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Music Preview: Billy's Blues

Pittsburgh's favorite R&B man finds a soul mate in the 'Swamp Dogg'

Friday, January 21, 2000

By Steve Halvonik

It's going to be a long time before William Pollak is described as "The artist formerly known as Price."

At age 50, Pollak - aka R&B singer extraordinaire Billy Price - is going strong and entertaining absolutely no thoughts of hanging up his wraparound shades.

 
  (Mike Folcan)

"I intend to keep singing forever, and trying to be as good at it as I am capable of being," Price said in a recent interview to discuss his newest CD, "Can I Change My Mind."

Although he has worked full time as a writer and editor at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute since 1992, Price still performs regularly. In fact, he'll be onstage tonight at Graffiti in Oakland to celebrate the release of his new CD.

"Can I Change My Mind" is a radical departure for Price. Rather than record personal favorites of obscure blues and R&B artists, the new disc features eight new songs by noted writer and producer Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams. Swamp Dogg's fresh material and smart arrangements have reinvigorated Price, who says he's thinking about writing more of his own material for his next recording.

"I want to make some kind of an original contribution," Price says.

Whether he writes songs or not, Billy Price will always be an original.

What other musician can claim to have helped save the world from Y2K between stage performances New Year's Eve in State College and New Year's night in Pittsburgh?


 
 
Billy Price Band


Where: Graffiti, Oakland.

When: Tonight at 8:30.

Tickets: $9; 412-276-8300.


Recording Review
Billy Price
'Can I Change My Mind'
(Green Dolphin)
3 Stars


From its tongue-in-cheek cover art to its inventive instrumental arrangements, "Can I Change My Mind" is the most imaginative and entertaining record in Billy Price's 30-year musical career. The 10 songs on this disc - eight of them brand new, written especially for Price - are shot through with the spirit of the R&B party records of the 1960s.

To follow up his critically successful "Soul Collection" CD of 1997, Price traveled to Los Angeles to work with Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, a legendary bluesman who is enjoying something of a musical rebirth himself. In addition to producing, arranging and writing most of the songs for Price's CD, Williams is also featured on Kid Rock's latest rant.

Williams' knack for catchy hooks and bright arrangements are in abundance here. On the title track, for example, he substitutes a flute for the lead guitar and accentuates the percussion, giving the old soul standard a Caribbean lilt. In the middle of "No Matter How You Turn Or Twist It," he drops in flamenco guitars where a sax solo might have been expected. The opening cut, "Crack Crack (When You Coming Back)," features one of those throwaway song titles for which Williams is famous - as well as a bouncy melody that's reminiscent of Price's own "Eldorado Cafe."

Williams' production wizardry and a top-shelf studio band inspire Price to deliver some of the best vocal performances he's ever recorded. He transforms "This Magic Hour," an otherwise humdrum ballad, into the record's emotional centerpiece by slowing the pace to a crawl and delivering a gritty, sweaty vocal that would have made Otis Redding proud.

Price also gets credit for the jokey cover, which spoofs the album artwork of Tyrone Davis' 1960s LP "Can I Change My Mind." The original featured a hand-drawn sketch of Davis standing outside an apartment building. Price recreates the scene with a photograph of himself, duffel bag in hand, peering up at a lighted window outside an Oakland apartment building.

Since his days fronting Roy Buchanan, Price has been widely applauded as one of the best blue-eyed soul singers. His albums, however, have never approximated his stage performances because they were too musically reverential - and commercially musty - to appeal to contemporary audiences. With "Can I Change My Mind," Price shows that he can make recordings that are both fresh and fun.

- Steve Halvonik

This CD may be ordered by Internet at: www.billyprice.com

   
 

Please explain how you hooked up with Swamp Dogg for this recording.

In 1981, I recorded my second LP with the Keystone Rhythm Band, "They Found Me Guilty." The producer was a guy named Denny Bruce, who at the time was managing the Fabulous Thunderbirds and also operating an independent record company called Takoma. Swamp Dogg released an LP on Takoma around this time called "I'm Not Selling Out, I'm Buying In." The cover has a hilarious photo of Swamp Dogg in a white tuxedo and top hat, tap dancing on a big boardroom table surrounded by stern-looking record executives.

Anyhow, Denny sent me a copy of Swamp Dogg's album along with a cookbook called "The Swamp Dogg Cookbook." I think I tried his recipe for gumbo a few times. Over the years, I became a fan of Swamp's albums, and in particular of the albums he produced and the songs he wrote for other people. One that I especially love is Solomon Burke's "Sidewalks, Fences, and Walls." Also, Swamp produced some records for Doris Duke that are very hard to find but that many soul aficionados consider among the greatest soul records ever released. Swamp is especially revered among soul-music fanatics in Europe and the UK - and there are a lot of them.

So sometime this year, I was thinking that it had been a couple of years since "The Soul Collection," and it was time to think about recording something new. My original idea was to try to hook up with some of the old-timers down in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Many of the guys who were involved with some of the great soul music of the 1960s and 1970s post to an online mailing list called "southernsoul," and I had corresponded with a few of them. So one day, Swamp Dogg started posting to this list, and I remembered the cookbook - which had not survived the many moves I had made since 1982 - and decided to send him email. I said something to him like "Hey, we have mutual friends, and I used to have a copy of your cookbook, so how about if I trade you a copy of my latest CD ["Soul Collection"] for your cookbook?" We did that, and then about three months later, I got this email from him:

"Hello Billy, I put your CD on tonight and was given everything I look for when I listen. I've been listening for about four hours...it's a (expletive)! Thanks so much for some great music....I'm going to turn some people on to you...you're damn good. Oh yeh! "Gonna Forget About You" is another great performance. Hopefully, I'll be fortunate enough to see you "live" one day. Have a great life. Sincerely, Swamp Dogg"


After this, we corresponded some more, and I learned that

he was still producing, and that his songs were being covered by diverse artists such as Patti Loveless and Tracy Byrd (remake of "She's All I Got," which Swamp wrote and produced for Freddie North). So, to make a long story short, we struck up a deal, I set aside some vacation time in October to go out to Los Angeles, and we recorded the CD in two weeks.

What was it like working with Swamp Dogg and those session musicians?

Swamp Dogg himself is a very intense, hard-working and creative person. He can be hilariously funny one minute and exasperating the next. But overall, it was a great privilege to work with him and, most important for me, to be able to sing the wonderful songs that he wrote for me. I'm very proud of the fact that my CD contains eight Jerry Williams songs that no one else has ever recorded.

As for the musicians, I think it is obvious from listening to the CD that they are extraordinary. The guitar player, Landis Armstrong, and I became good friends while I was there. Landis is perhaps the world's greatest Steve Cropper disciple. He actually plays in a band in Austin that does nothing but Booker T and the MGs covers all night long. (One difference between Austin and most other places is that a band like that can actually get gigs in Austin.) The bass player, Vince Jefferson, has been with Barry White for 15 years. Vince does something subtle but spectacular on almost every song on the CD. The keyboard player, Edell Shepherd, used to be with Barry White, plays now with Otis Day and the Knights, and plays for various church groups in Los Angeles - he's tremendously accomplished in just about any style you throw at him. Heck, all the musicians were phenomenal. I could go on and on.

It was also an adjustment for me to go from working at the SEI full time and fitting in the occasional gig to thinking about nothing but music for two weeks straight. Even when we did the "Soul Collection," we fit the recording, traveling and mixing in around other stuff, and the whole process took a lot longer. With "Can I Change My Mind," I was recording in October and the CDs were on the street in December.


Are you happy with the final product?

Yes, certainly. I left L.A. with the project still uncompleted. All the horns and background vocals were cut after I was back in Pittsburgh. When I first got the final tapes, I did find things to quibble with, but the more I listened to it, the more I marveled at how well it turned out and what a great job Swamp Dogg did with it. I am extremely proud of it, yes.


What makes this CD different from your previous recordings?

It is certainly different in that there is a strong presence of the producer on this CD. The only LP I've ever done that compares in that sense is "They Found Me Guilty," which was produced by Denny Bruce and Craig Leon. But those guys didn't have the same strong presence and vision that Swamp Dogg has.


Will this project encourage you to go out and find more original source material than you have used in the past?

Definitely. Having now had the experience of working closely with someone whose work I had previously just admired as a fan, I think I am past that hurdle. I can see the possibility of soliciting songs from writers such as Frederick Knight, Sam Dees, George Jackson, Tommy Tate, Jimmy Lewis - guys whose names appear and reappear on all my favorite CDs. I think it is also possible that I will write more songs myself. I'm not sure what I will do next, but although I dearly love "The Soul Collection," I think I now see the futility in making additional well-intentioned, loving tributes to music that was done better in the '60s and '70s by someone else. Although the soul genre may not be the most commercially successful genre in the music world today, I want to make some kind of an original contribution.


Did recording with a studio band offend members of your own band or strain relations with any of them?

No one has said anything about it to make me think otherwise, but you would probably have to ask them before you had a definitive answer. I'm sure that a lot of the guys who play with me would like to do some recording with me sometime, and I would like that too. I'm sure that we will have that opportunity.

My band today is a lot different from the Keystone Rhythm Band. Willy Franklin, my bass player, works for Fore Systems. My guitar player, Lenny Smith, has a full-time job and is going to school at night. John Burgh, my keyboard player, runs a family business in used tractor-trailer parts out in Harmony, Pa. H.B. Bennett, our drummer, and all the horn players (Eric DeFade, Curtis Johnson, and Ralph Guzzi) do a lot of freelancing and play with lots of bands other than mine. And we have an army of available substitutes at every position, all of whom are able to play with the band without too much effect on the quality of the music. So we all have much more of a freelance mentality with this band. Doing something like this would have been a big deal and would have seemed like a betrayal with the KRB but, at least to me, it doesn't feel that way in this band.


If Swamp Dogg is successful in placing this disc with a major record label, would it cause you to resume your musical career as a full-time occupation? Have you given up your dream of becoming a music star?

I would say that a full-time musical career for me is highly unlikely. I do actually love the work I do during the day, and I would miss writing, managing, and the intellectual stimulation that my work at the SEI affords me.

I'm not aware that I still harbor a "dream of becoming a music star," but I am grateful that my circumstances have enabled me to record "The Soul Collection" and "Can I Change My Mind" at this time in my life, because I think that if "Free at Last" had been the last thing I ever recorded, I never would have found out what I was capable of as a vocalist. I do intend to keep singing forever, though, and to keep trying to be as good at it as I am capable of being.


You still play the State College area, where you played before packed houses in the 1970s. Are today's college kids less interested in the roots of American music than they were in the past, or do you still have a lot of college-age fans?

The college kids I played for in the '70s were no more interested in the roots than the kids are today. The roots that I represent are just 20 years deeper into the ground today than they were then, that's all. The small number of people who care very much about music, regardless of their age, probably do know about me, and my resume is now a little longer and a little more impressive than it was then. But let's face it, the overwhelming majority of people just use music as the soundtrack and background video of their lives, and for those people, a 30-year-old guy is going to beat out a 50-year-old bald guy any day.


In your opinion what's the state of current R&B? Is it getting better? Any contemporary artists you listen to?

I really am not qualified to say, because I haven't kept up with contemporary music for many years. But I think it is highly unlikely that R&B is "dead for good." Human beings don't just suddenly stop making great music. It's just that those of us who fell in love with one particular style lose our capacity to appreciate new sounds. Tastes change, but the human spirit is a constant, I think. The fans of doo-wop probably hated or at least were unable to relate to Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Aretha. Otis' fans got older and missed out on Al Green. Al Green's fans got older and missed out on Luther Vandross.

I have no doubt that there are contemporary artists who are every bit as great as the artists whose CDs line the shelves in my house - I just don't have the time to keep up with all of them. There is a kind of retro sub-genre known as "Soul/Blues" that I do keep up with. I buy a lot of contemporary CDs on the Malaco label and other labels by people like Shirley Brown, Bobby Bland, Johnnie Tayor, J. Blackfoot, and others. Blues purists don't like this stuff because it emphasizes vocals instead of guitar solos and it has drum machines and synthesizers; but I love it, and there is a lot of great stuff coming out every week.


What do you think Roy Buchanan would think of your new version of "Can I Change My Mind"?

Roy was by no means a purist, and he liked all kinds of diverse sounds as long as the music was skillfully executed. So I think he would have loved it.


Steve Halvonik is a freelance writer and former staff writer for the Post-Gazette.



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