A man of huge energy and varied talents, Lloyd Price, who has died aged 88 from complications with diabetes, fully deserved his nickname of “Mr Personality”. This was a reference to his 1959 hit Personality, which reached No 2 on the US pop charts. His 1952 hit Lawdy Miss Clawdy, which was covered by a huge array of artists, from Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney to The Hollies, Solomon Burke and Joe Cocker, was a trailblazer for rock’n’roll and one of the first records to break down barriers between black and white audiences. “I revolutionised the South!” Price enthused. “Before Lawdy Miss Clawdy white kids were not really interested in this music.”
After a streak of hits in the early 1950s, many of them reaching the top end of the US R&B chart, Price was drafted into the US army. On demob, he enjoyed his biggest hit in 1958 with Stagger Lee, which topped the US pop chart. His other major hits included I’m Gonna Get Married, Lady Luck, Question and Misty. But he also enjoyed a parallel career as a music business trailblazer, setting up one of the first black-owned music publishing companies, Lloyd & Logan Music, and a pioneering black-owned record label, KRC.
Following an abortive stint as a club-owner on Broadway, New York, in the 1970s he made a dramatic career change by partnering with Don King to promote Muhammad Ali’s fabled heavyweight bouts, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila. He subsequently became a successful property developer in New York, and launched a range of southern-themed food products.
Born in Kenner, Louisiana, Lloyd was one of 11 children (three girls and eight boys) of Beatrice and Louis Price, who ran a restaurant, Fish’n’Fry. The young Lloyd helped out in the family business, and developed his musical skills through singing with the gospel choir in the local church and learning to play the piano and trumpet. He liked to play along on the piano to songs he heard on the restaurant jukebox, not least Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry.
After dropping out of high school he started a band with his brother Leo. They were given a slot on the WBOK radio station, where Price was struck by the catchphrase used by the deejay, Okey Dokey, to promote the station’s sponsor: “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Mother’s homemade pies and Maxwell House Coffee!”
Price recalled: “I took that and made a song out of it. And that rhythm, that slow rockin’ thing? … My brother Leo would bang on a pot and get his own rhythm going. ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ took that rhythm worldwide.”
With assistance from the New Orleans bandleader Dave Bartholomew, who introduced Price to Art Rupe of the Los Angeles-based Specialty Records, Price recorded Lawdy Miss Clawdy with a band including Fats Domino on piano and drummer Earl Palmer. The disc topped Billboard’s rhythm & blues chart and made history by crossing over on to white radio stations.
Price followed it up with a quartet of Top 10 R&B hits, Oooh Oooh Oooh, Restless Heart, Ain’t It a Shame and Tell Me Pretty Baby. However, in segregated 50s America, Price’s popularity with both black and white listeners became a political issue. He recalled that the draft board told him in 1953 that he “had to go in the service because of what my music was doing, this Lawdy Miss Clawdy thing was causing integration”.
He was shipped out to South Korea via Japan, and performed at military bases. Some army lawyers advised him about the desirability of controlling his own music publishing.
Discharged from the military in 1956, he created his own label, KRC Records, on which he launched a new single, Just Because (inspired by a melody from Verdi’s Rigoletto). However, this did not become a hit until 1957, when it was bought up by ABC-Paramount, though Price made sure he kept the publishing. “I got 10% when Nat King Cole was only getting 5%,” he said. It reached No 3 on the R&B chart and 29 on the mainstream pop chart.
In 1958 he scored his only No 1 hit on the mainstream chart (and another R&B No 1) with Stagger Lee, a version of the lurid traditional murder ballad also recorded by artists from Duke Ellington and Woody Guthrie to Ike and Tina Turner and Bob Dylan.
To his exasperation, Price had to re-record the vocal with new, anodyne lyrics for Dick Clark’s American Bandstand TV show. Over the next couple of years Price released a string of hits, featuring elaborate vocal and instrumental arrangements, which included Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day?), Personality, Come Into My Heart and Lady Luck.
In partnership with the concert promoter Harold Logan, Price formed the music publishing company Lloyd & Logan Music, and in 1963 they launched the Double L record label, which released Wilson Pickett’s debut album It’s Too Late and delivered Price’s Top 30 hit Misty (1963).
In 1968 the duo opened Lloyd Price’s Turntable Club on the site of the old Birdland jazz club on Broadway, but after they had received numerous threats Logan was shot dead in their office in 1969. Price decided he needed a change of scene and, after a brief sojourn in Philadelphia, headed for Nigeria.
A friend of both King and Ali, Price joined with King in promoting the 1974 Ali/George Foreman heavyweight fight in Zaire dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle, as well as the accompanying concert featuring James Brown, Miriam Makeba and BB King. For an encore, King and Price organised 1975’s Thrilla in Manila, where Ali fought Joe Frazier. In the TV biopic Don King: Only in America (1997) Price was played by Vondie Curtis-Hall opposite Ving Rhames as King. Price recorded a hip-hop version of Personality as the film’s closing theme.
Returning from Nigeria in 1983 after the government was ousted in a coup, Price exhibited further entrepreneurial flair by forming two construction companies and moving into real-estate development. He also built a recording studio near his home in Westchester County, New York, and launched his food products range under the Global Icon Brands umbrella.
In 1993 he toured Europe with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and joined the Four Kings of Rhythm and Blues tour in 2005 alongside Jerry Butler, Ben E King and Gene Chandler. He received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer award in 1994, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010, and in 2019 he was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. In 2009 he published the autobiography Lawdy Miss Clawdy: The True King of the ’50s, and in 2015 a collection of essays, sumdumhonky.
He is survived by his wife, Jackie Battle, three daughters Lori, D’Juana and December, two sons, Lloyd Jr and Paris, and a sister, Rose.
• Lloyd Price, singer, songwriter and businessman, born 9 March 1933; died 3 May 2021