Q&A with veteran Soul/Blues singer Billy Price, recognized and inducted as a Pittsburgh Rock ’n Roll Legend

"Artists are people who seek to discover some way of expressing something within themselves that usually remains hidden, and if they are able to tap into that something, other people recognize it within themselves too and respond to it. It may not just be people we think of as artists who are able to do that. A great athlete, a talented teacher, a great doctor does the same thing."

Billy Price: The Soul Soundtrack of Life

2016 Blues Music Award (BMA) Winner and frequent BMA nominee 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 20 albums, CDs, and DVDs. 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 2018 album Reckoning, produced by Kid Andersen at Greaseland Studios for Vizztone, was nominated for a 2019 Blues Music Award in the category of Best Soul Blues Album of 2018. His 2019 album Dog Eat Dog, also produced by Andersen, was nominated for a 2020 BMA for Best Soul Blues Album of 2019. He was also nominated for a 2020 BMA for Best Male Soul Blues Artist. In 2022, he released a 3-CD compilation retrospective of his career on GetHip Recordings titled 50+ Years of Soul.                 (Billy Price / Photo by David Aschkenas)

50+ Years of Soul by Billy Price is a 3-CD compilation of tracks selected by Price and remixed from recordings throughout his career as a singer, recording artist, songwriter, and bandleader.  This compilation on GetHip Recordings includes a full-color 16-page insert with extensive photographs and liner notes written by Price detailing the selections and reflecting on his career from 1971 to today. The Billy Price Band, based in Billy’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., consists of Dave Dodd (drums), Tom Valentine (bass), Lenny Smith (guitar), Jim Britton (keyboards), Eric Spaulding (sax), and Joe Herndon (trumpet). They won the Pittsburgh City Paper Reader’s Poll in 2021 as the most popular blues band in the city.

Interview by Michael Limnios                     Billy Price, 2019 interview @ blues.gr

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started and what has remained the same?

My passion for the music is as fierce today as it was when I first started singing as a kid. If anything, it is stronger.

Over the past 10-20 years, I’ve been working on developing my own voice, both as a singer and a songwriter. I am as much, or more, a fan of the music as I am a practitioner of it, and one consequence of that was that earlier in my career, I was far more of an imitator than I am today. I was so in love with the music of Bobby Bland, Al Green, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, and others that all I really wanted to do was to cover their songs and do my best to faithfully copy their phrasing and vocal choices.

But at some point, probably coinciding with the time when I began working seriously on writing my own songs, I began to recognize the folly of trying to imitate singers I would never be the equal of. There is no reason for anyone to listen to an imitation of O.V. Wright when they can easily listen to the real one. So I dedicated myself to being the best Billy Price I could be, and I am still working at that.

What do you think is key to a music life well lived? How do you want your music/songs to affect people?

The music of my favorite artists—those I mentioned in the first question and many others—is such an important element in my life and in the person that I am that life would be unimaginable without that element. Or at least, it would be far less rich and vivid. It’s a high aspiration, but I would like that same thing to be true of people who listen to my music—that it would matter to them, be important.

"One thing I have always been is persistent—I’ve kept at it over the years even when there were good reasons to quit. There are a lot of musical artists who develop devoted fan bases as I have, and as I think about it, it seems to me that longevity may be the key to it.(Billy Price / Photo by David Aschkenas)

What moment changed your music life the most? Who are some musicians have continued to inspire you and your music?

The one that stands out to me more than any other was when I saw the James Brown Revue at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1967. It was the most stunning spectacle I ever witnessed, including sporting events, plays, other concerts, anything. The precision, the showmanship, the stellar musicianship, and the overall quality of presentation represented to me something that a person could spend a lifetime aspiring to. I know that I have never come close, but I have aspired.

Certainly, Otis Clay inspired me. Beginning in 1983 at the first shows we performed together, I had the rare opportunity to perform with one of the giants of the soul music genre many times and to record a full-length album with him. And probably more importantly, to become his friend and to model and learn from his professionalism and grace. Whenever I think about or talk about him, I become aware of how much I miss him.

How did you hook up with the late greats Otis Clay and Roy Buchanan? How did that relationships come about?

I was a fan of Otis’ work with Willie Mitchell at Hi Records in Memphis, some of his earlier recordings in Muscle Shoals with Rick Hall, and his earlier work in his hometown of Chicago. But the album that really made me a fanatic for his music was the first of two live albums he recorded in Japan. Denny Bruce, former manager of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and producer of my second album, had mailed it to me to listen to one day, and I played it over and over again and covered most it not all of the songs on it in my live shows. My manager at the time and I contacted Otis and invited him to come to Pittsburgh and Washington, DC to perform with me and my band. Performing with other people’s bands was not something Otis did typically, and he was reluctant, but we finally did persuade him, and the results could not have been better. After that, we performed and recorded together many times.

I was invited to record with Buchanan for his third studio album on Polydor Records by his manager, Jay Reich, who had heard me sing with a band called the Rhythm Kings in Pittsburgh, where Jay had grown up. The studio album, That’s What I’m Here For, was a commercial and artistic disappointment, but a couple of years later they brought me back to record a live album, Live Stock, which I think represents me and Roy a bit better. To this day, it remains one of Roy’s most popular albums.

"Over the past 10-20 years, I’ve been working on developing my own voice, both as a singer and a songwriter. I am as much, or more, a fan of the music as I am a practitioner of it, and one consequence of that was that earlier in my career, I was far more of an imitator than I am today. I was so in love with the music of Bobby Bland, Al Green, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, and others that all I really wanted to do was to cover their songs and do my best to faithfully copy their phrasing and vocal choices." (Billy Price & Otis Clay on stage 2015 / Photo by David Aschkenas)

Billy Price, 50+ Years of Soul! Why do you think that Billy Price's music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Maybe you’d have to ask one or more of my fans. One thing I have always been is persistent—I’ve kept at it over the years even when there were good reasons to quit. There are a lot of musical artists who develop devoted fan bases as I have, and as I think about it, it seems to me that longevity may be the key to it. A certain level of quality is a necessary condition of course, but when an artist rewards their audience repeatedly with strong performances and gives them whatever it is they are seeking when they walk in the door to their shows, it tends to build loyalty with that audience. I am by no means unique in this.

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

Artists are people who seek to discover some way of expressing something within themselves that usually remains hidden, and if they are able to tap into that something, other people recognize it within themselves too and respond to it. It may not just be people we think of as artists who are able to do that. A great athlete, a talented teacher, a great doctor does the same thing.

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

As my voice has aged over time, I find that I’m no longer able to sing with all of the power and range that I once had. I resist realizing that, try to deny it, hope that it will reverse itself, but at a certain point, I’ve had to accept it and learn to work with what I have now, as opposed to what I once had or wish I still had.

I came to a realization sometime this year that the Billy Price brand is only tangentially related to the two pieces of meat inside my neck (my vocal cords)—the brand is about the expression of spirit, or soul, that I alluded to in question 6, and I’ve learned that I can get by with a lot less voice than the one I had when I was in my 40s.

"The music of my favorite artists—those I mentioned in the first question and many others—is such an important element in my life and in the person that I am that life would be unimaginable without that element. Or at least, it would be far less rich and vivid. It’s a high aspiration, but I would like that same thing to be true of people who listen to my music—that it would matter to them, be important."

(Photo: Billy Price with Keystone Rhythm Band, PA since the 80's)

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

I recovered from alcoholism and drug addiction that threatened to derail both my career and my life around the time I turned 30. I continue to work every day, in a halting and imperfect way, on the spiritual growth that is necessary to stay recovered from addiction.

As a musician, I keep my ears open at all times and do my best to absorb music of many different styles and genres. I’m still a massive music fan, and being one makes me capable of growth and evolution.

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