BWW Interview: Billy Price Makes Gulf Coast Records Debut With DOG EAT DOG
The one thing gathered from the beginning about Billy Price, was how at ease he seems, whether onstage or off. Recently, Price and the Charm City Rhythm Band passed through Harrisburg to promote Dog Eat Dog, his new CD on the newly formed Gulf Coast Records.
Backstage at Club XL in Harrisburg, Price sat down to talk about Dog Eat Dog, and a career in the soul, R&B and blues world that has spanned decades. "The reviews have been tremendous," he says, "and the radio airplay has been great. It's been out since August the 2nd; presales were very strong, we got on the Billboard Blues Charts, we were #9 the first week out, and #13 on the Roots Music Report radio charts, which is a big thing."
Price agrees the new album picks up where his 2018 Vizz-Tone release Reckoning left off. "No question," he says. "It's the same producer (Christoffer "Kid" Anderson), and most of the same musicians, some of the horn players are a little bit different. The big difference is probably the addition of a lot of percussion; we have a conga player on almost every song, and it makes a big difference, a different vibe."
Dog Eat Dog begins with an understated, but decidedly funky, horn-laden track, "Working on Your Chain Gang." Price's new songs are part of a process that's "...evolved, but it's in a nice place now." Keyboardist Jimmy Britton, who plays with the Pittsburgh-based band that bears Price's name, and French guitarist Fred Chapellier are Price's main partners.
Price also described how some of the songs came about: "'Lose My Number," once I got the idea for that song, what I wanted to do lyrically, it was written in 15 minutes. (With) 'More Than I Needed,' Fred had this beautiful melody and chord changes, and I just kept listening to it over and over again; I just knew there was something there, but I just could not latch onto something, and you know how they do it just kind of fell out of the sky."
Price's originals are complemented by covers that are a nod to Price's past. "'We're in Love" is a song by Bobby Byrd," Price explains, "and I used to play that in a version of the Keystone Rhythm Band back in the eighties. I sort of forgot about the song, and really, it just came up on shuffle one day, and I thought, 'Oh, yeah.'"
A Rick Estrin song, the title track came through Anderson's relationship with the Nightcats frontman. "Kid was thinking about it," Price says, "and thought the message of that song is just as relevant today as it was then."
Another of note is "Same old Heartaches," with a most familiar sound to R&B fans. "That one was written by two old friends of mine from western Pennsylvania, Melvin and Mervin Steals. They're songwriters that used to work in Philadelphia; biggest hit they had was probably 'Could it Be I'm Falling in Love" by the Spinners. They had written some songs for me back in the seventies. Our idea back then, there was a band in Philly called the Soul Survivors ("Expressway to Your Heart"); they were a project of the writing team of Gamble & Huff; and so (they) were kind of looking to do a similar idea with us, a blue-eyed soul band, and writers. They wrote a few songs for me back then, and nothing really happened with it, and we all went our separate ways.
"I ran into Melvin right around the time we were writing songs for Dog Eat Dog. I sent him a copy of Reckoning, and he said, 'Well, we wrote this one song for the Impressions, and this might be good for you. It's the closest thing we have to a blues song. Of course," Price notes with good humor, "it's not really a blues song, it's a soul song, so he sent that to me and right away, I said, 'Oh yeah, for sure.'"
Price's career has remained constant, rooted in his influences, which began with James Brown. "I saw (him) when I was a kid," Price recalls. "To have that kind of power, and that kind of control, and that kind of incredible musicality, it was what I wanted to be. I had a band in high school, and I always latched onto the soul singers, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, always a guy in front of a band."
His first national exposure, however, came as lead singer for incendiary guitarist Roy Buchanan; he appeared on the 1974 release That's What I'm Here For and Live Stock, which came out the following year.
Price admits his time with Buchanan was rewarding, but not him. "It was like a dream come true," he explains. "I mean, Carnegie Hall when I was 23 years old, and who gets to do that? In a way, it was kind of an aberration, and for me, it wasn't typical of the kind of thing I did. Being a lead singer in front of a virtuoso guitar player, that wasn't really part of my fantasy," Price adds with good humor. "With Roy, I mean everybody was there to hear him play guitar, and I was almost a distraction, the stuff I was doing. I would sing two verses, and Roy would start to play, sometimes he'd play for 30, 40, 45 minutes, and it was a mystery about whether I would get a third verse or not. It was a great experience in terms of seeing the music business, and being able to become friendly and collaborate with somebody of that stature."
Buchanan's nature was often as mercurial as his prowess on guitar. "He was a little bit distant," Price admits, "it was no secret he had some substance abuse problems, and one of the consequences of that was, he was either very uptight and nervous, or he just over-the-top effusive and gone."
Still, Price says he and Buchanan forged a close bond. "We connected," he says, "because we were both music fans. We used to stay up, get drunk, and listen to tapes and just talk, a lot.
"To the extent that a kid of 22 or 23 could be Machiavellian," Price says (partly as a joke), "I sort of approached it in that way you know, 'I'm gonna get myself notoriety from singing with Buchanan, and then I'm gonna use that to get a recording contract for my band the Rhythm Kings, so that I can do what I want to do, this blue-eyed soul singer in a band with horns.' That didn't work out, but that was at least my fantasy of the way it worked out."
Price carried on with the Rhythm Kings, and a string of recordings that includes work with Otis Clay, among others. That particular collaboration, This Time for Real earned the best Soul Blues Album award of 2015 from the Blues Music Awards. Price also was recognized by his former home in 2016 as a Pittsburgh Rock 'n Roll Legend.
A recent move to Baltimore has Price fronting two bands: the Billy Price Band in the former, and the Charm City Band, made up of musicians from the Baltimore and Washington, DC areas.
"Nice problem to have, right?" Price asks. "They (each) have a little bit of a different feel. The (Charm City) guys probably have a bit stronger background vocals. The guys in Pittsburgh, they know exactly what I want to do and where I want to go."
Price says his audience is a mix of fans, old and new. "There are a lot of people that used to follow me back then," he says, "a lot of times when one of my shows is announced on Facebook, there'll be a couple of people who will say, 'Oh, yeah I remember him.' We've lost track of a lot of people over the years, but we're getting some new fans, too. The kinds of people who go to blues festivals, and go on the blues cruises and that kind of stuff.
"It's easier and more fun when there's a big crowd," Price goes on, "but when you get to having done this as long as I have, I don't have the luxury being able to turn it on or off. Even if it's a small crowd, I can latch onto a couple of people and do the best I can. It's not like I can just summon it up, it has to be there all the time. I just enjoy it, it's not work."
The annual Rhythm & Blues Cruise led Price to Mike Zito, founder of his current label, Gulf Coast. "When Mike was a kid, some of his favorite albums were the albums that I'm on with Buchanan," Price explains. "I think I first met him at one of the Blues Music Awards events in Memphis. He was excited to meet me, and he said, 'Oh, your voice has been in my head my whole life.'" Zito invited Price to join his band for songs from Live Stock as part of his show, and that led to Gulf Coast picking up Dog Eat Dog.
This fall finds Billy Price headed for the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas, and will be participating in another Gulf Coast showcase at Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, plus a tribute to Roy Buchanan at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He will also head to Switzerland to link up with Chapellier at the Luzerne Blues Festival.
As for how Price sees his career at this point? "I know that a lot of people love my music," he says, "and I already have achieved that. I'm not hungry to achieve much more but to just keep adding to my body of work. Early in my career, I was very derivative, I think, so I guess I'd like to be known for having made an original contribution to this genre I work in."
(Photos by the author)