by Sean Jewell ::
The title of Lloyd Price‘s new book is sumdumhonky. Yes, that’s a pejorative. It’s a deliberate affront to the racists he grew up among; violent, ignorant people, who would sooner lynch a black person of color than eat in their company, much less drink from the same water fountain, or use the same restroom. When one considers Lloyd Price’s career through the privilege of whiteness, it’s easy to overlook these historical facts.
One of the father’s of rock n’roll, Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was an early hit that transcended blues music, southern gospel, and jazz. Price’s hits, like “Personality,” became enduring popular music, ad jingles for corporations, cover tunes for generations of musicians to come. Price’s version of “Stagger Lee” told the story of a violent gunfight in such an upbeat way you forgot it was about men murdering one another over a game of dice. Price’s individual, soaring voice, was just one of his gifts. When he was drafted into a segregated US Army to fight in the Korean War, he pointed his record label to one “Little” Richard Penniman, and gave him his first hit. When Price returned from the war and became a music industry professional he was the first to record Wilson Pickett as a solo act on his own record label. He owned a night club in New York City. He gave the world the famed Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. For all his accomplishments, it’s been easy to forget that no white person in Kenner, Louisiana would’ve thought twice about killing a young Lloyd Price for looking at a white woman.
sumdumhonky is the fire and brimstone revelation about just what it was like to live in the south in the ’40s and ’50s as a black child, hounded by the police, haunted by the Ku Klux Klan, alienated by neighbors and townfolk of different ethnicity. sumdumhonky is, in part, the story of the crippling sociological impact on a society freed from slavery generations earlier, and left to rot with no social net, whole civilizations of people entirely invisible to white men and women of America, and in part the story of how Lloyd Price survived to become one of the greatest entertainers of the twentieth century. There are heartbreaking tales of the mental slavery black children grew up trapped in, and bone chilling stories of city police just smart enough to put on a uniform, but none of them are told from the point of powerlessness. Here Lloyd Price channels all his rage and directs it at those police, those salesman, those record executives, those lawyers who believed black men like him to be inferior. Price even finds a few chapters to relay his disdain for those Africans he’d meet later in life during his pilgrimage to Nigeria, that would treat other black men with contempt. “There is no defense for the truth,” Price told me.
Given the events of the day, Price’s essays–a bludgeon of truth–couldn’t have come at a better time. There is no easy way to speak about the indefensible acts of racism people of color in America suffer. There is no better time to acclimate those sheltered from racism in America to the long lasting effects of white supremacy and segregation. There are still plenty of people who don’t understand how racism works (spot them when they use the term reverse-racism), who believe that white people are equally challenged by a societal system that spent 400 years teaching white children that people of color are less than nothing, that the institutions that enslaved, brainwashed, and brutalized black bodies are now somehow docile and flaccid in the way they uphold racist traditions they call “heritage.” Those same people grew up on black music, benefit from the country that was built on chattel slavery, and feel safe living in sterile, white, environments, at distance from the neighborhoods they call ghettos; neighborhoods that black families have been restricted to living in economically and socially for hundreds of years. sumdumhonky isn’t just a policeman or a Klansmen from Kenner, Louisiana in 1940, it’s every ignorant white person that stands in the way of Lloyd Price’s dreams, and here the nation’s first wildly rich teen idol, and progenitor of rock ‘n’ roll, is telling it like it is.
For all its lessons, sumdumhonky has some extremely elegant moments. Reading about teen Lloyd Price tuning into the radio for songwriting inspiration, getting his brother to “drum” backbeats on beer crates while he wrote rhythms, meeting Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew is fulfilling. Mostly though, sumdumhonky becomes a priceless artifact much like one of his songs: when it hits that note. Like the shout/sing the first time you hear “Lawdy” in “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the way he holds the note when he sings “over and over” on “Personality,” the way he builds tension by separating the lyrics in “Stagger Lee,” Price puts forth the idea that beginning with just one song, the walls that held up racism in America began to come down. That from the day “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” hit the radio, black and white kids began to skate, dance, and see shows together, to talk to one another, and to associate in ways generations before them never had. It’s Price’s assertion here that rock ‘n’ roll, beginning with his hits, caused the youth movement that ended segregation. This omnipotent understanding of the ability of art and communication to bring whole civilizations together in ecstasy is why, without question, you should read sumdumhonky.
Hey Lloyd, this is Sean Jewell from American Standard Time.
Hey Sean, how are you?
Pretty good, have I got you at a good time?
Yeah I’m good, thanks for callin’
I really enjoyed the new book.
Well I thank you.
You got time for me to ask you a few questions about that?
This isn’t your first book, you have another one right?
True Kings of the Fifties, yeah.
That book told a lot of truths but this one, you’re really comin’ off the ropes on this one.
Was there anyone who tried to tell you to not write this book, or tell this story?
Yeah, I heard that, that this may not go over well. But this is not to alienate anybody. It’s all the truth, and there is no defense for the truth.
I definitely get that from the book, after reading it and going back and looking through your history, you’ve been saying these things all along. You say this is a collection of essays, did you write all of these recently?
I’ve been working on it over time. I tried to pick the right time to do it, and this is the right time, according to what’s going on today in this country, and not just in this country but today around the world.
Couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s interesting to highlight the idea that these things we say were happening in the ’40s and ’50s are still happening today.
No question about it, no question.
Can you give me some history? You’re a great source of that.
I understand from the recording of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” that this was the first time backbeat appeared on a record, there really wasn’t those kind of drums on records before you recorded that with Specialty Records, correct?
That’s absolutely right. We had recorded with Fats Domino, but he was just, I guess you would say, feeling at that kind of rhythm. Because there were triplets, with Smiley Lewis and Professor Longhair on piano, back during that time there was no young records, everything was for adults. They played everything based off of an 8 bar blues. That kind of rhythm that Earl Palmer played fit, and so just like smoke risin up all of us started feeling it. We were in that pocket. (scats) boom boom dang a doom boom boom do dang duh. [laughs[
It was the kind of music we heard during the Mardi Gras.
And so we hit all these different rhythms, now instead of playing it with hands on drums we played it with sticks, and started hitting that cymbal that 6/6 cymbal. You know tss-tss-tss-bang-tss-tss-tss-bang, and the one on the foot. It was kind of like three different rhythms that come from the drums. [taps out rhythm on desk so I can hear] it was boo-boo-boo bang, boo boo boo bang, you know? [Laughs]
That’s awesome you explain it like that. Those polyrhythmic ideas are rooted in African drumming, further proof that everything comes from Africa.
Yeah, and look where it went, look at Frank Zappa, what he did with different rhythms, on a much larger scale, but it all begins with those African rhythms.
You say something really cool in your book, and you’ve actually said it a lot, but it bears repeating as much as we possibly can. You talk about how “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and your music, began the end of segregation and started integration because it got white kids and black kids dancing together.
Yes. I call it the youth movement. These kids had never done anything together before. When I was a kid in Louisiana and you saw some white kid on the street, you’d cross to the other side of the street, you know? And it was the same thing with white kids, if white kids saw a bunch of black kids coming they’d cross to the other side of the street. It depended on who had the most in their group you know? But we knew each other, we lived next door. Black families, white families, Italians, we lived together, but we never socialized. And so when “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” came on the scene kids started to be a little bit more real with each other. They seemed to start finding passion, or compassion for eachother. They started touching and holding hands. We played skating rinks and they started skating together. They’d open up the rink and all the kids would go in and skate. Can you imagine? Kids could not skate together. Couldn’t go to church together, couldn’t do nothing together. You know it was the youth that got Rosa Parks to sit on the bus. It was the youth that got Martin Luther King marchin’ on Washington. All this had to start somewhere, and it started with the roots of that music. These same kids that marched on Washington, these kids today, their parents and their grandparents did the marching in the beginning because of that music sixty years ago.
That’s just an amazing way to put it and it really drove the message of the book home for me that people’s love for music is more important than just about anything.
That’s it! Absolutely, and not only here but worldwide. Because the music is understood in any language.
And you don’t need to know the language to enjoy the music.
Don’t need to know the language, yes, that’s absolutely correct.
You’ve talked about Louis Jordan being an inspiration for you. What’s your favorite Louis Jordan memories?
Oh man. All of them. [Laughs] Louis Jordan was the man. Not only was he a great musician, but the way he dressed, the first time I ever seen slick black hair was on his head. I didn’t know my kinda folks could have that kinda hair. (Laughs) Louis Jordan was the man. He was our Elvis, our Beatles, our Fleetwood Mac, he was everything in one. When Louis Jordan came to town it was almost like a holiday. He was the man. He was the first black guy I saw in movies, he was just an unbelievable guy.
I don’t think we talk about him enough. He was an amazing guy.
No we don’t. He was amazing, that guy is sho’nuff history.
You talk in your book about going back and visiting Africa, and you make some solid points about your first impressions, but you lived there for 15 years, what was the best thing you took from your experience there?
Well, the most positive and the biggest thing I took away from Africa was that I didn’t have to be watched 24 hours a day by the white man. [Laughs] It was the first time I had been around nothing but black people. Bus drivers, airplane pilots, they ran the hotels, ran the army, I’d never seen nothing like that. It was like waking up in a dream, and I couldn’t see how a country could function like that. When you’ve been called a nothing and a nobody all your life, and then you go see a bunch of people like you doing everything? Now it definitely had its faults. Huge faults. The faults with living in Africa were almost twice the size of living in America. In America I understood it. It was black and white, but over there it’s black on black. You could never understand how two people who look almost alike, speaking the same language, same culture, had the same kind of living, could hate each other because of some tribal conflict. That, to me, was a bigger problem than the rights we had in Louisiana or Mississippi about bathrooms and a bunch of other things. That was minute. Over there those guys killed each other about it. Overall I was not unhappy living in Africa. I lived on what they called the “upper ten.” I knew mostly all the government officials and the big people. They didn’t know what I did, they didn’t know if I was a musician or a magic man, I just got to know them, and used my method of trying to know people. Having experience as an entertainer it wasn’t difficult finding my way around and getting to know people. So most of the time I was good. Then Don King and I had the Rumble in the Jungle over there in ’74.
How did that come about? I heard you were involved with that but what was your role exactly?
Well, Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He was one of my fans when he was 20 years old.
That makes sense.
Yeah, I used to let him ride in my car. I’d always have girls with me and he’d come and hit on ‘em, tellin’ me he was gonna be the champion of the world one day. [Laughs]
Did you believe him?
Nah, you know because Joe Louis, Sugar Ray, Archie Moore, these were the guys. Sonny Liston, Jersey Joe Walcott, these were the heavy weight champs, and he was nowhere near their weight, but I really liked him. One time he told me he was being managed by some Louisville group that was giving him 4,000 dollars a year, which he thought was a lot of money [laughs]. So he came to New York, I let him stay at my house, all through those days. My driver was his driver, you know he just used to say, him and Don King had a thing: “Make me big, make me big.”
So he saw how I lived and you know he just latched on to me like rice on beans. We got to be good friends, and when Don King went into jail, he and I became friends because he had a club in Cleveland and I would work it all the time for him. When he got out of prison he said “I don’t ever wanna go back to jail.” So I was at his house and I called Cassius and got Cassius to sing happy birthday to his daughter, and from there Don got the boxing fire. It came to a point where George Foreman had won down in Mexico, but he was living in Philly with no money. I was in Philly and Don came into Philly with a bag full of that ‘number money,’ you know, thousands. He put it on the bed there and George signed a blank contract, and that’s how the Rumble in the Jungle came about. So Cassius becomes Ali, Ali’s now a Muslim. Don King told them we gonna give you five million a-piece.
Where that number came from is because when Joe Frazier and Ali fought at The Garden. Jack Kent Cooke, who at that time was the owner of The Lakers gave them 2 million a-piece, so us being black guys, we knew we had to double it. We knew they weren’t gonna take us serious anyway, so let’s double it. With no money! But we got both of them to sign and had to give them so much money a month. So with two signed contracts by these two great warriors, we didn’t think it was gonna be a problem, but it was a problem, until John Daly, the guy managing David Frost and Englebert Humperdinck and Tom Jones bought the ancillary rights for a million and a half. Luckily enough Don ran into some guy in Paris who thought he was some guy he knew in Cleveland and this guy was an assistant to Mobutu, in the Belgian Congo, who had just changed the country’s name to Zaire. He took Don straight to Kinshasa, Zaire to meet Mobutu, and in 45 minutes to an hour Mobutu said he would take the fight in Zaire and put up $14 million. That’s how that happened. Couldn’t get a dime in America or nowhere else because that was insane back then to give an athlete 5 million dollars. For what? Well right after that you notice what happened with sports and entertainment. All because of what we paid those two warriors. Now you can hardly buy a ticket for to go see Lady Gaga.
Unheard of numbers. Michael Jackson died $400 million in debt. Numbers like that didn’t exist for entertainers until after we had the Rumble in the Jungle.
Tying it back to the book there’s two things that really struck me. You grossed so much money as a teen idol yet couldn’t even spend it. It shows that we cannot just solve economics problems in America to solve the race problem.
That’s absolutely correct. Because the bank to us then was for white people, we referred to it as the white bank back on the highway. It was ridiculous, and first of all, my generation we had no background for people being experienced with nothing but hard work. Nobody could advise you about anything, all of this was all so new. They claimed by me making $357 some-odd dollars a day my earnings was bigger than the President of The United States. Back then he only got 35 or 40,000 dollars a year. The Chief Justice was making $15,000. My principle in high school was making $6,000. So yeah, economically I was flying, but had no clue what to do with the money. It was all good times. When I was able to buy Buffalo Bills jacket with those old strings on it, and was able to by a car, that was my dream.
You hadn’t dreamed big enough yet huh?
NO. I knew nothing about nothing else to dream about.
One part that struck me in the book was about the Korean War. My grandfather left Arizona as a young man and went to Ft. Hood, Texas for training after being drafted, and he realized that he was to be segregated, and though he was in the US Army he had to use the colored facilities.
Can you believe that? That we all fought under one flag as US Soldiers, and his generation, which must be my generation, was supposed to be the first time the Army should be integrated, that the tents and barracks should be integrated. Well, I was in Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri, and it wasn’t. He’s absolutely correct. And even in Japan and Korea, the rednecks from the south did not want to sleep with the Black G.I.’s and we was all there to kill one enemy. Could you imagine how ridiculous that was? And as you look back you say that was really, really something, we’re all here to do one job: to kill the enemy. If he comes he’s killin’ all of us. I happened to have told one of these kids from Arkansas, I says “Cody, tonight, when bed-check Charlie comes over from North Korea to drop his bombs, you don’t have to run, they’re black bombs, you don’t have to worry.” [laughs]
You learn really quickly in the military that when the fire and flooding starts it doesn’t matter what color you are, or where you’re from, what language you speak you just need to know who’s gonna help.
Yeah, you hope somebody gets you before that fire gets you. When I was a kid working at the airport, I asked a black guy once who’d come off an airplane –I couldn’t serve black people at the counter, so he ordered a cup of coffee and he had to go around back to get it, so he was pissed off at me for not serving it to him. But I asked him, ‘You just came down off the airplane, what did you do when you had to use the bathroom on the airplane?’ He said ‘I went in the men’s room and pissed! They can’t expect me to go outside at 30,000 feet.’ It was amazing.
Right now we’re gonna have a reading the 27th of this month of my play with music called Lawdy Miss Clawdy. But all these things I’m telling you about now will be in Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and what it did socially to bring the people together, not just here in America but around the world, and how it all happened.
Where is that running at?
Well it’s not running yet. We’re just having the first reading here in New York City, in October, but let’s hope, I’ll let you know. It’s gonna be very interesting, because the truth has no defense. We’re gonna tell all these truths, but we gon’ tell ‘em with music and with love, it aint gon’ be nothing that will make people feel alienated or embarrassed. It’s just gon’ be the truth about how this got to be one of the largest music industries in the world by a little country boy from Kenner, Louisiana.