Music

Lloyd Price’s life story will come alive in new musical ‘Personality’ at People’s Light in Malvern

The list of musical pioneers who brought a culture-quaking rock and roll explosion in the 1950s is full of immediately recognizable names.

Little Richard. Elvis Presley. Chuck Berry. Fat Domino. Jerry Lee Lewis. Ike Turner. And finally getting the attention she deserves, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel-rock guitarist.

But there’s another artist who is often excluded, and whose career as not only a chart-topping hitmaker, but also a trailblazing Black record label owner, manager, songwriter, bandleader, and music and boxing promoter seems tailor-made for the stage.

That would be Lloyd Price.

The tale of the Louisiana-born singer and all-around force to be reckoned with is told in Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical, written by B. Jeffrey Madoff, with Price. It will have its world premiere at People’s Light in Malvern this month.

The play takes its name from the 1959 hit that is Price’s best-known, most-hummable song, which gave him his “Mr. Personality” nickname. It’s directed by Sheldon Epps and employs two actors to portray Price, who died in May 2021 from complications from diabetes at age 88.

Saint Aubyn, who originated the role of Dennis Edwards on Broadway in the Tony-winning Temptations musical Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, plays Price as an adult. And singer-actor Nathaniel Washington portrays the young Price, who had his breakout success at 19 with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the first song he ever wrote, which was a number one R&B hit in 1952. It later inspired a line of Price- owned Lawdy Miss Clawdy food products.

The show begins previews on March 9 and runs until April 3.

“This is one of the biggest shows we’ve ever done,” says Zak Berkman, producing artistic director at People’s Light. With up to 18 actors and five band members on stage at once, he says, “it might be our first song-and-dance musical ever.”

Personalities path to People’s Light began in 2014 in an eye doctor’s waiting room in New York. There Price bumped into a friend of Madoff’s, who works primarily as a filmmaker.

“He called me and said ‘Do you know who Lloyd Price is?’ I said, ‘Sure, you mean, Mr. Personality?’ Madoff recalled in an interview with Berkman at People’s Light last week.

“Then he asked me what I knew about his life, and I said ‘Nothing.’ But ‘Stagger Lee’ is one of my favorite songs.”

Madoff was about to get educated about Price, who grew up the eighth of 11 children in Kenner, La., raised by a mother who ran a fish restaurant. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

After the two men met, Madoff produced a short documentary about Price that’s as-yet unreleased in which the charismatic Price — who Madoff says ‘had a 1,000-watt smile’ — tells his story.

That tale involves seeing his first jukebox when he was 7 years old, working at a segregated bar in Kenner, sweeping the floor on both sides of the racial divide. The title of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was inspired by a Black DJ named Okey Dokey Smith, whose catchphrase was “Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat your mother’s homemade pies and drink your Maxwell House coffee!”

“I was always looking for a way out,” Price recalls in the film. “And I knew that if could come up with something, I could get on a bus and get out of Kenner.”

Price’s reasons for wanting to get out of Kenner are documented in sumdumhonky, his 2015 book in which he writes of the racists he faced growing up, “who thought that Black people were less than nothing. They thought dogs were better than people of color.”

Price was playing “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” on piano when bandleader Dave Bartholomew heard it, leading to a recording session in New Orleans. The song became a million-selling sensation that was popular with both Black and white teenagers.

“I interviewed him for the film for three and half hours,” Madoff said. “I said to him, ‘I think you have an incredible story that nobody knows and needs to be told.’ †

The two talked again for 25 hours or so, Madoff says, and he got to work writing personality,a show which Price was able to see in workshop versions before his health took a turn for the worse.

It tells of a life of cultural adventure and entrepreneurial endeavors. It includes two years spent in the Army during the Korean War and a 1959 appearance on American Bandstand in Philadelphia in which Dick Clark made Price sing a neutered version of “Stagger Lee,” his hit about a barroom murder.

He founded KRC, one of the music businesses’ first Black-owned labels, in 1954. In 1962, he started another label, Double L Records, with his longtime partner Harold Logan, whose signees included a young Wilson Pickett.

Price was influential as a Black artist who refused to be taken advantage of. “He was a great dude who helped me, Leon [Huff]and Thom Bell a lot in the early days,” Kenny Gamble told billboard about Price, who also owned the Manhattan nightclub Turntables. “He was a fearless and independent force.”

“He was a businessman, more so than other performers,” says Jerry “The Geator” Blavat, a longtime friend of Price’s who last booked him to play Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center in 2015. “He owned all the publishing on all of his songs, which was unheard of at the time.”

Price had long relationships with Muhammad Ali and boxing promoter Don King, with whom Price partnered with on the legendary Ali fights the Rumble in the Jungle versus George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 and the Thrilla in Manila versus Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975. Price was neighbors with Frazier when he, the boxer, and Sixers great Wilt Chamberlain lived in the Society Hill Towers in the 1960s.

The second time personality was workshopped, it was filmed, and in 2019, the video and script made its way to People’s Light, as a potential place where, Berkman says, “it could be developed outside of the pressures of New York, where the focus could be maybe more on the story than the spectacle.”

Like Madoff and Berkman, Aubyn and Washington, the two actors who portray Price in personality, were only familiar with a few of his songs.

“One of the reasons I’m so happy to be involved in this project, is to learn of the things that he did that nobody seems to know about,” Aubyn said via Zoom. “Like, he was the first Black artist to have his own label and distribution deal with ABC-Paramount, and he helped a lot of other singers, like Sam Cooke. It’s time for the world to hear his story. And it’s not just a Black story. It’s an American story.”

“Personality: The Lloyd Price Story” at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, from March 9 to April 3. $40-$45, 610-644-3500. For all performances , proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours is required, and masks must be worn in the theater. In addition, certain performances will offer socially distanced seating. check peopleslight.org for details.

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