the sunglasses, rocker Billy Price is just an ordinary guy with an ordinary
life--one he's spent 30 years fighting to escape.
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.
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'
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.'"
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.'"
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.
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."'
long pause. Price rattles ice in his glass. "Here it is almost 30 years
later and it still hurts to talk about it."
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."
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.
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?
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
handwriting's on the wall, it's time to slow down/You'd think I would
have had my fill ..."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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."
staying out late, spending every dime
Seems like just getting well is an uphill climb ..."
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."
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.
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:
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...."
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.
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."
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,"
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.'"
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
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."
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.
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'."
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":
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 ...
his new equanimity, Price inserts a lexicon of hip mannerisms, tugging
his shirtfront, ticking his cheek, rolling his shoulders, pimp strutting,
... that's tough enough."
audience roars. Leaving Town Square, Price is mugged by his audience and
autographs CDs for fans 20-feet-deep. He beams.
about as good as it gets."
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.