Saturday August 31 730 pm Renzie Park Main Pavilion in McKeesport PA...
full schedule
Is It Over?/They Found Me Guilty
Billy Price & the KRB Live
Free at Last
Danger Zone
Soul Collection
Can I Change My Mind
Sworn Testimony
East End Avenue
Browse all CDs by Billy Price
Browse all CDs by Billy Price & KRB
Get iTunes if you don't have it.
Billy Price & Fred Chapellier Live On Stage - CD + DVD Now Available
I'm excited to announce the arrival of this new CD and DVD package from DixieFrog Records. It documents two great nights at Espace Manureva in Charleville-Mezieres , France in May 2009 during our Night Work tour. Musicians are me and Fred Chapellier a... more

Billy Price CDs and DVDs Make Great Holiday Gifts
When you think about gifts this holiday season, we hope that you will consider our CDs and DVDs for the music lovers in your life. In particular, our latest CD with French guitarist Fred Chapellier, Night Work, continues to get great reviews like thi... more

The Price of Soul

by Toby Thompson

First published in The Penn Stater, January/February 2000.
Copyright by Toby Thompson, 2000.

 

Behind the sunglasses, rocker Billy Price is just an ordinary guy with an ordinary life--one he's spent 30 years fighting to escape.

A placard outside promises, "Tonite--Two Great R&B Bands!" and patrons jamming the smoky staircase leading from College Avenue to Players' basement dance floor know its message to be at least half accurate. Cliff Turner and the Afterburners may fail to ignite, but Billy Price, Pittsburgh's high priest of blue-eyed soul, promises to be surefire.

Unknown to fans, Price--who's recorded six albums, led the fabled Keystone Rhythm Band, played Newport's Jazz Festival, Los Angeles's Troubadour club, and New York's Carnegie Hall, and has been described by the Washington Post as "the real thing"--is backstage scrutinizing the Afterburners' set.

"I tend to be critical about most everything I hear," Price allows, "especially white blues bands." Price's voice, in timbre, somewhere between Sam Cooke's and Otis Redding's, quivers with irony. His raptor's features have softened since his years with the Keystone Rhythm Band, and his dark mane is a monk's tonsure. At 49, in black slacks, skinny-soled shoes, designer shades, and loose-fitting sport shirt, he's a beefy Jack Nicholson.

Out front, every 30-plus musician in State College has convened, as if in protest. Price is more than Penn State's most celebrated rocker. He's legendary, the ghost of good times past, a singer at his most expressive who can dominate a room the way Jackie Wilson or Big Joe Turner did, brightening a late-night saloon where, though it's Lonely Teardrops Hour, the jukebox shakes rattles and rolls.

Price is cued and within seconds leaps onstage before an already rollicking, seven-piece band. As horns mount he leers wickedly, prancing behind Kama Sutra mike moves, and chants, "When I was a little boy I was a tough guy." The crowd howls. It's a number from Price's latest album, The Soul Collection, that he delivers with head cocked and hands clasped: "My father he would whip me, but I would never cry."

Price lifts his right foot, like a horse pawing turf, and stamps rhythmically. His hipster moves are precise, and in performance this white, Jewish son of a suburban dentist is as defiantly black as his idols--Bobby Bland, Al Green, Otis Clay. Despite Price's efforts and the crowd's enthusiasm, something's not right. After a dozen songs, he hops onto the dance floor, seeking connection. The crowd moves back, not touching, not sharing. Yet as he finishes, it bellows approval.

Price isn't satisfied; some key attachment has been missed. Drenched with sweat, he says offstage, "What I enjoy most is that interplay between singer and audience--the preachy stuff." He shakes his head. "State College never was church."

 

Soul is not misnamed. It's religious, conceived in the black church, born of gospel, and coming of age in Memphis in the 1960s. "Soul music is language," Price once wrote. "The message is in the singer's delivery--the subtleties of nuance, pacing, emphasis, phrasing, and attitude." Quoted in Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music, Britisher Clive Anderson says that soul "elevates 'feeling' above all else ... assumes a shared experience, a relationship with the listener." That, for Billy Price, is church.

Growing up in the Leave It to Beaver town of Fair Lawn, N.J., there'd been precious little relating of the sort Bill eventually learned through black music. His dentist father, a hard worker who drilled some of the Yankees' teeth--and his mother--a writer, artist and English teacher--made a comfortable home for him and his older brother, Bud. "There wasn't much communication between us and our parents," says Bud, who heads the English department in the Armonk, N.Y., School District. "We communicated with each other." And though both sons were bar mitzvahed, religion was downplayed. "My dad drove me to my first Cub Scout meeting," Bud recalls, "where there was so much talk about scouts depending upon God, that afterward he said, 'If you want to do this, get your mother to bring you.'" But, for brother Bill, radio rocked in religiosity. "Gospel caught my ear real early," he says. He bought Mahalia Jackson albums, dug Aretha Franklin's mentor, James Cleveland, on the radio, and even its preachers, like Reverend Ike.

Bill would not call his family "dysfunctional." But his father's personality, as Bill's eventually became, was mercurial--different in work than outside it. Bud says, "My father once mentioned that he was so focused on me, as first son, that he thought of Billy as an intrusion."

 

The morning after Players' show, Price's hipster duds hang over the back seat neatly as the devil's finest, while Bill rides shotgun toward Virginia for Saturday night's gig. Embracing El Road, he's fleeing State College as he's done often as a touring performer. "The pattern in my life has been, go to State College, get a band, leave, go to State College, get another band, keep it together for 15 years, leave," he says--incognito in preppie slacks, clunky brogans, and beige polo shirt. The personality change is striking. Forget Billy Price from Pittsburgh's rock cauldron. Meet William Pollak '71, '79, Liberal Arts, from Fair Lawn. "I'm basically an introvert," he explains. "It's hard to describe somebody who did what I did last night as introverted, but I really am."

The act Price does, with its dips and stylized choreography, spends enormous energy. But most of his boogie time is locked into family or day job as public relations coordinator for the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, where he's worked since 1991. "I'm semi-retired," he mutters. "From the blues."

Snaking south on Route 26, his mind is on computers--specifically those affected by the Melissa virus, which has put CMU's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) on red alert. Price is on call. Melissa is an especially destructive virus that could disable software worldwide. Especially e-mail; this troubles Price. He checks his cell phone.

By high school, the straightlaced Bill Pollak, president of his class, was accompanying his brother's friends to black R&B shows in Brooklyn and Harlem. "At home, I kept inside my head," he allows. "Then at these Harlem bars I'd get drunk and grab the microphone and sing with the band."

Fine tuning the car's tape deck, he recalls the night "Billy Price" surfaced: "It was at the White Birch Inn, an all-black club on the chittlin' circuit. I got up with the band, drunk, and did the Spyder Turner version of 'Stand by Me.' The place went completely bananas. They asked if I'd come back and do a weekend. 'What's your name?' Instead of saying 'My name is Bill Pollak,' I said, 'It's Billy Price.'"

Music released his extrovert, became his way of connecting. Soon, he had his own soul group: Billy and the Uptights, who onstage affected green pinstriped pants and pointy black shoes. Price added a puffy gold shirt, "Like Smokey Robinson's." He was training to be what Norman Mailer described in The White Negro as "a new breed of adventurer"--the white hipster. Mailer counseled the hipster to take vows "to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce [him]self from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self."

Billy Price was the rebellious alter ego of Bill Pollak. "I probably didn't feel sufficiently moved by the life I was born into," admits Price. "So I consciously sought out greater challenges that weren't available to me in the life I'd been programmed to lead."

Still, the dentist's son came to State College as a freshman in 1967. "He could have gone Ivy League," Bud says, "but Pennsylvania had better bands." And Price got into a soul band fast--The Respectables. He scrutinized Pennsylvania soul groups and, though an honors student studying religion, flaunted hipster clothes, drank immoderately, and eventually formed his own group, the blues-based, hoodlumish Rhythm Kings that, at graduation in 1971, moved with him to Pittsburgh.

The Rhythm Kings dominated Shadyside, then Pittsburgh's version of South Street or Haight-Ashbury, and became house band at a club called the Fox Cafe. "Suddenly you're out of State College and there's beautiful girls that want to sleep with you and everything." He grins. The band lived together in an enormous mansion, played the Fox every night, and invited everyone who was still standing at closing to party at their house.

Mailer's hipster ethos was deep-seated. Despite party shenanigans, Price stayed fascinated by it. It became religious. "That was when I really learned how to do the preaching thing," he says. "The audience was hanging on every word and really listening and responding."

Price beat on, his professional indulgences contrasting starkly to his spiritual striving. He'd tried Judaism in Fair Lawn. He'd tried Buddhism in State College. He would try Swedenborgianism in Pittsburgh. But the view from behind his windshield was clouding hellishly. He was boozing, and ambition gnawed at him.

The car pulls into a truck stop at Breezewood, Pa. Price hitches up his belt. "Yeah ... the Fox Cafe," he reflects, disembarking. His first near-break came at the Fox where, in 1973, he hooked up with the manager of blues legend Roy Buchanan--who'd been considered by the Rolling Stones as a replacement when guitarist Brian Jones died. Buchanan was a white guitar virtuoso, a redneck Jimi Hendrix with a drinking problem and an international rep for digital gymnastics that superseded his stage charm.

"I hated Buchanan's music," Price says, from the truckers'-only counter. As Buchanan's vocalist, Price found no soul communion, no connection. But he bet that the notoriety he could leverage from Buchanan, who recorded for a major label, might help sell a company exec on the Rhythm Kings. Eventually, Buchanan booked Price and his band as opening act for a show at New York's Carnegie Hall.

"I had been in touch with a rep for Atlantic Records. He shows up, and I play Carnegie Hall with both bands ... and by the way, my parents and about 50 relatives are in the audience. Next day, I called the Atlantic guy about the show. He said, 'Well, I wasn't really too knocked out, man.'"

Price snorts. Later, the Rhythm Kings got a personal audition for Ahmet Ertegun, the celebrated president of Atlantic records. Ertegun flew into Pittsburgh, sat in on a jam session, and passed. "He didn't like it," Price says.

Several twitches. Yet Price's worst disappointment came when his first album with Buchanan appeared. Price was 23 and singing for a superstar. "I was on the verge of owning the world." The first reviews were good. Then Rolling Stone wrote: "An inept young lad named Billy Price mauls everything he touches--which unfortunately is almost everything on this album."'

A long pause. Price rattles ice in his glass. "Here it is almost 30 years later and it still hurts to talk about it."

 

In the green room at Alexandria's Birchmere--a country/rock club with stark posters of Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams glaring-Price is flamboyant in crimson shirt, skinny tie, and black hipster suit, with his cell phone pasted to an ear. USA Today has called looking for Bill Pollak; now he's briefing a reporter about the Melissa virus. Band members lounge. Price's drummer H.B. Bennett barks, "Hey Bill, tell 'em they got time to make the second set."

With his dark buzz cut, chain tattoo and comic bent, H.B. is a punkish Jerry Lewis. NBC is tracking Melissa, and tomorrow will film at CERT--"with Tom Brokaw at Billy's desk," H.B. jokes. "Hey Bill, got your computer open to the Billy Price Web page? Got your gold records on the walls?"' Price shushes him.

Several bandsters sprawl on a sofa, two more incline toward a table scarfing mounds of a mysterious white substance: vanilla ice cream. "Unbelievably wholesome," Price observes, ringing off. "God, in the old days ....." His voice is soft, almost shy backstage--offering a weird counterpoint to the hipster rags. Is this Bill Pollak or Billy Price? University scholar or soul maestro?

That question lingered through the 1970s. While in Pittsburgh, he married, had a daughter. And El Road felt grating. As he'd write in "Still Ain't Had Enough":

"The handwriting's on the wall, it's time to slow down/You'd think I would have had my fill ..."

In 1976, still smarting from Rolling Stone's review, Price left Buchanan's band. "I thought I was through with the music business," he says. He re-enrolled as a student at Penn State to study writing. "Back to the womb," he jests, slouching on the greenroom's sofa.

"Some of my darkest days were actually in State College," he adds. His mother died of lung cancer. His first marriage ended. He struggled through a lengthy divorce. He was at his worst in terms of drinking. And, though he'd quit the business and gone back to school, his father remained unimpressed. Price's ambitions, despairingly, veered toward nonfiction writing.

Bill Pollak the writer got modest recognition. He would publish a few essays and reviews for blues magazines, but really hit it big with an investigative piece, written for English professor Phil Klass's seminar, on the controversial illness of R&B crooner Jackie Wilson. There seemed to be a mob component to Wilson's demise, Price wrote. It was a bold thesis and on August 14, 1978, Price published it--as a lead story in The Village Voice, then Rolling Stone's archrival. "It let me know I could do that sort of thing," Price says. "I thought, 'if I ever need a career ... now, let me get back to singing.'" He smiles. "There was part of me that still wanted to prove something."

The scholar reverted to hip. He started a band, graduated again, and returned to Pittsburgh as "Billy Price" in 1979, with bare bones of The Keystone Rhythm Band. "We started out being rather lousy," he admits. But he quickly brought some excellent Pittsburgh musicians into the group--including one guy who'd played with James Brown.

Price re-entered a Pittsburgh scene reeling with lively bands, including Joe Gruschecky and the Iron City House Rockers. Rolling Stone would call one of their records "the best album by an American Band in the 1970s." Price thought that, in such company, he again was in contention for the national spotlight.

But his self-destruct button was flashing. "I hung with some very dangerous people," he says. The KRB played in clubs he knew were owned by mobsters and drug dealers. They packed heat "and would do target practice in the basement of the club," Price remembers. He became good friends with the owner of one bar, where he played with the likes of Muddy Waters, George Thorogood, the Nighthawks, James Cotton, Otis Clay, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. That same friend "wound up several years later getting murdered in an execution-style hit, where he was found with his head down on the table and a pile of several thousand dollars' cash next to him."

Yet the hipster ethos proved addictive as alcohol or drugs; Bill Pollak had become Billy Price. "For a while there I was affecting some tough-guy attitudes," he admits. "The lifestyle was definitely getting to me."

"Just staying out late, spending every dime
Seems like just getting well is an uphill climb ..."

The KRB was becoming a draw all over Pittsburgh. Soon it had two albums on minor labels, garnering hot bookings and excellent reviews. The Washington Post wrote that Price possessed in his performances "an almost perfect balance of emotional intensity and musical control," adding that, for an artist, "the passions that mean the most are those that are given up with the most reluctance and greatest dignity."

Is It Over was the first Keystone Rhythm Band album. "To my mind, it's the best," Price says. His expectations for it were not high since it wasn't on a major label. "But we were able to sell it, and it got circulated. Everybody who was into that kind of music heard it and liked it and knew it was good." There soon was a second, then a live CD, then a fourth, Free at Last. The band rocketed to East coast stardom playing Boston, Philly, Virginia, the Carolinas, and as far as Houston, Austin, and New Orleans. "People like Stevie Ray Vaughan used to jam with us," Price says.

The band hyped itself by hiring Philadelphia manager Steve Mountain, who represented the Hooters--international stars--and sports figures like Charles Barkley. Mountain reduced the KRB's touring, "Maximizing income per gig," Price says, "so we would have time to write songs." The timing was perfect for Price. His tough-guy pose had passed its nadir. "I'd become horrible, the way alcoholics or addicts get before they bottom out. I didn't get into fights, but I was verbally abusive." By Free At Last he'd stopped drinking though, and the range of his lyrics, their intimacy and power, would stretch its seams:

"Alone and lost, nowhere left to go that I hadn't been before
Fear and confusion had a hold on me
Then one clear morning, I had a chance to see a possibility....
I was in that same old place, yeah, but I had a new song in my heart...
Lord, I feel like a brand new man...."

"I was in recovery," Price says, "from everything." He approached Free at Last's debut with a new attitude, a new self. The band was getting noticed. Mountain promised to give the album his best shot. Price thought this might be it, the big time. But Free At Last sunk like a stone. Price laughs. "So I dissolved the band and went back to school." By then, he was 40 with a new wife, Rebecca, and four children (two now-teenaged stepsons, 10-year-old son Calvin, and 15-year-old daughter Valerie--"named after a doo wop song by Jackie and the Starlighters.") He knew he needed something solid and decided on an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon. This time, upon graduation, he didn't re-embrace El Road. He stayed on at CMU doing PR at the Software Engineering Institute. "I think our father always wanted a more mainstream job for Billy," says brother Bud.

It ended up being a sad coincidence. Dr. Pollak had contracted Alzheimer's and died in 1991, the same year Price started working at Carnegie Mellon. Even so, says Bud, "I don't think our dad cared about Billy's music career one way or another. He never made it big enough to impress my father."

Price kept trying. At the time he joined CMU, he'd begun jamming in Shadyside. The group called itself Billy Price and the Swingtime Five, and played late '40s, early '50s jump blues. "There was space and room to breathe," he says.

That jump blues group evolved into the Billy Price Band. Billy put the soul back in and recorded Soul Collection--"the best thing I've ever done." Critics concurred. The Washington Post called it "an R&B homage full of revealing and compelling performances.... Price is a terrifically expressive soul singer, one who conveys both the pain and pleasure." In Pittsburgh magazine wrote, "These are by far the best recordings yet made by Billy Price ... [he] has never sounded, dare I say it, more soulful and passionate." And Blues Revue magazine recognized that, "After 25 years of singing soul and blues to appreciative audiences on the East Coast, Price [has] earned the right to record an album that defines his very soul." Los Angeles soul-legend Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams produced Price's latest CD--an enormous break. "Jerry told me," Price mugs, "I'm gonna take you platinum.'"

The CD, Can I Change My Mind, was released in December and, once again, Price is on the edge of breaking through. Even this reminder makes him forget Rolling Stone's snub, and that USA Today's calls are to Bill Pollak, not Billy Price. Still, Bill can't help playing chicken with his alter ego. That's the price of soul. The music and its churchlike promise of rebirth--an addiction he won't relinquish.

"I can't tell you how surprising it is, that success should happen at this point in my career," he confides with equanimity. Then sighs. "I think I'm known in music circles as this guy who kind of rises from the ashes."

 

At the corner of Bluegrass Alley and Birchmere Town Square, the club's vastness broken into folksy tracts, Price takes its stage, growling: "When I was a little boy, I was a tough guy." The crowd, white suburban, lollygags before an elevated bandstand with only four or five black faces peppering its mix. Price himself seems to float between worlds, synthesizing Bill Pollak and Billy Price, the dark suit on his stocky frame at times more businesslike than Blues Brotherish.

He kicks off with "You Left the Water Running," clapping hard to spur his audience. He's drawn a swing crowd tonight, and artful Lindy hoppers bop beneath a handpainted sign, "Dancin'."

He cries, "Let me hear you say, 'Yeah,'" and the crowd shouts back, 'Yeah!' He's got that church thing going, everyone clapping and swaying. The band freeze-frames between notes, with saxes pointed upward, drumsticks poised, and musicians' faces down. Klieg lights fade as Price slides into character, sharing love issues in Pittsburgh ("People, seems like it's open house at my house") as if this were a Bible meeting. Moaning "Blind Man," he leaps from the bandstand and wades into his congregation like a revivalist laying on hands. He touches and is touched. That "preachy" connection is working, and he moves into the crowd, acknowledging the frieze of black faces that surrounds him, one he's summoned from the ether. He closes with "Early in the Mornin'" and strides offstage, the crowd hollering, hooting, emoting mightily. They won't let him depart. He vaults back into the spotlight, and encores with "She's Tough":

"You ought to see my baby when she walks down the street
Upsetting everybody she meets ...
She's tough, ooooh, she's tough
My baby's rough, she's rough and tough ...

Despite his new equanimity, Price inserts a lexicon of hip mannerisms, tugging his shirtfront, ticking his cheek, rolling his shoulders, pimp strutting, then laughing,

" ... that's tough enough."

The audience roars. Leaving Town Square, Price is mugged by his audience and autographs CDs for fans 20-feet-deep. He beams.

"That's about as good as it gets."

Toby Thompson, an associate professor of English at Penn State, has written three books and many articles for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Playboy, Men's Journal, and Outside.

 
    Copyrights © 2007 - Billy Price. All rights reserved. Site Developed by: Balianti, Inc.