sometimes he wouldn’t. It was quite a contrast with the precision and tightness of James Brown and his band. It was fun, and I enjoyed playing the bigger venues, but it was soon time for me to go do what I wanted to do.”

Price found it hard to return to the Rhythm Kings after taking two years off, and he was increasingly discouraged with the music business in general, so he returned to Penn State to get his degree, which was for English with an emphasis on writing. During that time, he started the Keystone Rhythm Band.

“With degree in hand, I moved back to Pittsburgh around 1979, which was when I really started doing  things on my own. I wrote a number of articles that were published, including a cover feature in the Village Voice about the career and the demise of singer Jackie Wilson. I probably would have continued with that, but the Keystone Rhythm Band started taking off. That band really had a shot for the years we were together, from 1978 until 1989, or thereabouts. We released our first album, Is It Over?, in 1979.

“Our fourth album, Free At Last, was released on Antenna Records, which was part of of a company owned by our manager at that time. It was a really good studio album done in Philadelphia. We were contending for the same space that Robert Cray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds were working in. We wrote a bunch of songs, worked real hard, it was really good, It came out and just died.”

With a young child out home, and  again discouraged by the ups and downs of the music business, Price  returned to school once more at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he earned a Master’s Degree in Professional writing. And he broke up the Keystone Rhythm Band.

“Several years later, the Billy Price Band began to emerge. That band still exists. It is kind of like sourdough bread starter. Musicians come and go, but the Billy Price Band is still here. There aren’t any original members still with us, but two current members played with me in the Keystone Rhythm Band. Dave Dodd on drums and Tom Valentine on bass have been with me off and on for more than 40 years.”

The initial start of the Billy Price Band found the singer going back to some older styles of blues. The band featured a number of players that were well-versed in the rich jazz traditions in the Pittsburgh music community. He is proud of his 1997 release, The Soul Collection, that featured singer Otis Clay on two songs. That release caught the attention of producer and singer Jerry Williams, better known as Swamp Dogg. They collaborated on the next release, Can I Change My Mind, released in 1999, that continued raising Price’s profile beyond the local market.

Given his decades of experience, Price has a pretty good vision of what it takes to be an accomplished singer.

‘A singer is primarily a communicator. You are delivering a lyric, an idea, and a feeling all at the same time. For instance, I perform in France quite a bit these days. It is very strange for me to perform for an audience that doesn’t understand English. Putting the lyrics across, and phrasing them a certain way, is 75% of the whole game.

“I guess there is a feeling that comes through from the sound of the voice, the tone, and the phrasing that resonates beyond words and language. I approach it as a performance. I studied at the feet of all of the people I have mentioned. So when I am on stage, I’m trying to personify that ideal of a singer, not just an instrumentalist with a voice.”

In 2016, Price was part of a project that was produced by guitarist Duke Robillard, featuring the great soul singer Otis Clay. The album was ultimately received the 2017 Blues Music Award in the Soul Blues Album category. But Clay’s influence on Price’s career had been there from the start.

“The title track on my first record, “Is It Over,” a cover of a tune Otis had recorded for Rick Hall in the FANEJerry Wi Studios down in Muscle Shoals, AL, for Cotillion Records. I was aware of him, and I loved the Hi Records sound. The second record I did with the Keystone Rhythm Band was co-produced by Denny Bruce, who also had a passion for soul music. One day he sent me a live two LP record set of Otis live in Japan. There were two two different sets of Otis live in Japan. One he did with the Hi Records Rhythm section. The other one was recorded before that, and it is really hard to find. I went crazy over that set. I probably covered every single song on the album at one point.

“My manager, Tom Carrico, suggested we get one of the Hi Records guys to perform with me and the band. First he called Syl Johnson, who wasn’t interested. So he called Otis, who was noncommittal. So Tom asked if I could call Otis and talk with him about the shows. Otis gave his approval, so we talked on the phone for quite awhile. I finally convinced him to come out and do one show in Pittsburgh and one in Washington D.C.. Those were some of the greatest moments of my life. The emotion I felt singing a duet with him on “Is It Over,” I almost couldn’t continue.”

imageThe two singers did a number of shows together, sometimes backed by Clay’s band, other times the Billy Price Band. They became close friends, and Price also treasures his friendship with Diane Madison and Theresa Davis, two of Clay’s backing vocalist. Around 2015, Price was in discussions with Duke Robillard about producing the next Billy Price album.

“Otis had just done a Blues Cruise, and he called me to say that a lot of people were telling him that he and I should do a full length album together. I told him, Great idea, and I called Duke to see what he thought. Of course, you can imagine what Duke thought. Otis started to have some health issues, so we ended up cutting the vocals at the Delmark Record studio in Chicago. It did really well for us but, sadly, This Time For Real was the last album Otis ever recorded. He died about six months later. We were all set to take the show on the road but that never happened. I still pinch myself that we were able to get it done.”

It didn’t take long for Price to find a different path. His saxophone player, Eric Spaulding, was working in Silicon Valley at a tech job. In his spare time, he started playing on recording sessions for Kid Andersen at the famous Greaseland Studios. Spaulding’s parents used to bring him to Billy Price shows when he was a teenager. He has been a Price fan for a long time.

“Eric would talk with me all the time, saying Kid really had things going on out there. Then he would talk to Kid saying, you should do a record with Billy Price, he’s great. So I talked with Kid, and he told me about some of the fine musicians he could bring in like Jim Pugh on keyboards, and Jerry Jemmott, the great bass player. So we made a deal. The first record, Reckoning, came out on the VizzTone Label Group.

“That record did well, so I started making plans to cut another one at Greaseland. That is when I ran into Mike Zito and Guy Hale on one of the Blues cruises. They told me about the new label they were starting, Gulf Coast Records. They expressed interest, so the next album, Dog Eat Dog, was on their label. Both records were nominated for the Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Album. I also was nominated for a BMA in 2020 in the Soul Blues Male Artist category. The second record was also nominated for a 2020 Blues Blast Music Award in the Soul Blues Album category.”

While writing songs for his next project, Price found himself coming face-to-face with the 50th anniversary of his career. He decided to put everything on hold, and work on a career retrospective. He didn’t intended it to be a greatest hits package, nor are the songs sequenced in chronological order. It plays like a live set of the Billy Price Band.

“Getting immersed in getting the three CD set together and putting it out kind of put me on pause for a bit. But in the last two weeks I have written 5-6 new songs, so I now have enough material for a new album. I am making plans to do something here in Pittsburgh with my band. I really want to capture this band. More people need to hear this particular band, because it is really sounding great. The members include Dave Dodd on drums, Tom Valentine on bass, Lenny Smith on guitar, Jim Britton on keyboards, Eric Spaulding on sax, and Joe Herndon on trumpet. Sometimes we add a baritone sax player named Matt Ferraro.

“Songwriting has become more important to me over time. I collaborate with other artists. There are three main partners. One is a French guitarist named Fred Chapellier, who I have done several albums with. Another person I have written with off and on is Jon Tiven, the record producer and guitarist. He and his wife make demo tracks of music and send them to me. I listen, and if something grabs me, I search my running list of possible song titles, and build something from there.

“My main songwriting partner is my keyboard player, Jimmy Britton. He is a tremendously prolific songwriter. Out of all of the tracks he has sent me, I have probably finished about 5% of them. Typically they come up with the music, and I work on the lyrics. Songwriting has become more and more important to me over the years. It is something I really enjoy doing.”

Visit Billy Price’s website to find out when he is playing near you: https://www.billyprice.com

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