"African-American music, including blues, soul, jazz, and gospel, may be the greatest artistic achievement of American culture. Its influence has spread throughout the world, and continues to do so. It is hard to quantify or speculate on the ways in which this music has affected race relations, politics, and societies."
Billy Price: The Voice of The Soul
2016 Blues Music Award Winner Billy Price first attracted national attention during his three-year association with guitarist Roy Buchanan. Price is the vocalist on two of Buchanan's LPs, That's What I'm Here For and Live Stock. Since then, with the Keystone Rhythm Band, the Billy Price Band, and solo projects, Billy Price has recorded and released a total of 16 albums, CDs, and DVDs. In April 2016, he was officially recognized and inducted as a Pittsburgh Rock ’n Roll Legend at an award ceremony. Price’s album This Time for Real, with the late Chicago soul singer Otis Clay, received a 2016 Blues Music Award in the category of Best Soul Blues Album of 2015. His latest album Reckoning, produced by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios, was released on June 15, 2018 by Vizztone Label Group. It has been nominated for a 2019 Blues Music Award in the category of Best Soul Blues Album of 2018. Photo by Christopher Myers
His new album 'Dog Eat Dog', also produced by Andersen, will be released on Gulf Coast Records in August, 2019. The Pittsburgh-based Billy Price Band consists of Dave Dodd (drums), Tom Valentine (bass), Lenny Smith (guitar), Jim Britton (keyboards), Eric Spaulding (sax), and Joe Herndon (trumpet). The Billy Price Charm City Rhythm Band, based in Billy’s new hometown of Baltimore, MD, consists of El Torro Gamble (drums), Greg Haughey (bass), Pete Kanaras (guitar), Tam Sullivan (keyboards), Dan Gutwein (sax), and Vince McCool (trumpet).
Interview by Michael Limnios Photos by Christopher Myers & David Aschkenas
How has the Blues n’ Soul music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
I have been attracted to and involved with blues and soul music, both as a fan and as a singer, from the time I was a child through the present day. My love for this music has brought me happiness and fulfillment throughout my life, and continues to do so. Because blues and soul emerged from African-American culture in the U.S., my love for this music has exposed me to the influence of diverse musical and cultural styles, and this has opened me up to a greater appreciation and respect for people of different ethnic and social backgrounds.
How do you describe Billy Price’s music philosophy and progress? What does to be a ‘Soul Singer’ todays?
From the beginning of my career, I have modeled myself after the great soul singers whom I saw performing when I first began attending concerts—Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Clay, Tyrone Davis, to name a few. When these artists performed, they were always backed by strong and supportive bands, and they strove to make an immediate and emotional impression on their audiences. As the gospel singers say, their goal was to “wreck the house.” This is what soul singers do, and this is what I always try to do.
What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from your new album (2019) studio sessions?
We have a great time when we record at Greaseland, Kid Andersen’s home studio in San José, California. One of the highlights for me was to collaborate with the great blues and soul singer Alabama Mike, who sings with me on the title song, Dog Eat Dog. That song was written by Rick Estrin, and Rick also played harmonica on our version of the song.
I love working with and spending time with Kid, who always has fresh and creative musical ideas and immerses himself completely in a project the he is producing. We share a love for this music and a commitment to making an original contribution to the genre. It was great also to sing and spend time with all the great musicians whom Kid assembled to work on the album: the legendary Jerry Jemmott (bass), Jim Pugh (keyboards), Alex Pettersen (drums), Jon Otis and Vicki Randle (congas and percussion), Lisa Leuschner Andersen (background vocals), Eric Spaulding (saxophone), the Sons of the Soul Revivers (background vocals), and others.
In addition to the many songs that I helped to write on the album with my co-writers Jim Britton and Fred Chapellier, I was happy to have the opportunity to record a song written by my friends Melvin and Mervin Steals, whom I worked with many years ago. The Steals brothers wrote many great soul hits including their biggest, “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” by the Spinners. Melvin was kind enough to send me a song that they wrote for the Impressions, “Same Old Heartaches,” and we recorded a great new version of this song. I think listeners are going to love it when they hear it.
"From the beginning of my career, I have modeled myself after the great soul singers whom I saw performing when I first began attending concerts—Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Clay, Tyrone Davis, to name a few." (Billy Price / Photo by David Aschkenas)
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I miss the great soul radio stations that I used to listen to during the heyday of soul music in the 60s and 70s—those stations were so much fun to listen to and introduced me to so much great music. Nowadays I find other ways of hearing new recordings, but the problem with having such easy and free access to new music is that the creators of that music don’t get compensated financially for their work the way they once did through airplay and record sales. As the market for physical copies of recordings has disappeared, it has become harder and harder for recording artists to make a living.
Of course, this has always been a problem, and often in the past, the artists were also not fairly compensated. But today, it is virtually impossible for artists and songwriters to earn money from their recordings—recordings have become, in essence, advertisements for live performances. This is okay for artists who are willing and able to tour and perform frequently enough to sustain their careers, but I think that unless the music industry evolves to compensate performers, writers, and copyright owners for their work, there will not be sufficient incentives for artists to dedicate their lives to creating music.
What´s been the highlights in your career so far? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?
I had the opportunity when I was in my 20s to sing, record, and tour with the great blues guitarist Roy Buchanan, and I also was able to perform many times with Otis Clay, who was a friend from 1983 until his death in 2016. I am proud to have collaborated with Otis on the last album of his career, This Time for Real, which we released in 2015 and which won a Blues Music Award from the Blues Foundation for Best Soul Blues Album of that year.
Probably my greatest experience with Otis was when we performed together once in the early 1980s, backed by my band, Billy Price & the Keystone Rhythm Band, at Biddy Mulligan’s in Chicago. Otis’s friend Tyrone Davis came to see us that night, and I had the opportunity to sing “Turn Back the Hands of Time” on stage with Otis and Tyrone—that is an experience I will never forget.
What were the reasons that you started the Soul & Blues researches? How do you describe your songbook and sound? Billy Price / Photo by Christopher Myers
My interest in soul and blues was not the result of my having made a reasoned decision to get interested in it, so it’s not something that I can explain easily. What happened was that I came in contact with soul, blues, and R&B when I was young and, for reasons that are mysterious to me, I was deeply attracted and fascinated by what I heard. I wanted to hear more of this music, and I wanted to learn all that I could about it. So, throughout my life, I have been both a fan or student of the music and, after I discovered that I could sing, also a practitioner of the music.
The fact that I have been just as much a fan as a practitioner may have inhibited my development as a songwriter and stunted my development as an artist. As a fan, I naturally wanted to recreate songs and performances that I loved. Many of my earlier albums have consisted largely of cover versions of obscure or underappreciated songs that were first recorded by other people. As a practitioner, I knew that my job was to make an original and personal contribution to the genres I worked in, but it is just so much fun for me and so satisfying to sing and record songs I love such as “I Betcha Didn’t Know That” by Frederick Knight, or “A Nickel and a Nail” by O.V. Wright, or “Somebody’s Changing My Sweet Baby’s Mind” by Johnny Sayles that I probably neglected songwriting for longer than I should have.
My songbook today still consists of some of these cover versions of other people’s songs, but also now of original compositions that I think are pretty good. Over the past four years or so, writing original songs has been my primary focus, especially on the two albums that I recorded with Kid Andersen, Reckoning and now my new one, Dog Eat Dog. For the first time in my career, I am satisfied that I am making more of an original contribution to the music than I ever had before.
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Certainly, what I learned from working for many years with Otis Clay was invaluable to my development as a singer and entertainer. Otis was steeped in the traditions of gospel music and soul music and was one of the greatest soul men who ever lived, and I studied the way that he worked, emulated him, and learned the music from the inside by interacting with him musically on stage and personally off stage. He was a great friend and an inspiration to me, and I miss him.
I have had the privilege of working with many great musicians in bands throughout my career, and of developing friendships with others in the music field whose lives are also dedicated to the craft that we all pursue. There are really too many to mention by name. Regardless of the genre, though, working musicians and performers have a world view and set of attitudes in common that lead to instant understanding and camaraderie when we meet and interact. I’m fortunate to have been part of this community, which has enriched my life for many years.
The piece of advice that has stuck with me throughout my life, and that encapsulates everything I believe, came from a non-musical source, a software engineer named Watts Humphrey who said something like, “the most important thing you can do at work is to keep your promises and always do what you promise to do.” I’ve always tried to live that way, and I think that keeping commitments and conducting myself as someone who can be trusted has played a big part in my achieving whatever success I’ve achieved.
"My songbook today still consists of some of these cover versions of other people’s songs, but also now of original compositions that I think are pretty good. Over the past four years or so, writing original songs has been my primary focus, especially on the two albums that I recorded with Kid Andersen, Reckoning and now my new one, Dog Eat Dog." (Billy Price / Photo by David Aschkenas)
Do you consider the Blues & Soul a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?
If you take the words “blues” and “soul” and look carefully at all of the variations in style that those two words cover, it’s hard for me to think of blues/soul as a specific music genre and artistic movement. These fields are so rich and vast, and labels of this kind tend to diminish the things that they describe. I usually discourage people from putting a label on what I do or on what anyone else does in music. Someone asked me once, “What do you call your music? Is it blues? Is it soul? Is it rhythm and blues?” My answer was, “Yes.”
I suppose that the state of mind involved in creating the styles of music that I work in may be different from the state of mind involved in creating opera, or klezmer, or zydeco, or hip hop, or chamber music, but at the same time, there are elements of the states of mind that disparate styles of music hold in common. And there are areas of stylistic and artistic overlap among genres that the use of labels tends to obscure. I prefer less tidy, less tightly defined descriptions of things. I encourage people to open their ears and their other senses to experience music as it is meant to be experienced, more with the heart and soul than with the conscious mind.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
Since the development of digital distribution of music, financial incentives for artists that reward them fairly and equitably for their work are still evolving. I would like to see that evolution move a bit faster. I work hard and spend some of my own money to create the work I create when I record an album, and there is still not an easy way for me as an artist to recoup that investment and reap the financial rewards from people’s engagement and consumption of the music I create. I do it because I love it, and I’m fortunate not to have to rely on the money I make from my music to feed myself. But I’m well aware that many musicians and music artists are not so fortunate, and I hope that over time this situation will improve for the artists and creators.
"If you take the words “blues” and “soul” and look carefully at all of the variations in style that those two words cover, it’s hard for me to think of blues/soul as a specific music genre and artistic movement. These fields are so rich and vast, and labels of this kind tend to diminish the things that they describe." (Billy Price & Roy Buchanan on stage, NYC 1974 / Photo by David Aschkenas)
Are there any memories from the late great Roy Buchanan and 'Live Stock' which you’d like to share with us?
I remember worrying a lot about my voice on the night that we recorded that album. I had been having some problems at that time with vocal-cord nodules, and I wasn’t sure what was going to come out when I opened my mouth and sang. But I guess that adrenaline took over and I was able to sing fairly well. Just last year, a new album came out called Roy Buchanan Live at Town Hall that has the entire evening’s recordings, both sets from that concert, and it turns out that some of the previously unreleased recordings are pretty good.
I remember also being irritated that one of Roy’s advisors at the time, a guy who had produced a special about Roy on a TV network, insisted that I wear an ill-fitting blue velour sport jacket on stage, in which I was very uncomfortable.
I mentioned earlier that I think of myself as a fan as much as a practitioner, and this was something that I had in common with Roy Buchanan. One of the things we loved to do was to stay up late after concerts and listen to music. I would make tapes from my record collection when I was home between tours, and then we would listen to the tapes sometimes until the sun came up after our concerts—T-Bone Walker, Bobby Bland with Wayne Bennett on guitar, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Milton, Johnny Guitar Watson, Jimmy Nolan, that kind of stuff. Roy was a passionate guy with a deep love of American blues and soul music, and I have great memories of the years I spent in his band.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
There are a few of my favorites artists whom I never got to see perform live. One of them is Al Green, and another is Sam Cooke. I’d love to have seen Al Green in his prime, but my greatest dream would be to be able to go back in time and see some of the great gospel quartets perform live—Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silvertones, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Sensational Nightingales, etc. That would be heavenly.
What is the impact of Soul and Blues music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications? Billy Price / Photo by David Aschkenas
African-American music, including blues, soul, jazz, and gospel, may be the greatest artistic achievement of American culture. Its influence has spread throughout the world, and continues to do so. It is hard to quantify or speculate on the ways in which this music has affected race relations, politics, and societies. Certainly, it has helped to break down some of the barriers that separate people of different cultural backgrounds, but there is still much work to be done in getting people to see beyond their cultural and political prejudices and predispositions.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?
I have learned not to be too discouraged by temporary setbacks and disappointments. This has been easier when I have viewed singing and performing as a craft rather than as a means to some other end such as fame, fortune, recognition, or material success. To the best of my ability, I just keep working to get better as a singer and performer. I will never achieve perfection, but I think I can keep growing and learning indefinitely as long as I never give up.
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