Music preview: Billy Price and Otis Clay create a new soul classic
May 28, 2015 12:00 AM
From left, Duke Robillard, Otis Clay and Billy Price.
Cover for Billy Price and Otis Clay's album "This Time for Real"
Otis Clay credit: Dragan Tasic
John Heller / Post-Gazette Local / July 20, 2012 STAND ALONE ART Market Square Pittsburgh's own blue eyed soulman, Billy Price, and his band give a free concert in Market Square, part of the Iron City Sound Downtown Live concert series Friday nights in Market Square. This is the third of 7 free concerts running through Aug 17th. PG Photo/John Heller Original Filename: Heller_LOcal_Price_02.jpg
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The dedicated music fan falls for an artist and delves into everything that band or singer ever recorded. And then there is that next level -- the music geek, the scholar, the practicing musician -- who takes it a step further and wants to hear everyone else on the label, particularly the boutique labels.
That's how Billy Price discovered Otis Clay.
"I remember hearing the second Al Green album on Hi Records, the one with 'I'm So Tired of Being Alone,' " he says, "and I thought 'Man, this is just like the great Stax stuff.' I started to buy everything on Hi Records. Hi was kind of a resurrection of Memphis soul music. I sort of thought after Otis Redding died and everything faded out there that Memphis soul was done."
This Otis, as compared to Al Green, had more of a growl, as heard on his first big Hi recording, "Trying to Live My Life Without You," which turned out to be one of the more successful songs of his career (and later a No. 5 hit for Bob Seger).
Nearly 35 years since Price heard him, we now have Billy Price and Otis Clay's "This Time for Real," their first full-length album collaboration, already being hailed as one of the old-school soul highlights of the year. (Price will play a release show without his collaborator on Friday at Club Cafe.)
The two singers took very different paths to soul music. Mr. Clay grew up in the '40s in the small Mississippi town of Waxhaw, singing in church and hearing blues and soul on the radio. The late '50s found him singing in Chicago gospel groups, and then in 1962 he split off with his first secular soul songs. He had his first R&B hit in 1967 with "That's How It Is (When You're in Love)" and then a pop hit in 1968 with a cover of Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About a Mover." In 1971, he moved to Hi and a year later released "Trying to Live My Life Without You," produced by Willie Mitchell, the man behind the Al Green hits.
Price was a Jewish kid from suburban New Jersey (last name Pollak) growing up in the '60s listening to New York stations and favoring a DJ named the Dixie Drifter, who spun Southern soul. His first band, the Rhythm Kings, formed at Penn State around 1970 and then relocated to Pittsburgh to become a Walnut Street institution. Price, who took the name from Lloyd Price, was recruited to sing for guitarist Roy Buchanan in 1972, and he spent a few years on the road with him. In '77, he formed the Keystone Rhythm Band, taking an Otis Clay song, "Is It Over?," as the title track of its 1981 debut.
"My manager knew how crazy I was about Otis, and he contacted him in Chicago," Price says. "He said, 'We'd love to have you come work with the band.' He was reluctant and standoffish for a while. My manager told Otis, 'Give Billy a call and call him collect,' which he did and I accepted the charges, and we got to talking, and somehow I made the sale with him."
Although hesitant to come east without his regular band, Mr. Clay joined the KRB for back-to-back shows in D.C. at Desperado's and at Mancini's in McKees Rocks.
"Singing together with Otis on 'Is It Over?' for the very first time, I was so overwhelmed emotionally, I almost couldn't finish it," Price says. "It was a thrill for me."
Since then, they've performed together more than a dozen times around the country, along with recording a duet of "That's How It Is" on Price's 1997 album, "The Soul Collection," and a cover of "Love and Happiness" on his 2009 album, "Night Work."
Having gone in more of a blues-rock direction the past two albums, Price was compiling a list of songs a few years ago for what would become "The Soul Collection Vol. 2."
"About that time, I get a call from Otis. He says, 'Man, I just got back from the Rhythm and Blues Cruise, and there must have been 10 people who came up and said, "You and Billy Price have to do an album together.' " I said, 'We don't have forever. It's time to do this.' "
Clearly, legends like Otis Clay, who is 73, are in increasingly short supply. "Especially someone that age with that kind of drive and commitment," says the 65-year-old Price, who works a day job as manager of communications at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute.
As luck would have it, a week or two later, Price got a call from Jack Gauthier, the manager of Roomful of Blues guitarist and recent Bob Dylan guitarist Duke Robillard. He said they were looking for an artist to produce and did he want to make an album.
"I said, 'What about an album with me and Otis Clay?' He said, 'Uh, yeah!' "
Vizztone, a label co-founded by famed guitarist Bob Margolin, was happy to release it.
"I was taken and shaken by Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band in the 1970s, when I was playing guitar in Muddy Waters' band," Mr. Margolin says. "Billy has been one of my favorite singers, without qualification, ever since. I first heard Otis Clay through Billy's versions of his songs and sought out his music. I know they've sung together over the years, but I think 'This Time for Real' is the ultimate expression of their soul music together."
They stuck pretty close to what Price had planned for "Vol. 2," with Mr. Clay also suggesting "I'm Afraid of Losing You."
The 12-song record is like a new soul classic that has them blending vocals on such songs as The Spinners' "Love Don't Love Nobody," Johnny Sayles' "Somebody's Changing (My Sweet Baby's Mind)" and Holland and Dozier's "Don't Leave Me Starving for Your Love." Notice that they're less standards than hidden gems -- a Billy Price trademark.
"We're going for songs that are great songs that for whatever reason never became hits," Price says. "You can make it yours in a way, because it's not already associated in people's minds and memories with someone else."
What it didn't turn out to be was one of those live-in-the-studio projects. They couldn't get Mr. Clay to Rhode Island, so Price went for a week to work out the songs with Mr. Robillard, his band and members of Roomful of Blues.
"I said, 'Well, OK, if you can't bring Muhammad to the mountain, you can bring the mountain to Muhammad," Price says.
They booked two "insane crazy days" in Chicago to cut the vocals from both singers, along with Mr. Clay's three smooth backup vocalists. Then Price returned to Rhode Island to patch it together.
"I was really impressed by how the band was able to get into that pocket of a Southern soul band," Price says. "They're from New England. I probably had a prejudice against musicians from New England, that they can't play that greasy Southern stuff. But indeed they did."
As for working with Mr. Robillard, he says, "We just really see eye to eye on everything. And he has a much sharper technical ear than I do. He would say stuff like, 'Youuu ... should come back here and maybe fix the intonation of some of your vocals,' and I didn't hear it. I'm glad he had that sense of perfectionism."
Already, the album is getting played on Sirius, and last week's review in No Depression magazine started with, "About every five years or so a soul album comes out that is so good, so right, that you are scared your turntable's stylus will melt down."
"They sing from the deepest places of the heart, and their voices and the music behind them are so sweet and sweaty, a triumph of human musical achievement," Mr. Margolin says.
Price realizes that the Memphis soul sound isn't the hottest thing going right now, even in vintage music circles. But, he says, "It was always a hard sell. It's no harder today than it was [then]. Everybody likes it, but it obviously appeals mostly to a niche audience, although when people who are not part of that niche audience hear it, it's not like it's esoteric or difficult to enjoy. It's very accessible.
"My approach to it is different," he adds. "I'm not a typical white blues guy because I'm much more oriented towards soul. Even though I've worked with tremendous guitar players who can move their fingers really fast, that's not what I'm really about. I'm mostly about songs."
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