Lloyd Price, ‘50s R&B star of ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and ‘Stagger Lee’ fame, dies at 88

Wearing a suit and tie, Lloyd Price sings into a microphone.
Lloyd Price at Birdland in New York City circa 1960.
(Kai Mort Shuman / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Lloyd Price, the R&B singer-songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee known for hits including “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” died May 3. He was 88.

Price’s wife, Jacqueline, announced the singer-songwriter’s death at a New Rochelle, N.Y., facility to the Associated Press over the weekend. She cited complications from diabetes as the cause.

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Fellow rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino played piano on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the 1952 R&B No. 1 that launched Price’s long career. His other hits included “Personality” (1959) and “Stagger Lee” (1958). The latter single was controversial in its time as it told the story of a violent murder perpetrated by the title character over a hat; Price’s rollicking reworking of the song (that was first recorded in 1923 by Waring’s Pennsylvanians) all but cheers on the killer (“Go, Stagger Lee!”). To appease “American Bandstand,” Price reworked the lyrics for that televised performance so the antagonists found a peaceful resolution. Price told Billboard in 2013, “It didn’t make any sense at all. It was ridiculous.” Nevertheless, the 1958 single was a No. 1 smash on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Singer Lloyd Price smiles while wearing a pinstripe jacket with a pin on his lapel.
Lloyd Price at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner on March 19, 2001, in New York City.
(George De Sota/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

Price learned to play trumpet and piano while growing up in Kenner, La., a suburb of New Orleans. He was working in his mother’s fish-fry restaurant when he wrote “Lawdy.” However, the Jim Crow-era segregation of audiences weighed heavily on him.

After “Lawdy” was played on white radio stations, he said, “For the first time in my life, I seen Black people and white people sitting together in the Dew Drop in Louisiana and I’m singing ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and everybody clapping; I said, ‘What in the world?’”

In the same interview, Price said he resisted signing contracts that were offered him for his songwriting rights: “Never signed a contract. That’s why today, I got all my masters.”

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That business acumen served him well as he expanded to ventures beyond his writing and performing career. He formed multiple record labels; owned New York construction companies that built middle-income homes; manufactured Southern-style food products such as “Lloyd Price’s Soulful ‘n’ Smooth Grits”; and he was in on the promotion, with Don King, of two of the most famous boxing matches in history — the “Thrilla in Manila,” pitting Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier, and the “Rumble in the Jungle,” with Ali facing George Foreman.

Price was known as an amiable presence, so much so that his nickname became “Mr. Personality” (referencing his 1959 hit). However, he was vocal about racism in America. He posted during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests that he was “seething”: “I’ve always had a smile on my face as I’ve gone through life ... I’ve always done my best to please. But underneath my affable exterior is a man who is seething.”

This is consistent with the man who titled his second book, a collection of essays, “sumdumhonky.” Its chapters include titles such as “I’m a N— (I Thought)” and “No Friends in the Banks for Blacks.” After becoming a recording star, he was drafted for the Korean War and served in a special unit entertaining the troops, to which he referred in a 2018 Facebook post opposing the administration of President Donald Trump.

Price was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. He later joined the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and the National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. Kenner celebrates Lloyd Price Day each Aug. 17.

In a tweet the day Price’s death was announced, Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band pointed out the singer preceded fellow musical pioneer Little Richard in rock history, calling him a “Righteous cat. Enormous talent.”

The Reverend Al Sharpton noted Price’s accomplishments as both musician and entrepreneur in a tweeted tribute: “He was a real trailblazer in music and black business empowerment.”

Price is survived by his wife, Jackie Battle; three daughters Lori, D’Juana and December; two sons, Lloyd Jr. and Paris; and a sister, Rose.