day he's a mild-mannered technical writer. By night he's Pittsburgh's
coolest club singer. Billy Price goes on-line to discuss why he just can't
lose the blues.
While on temporary
assignment at Carnegie Mellon University, I learned to use the Internet.
I sent memos to electronic mail (E-mail) messages in several states, arranged
travel and hotel accommodations for a six-person marketing department,
changed and returned documents, froze a game of phone tag by leaving messages
on-line, forwarded expense reports to a consultant in Ottawa. Meanwhile,
I heard that Billy Price worked at CMU's Software Engineering Institute
and that his real name was William Pollak. I sent a message to WP@SEI.CMU.EDU.
is it really you?"
"I am him and
he is me," replied the senior editor and technical writer.
A meeting for lunch
at Ali Baba offered proof that Price is actually Pollak (and Pollak is
Price). To dispel doubt, the singer of streetlight blues and sloping rhythms
shook up people's pita pockets with a tuneful yowl.
We talked about the
blues revival and his role in it, but nothing in great detail. Back at
the work station, I typed him a note, "This interview is like clay,
and I'm just starting to feel the contours." Eventually, I realized
there was no better way to communicate with this former English major
than through the written word.
The Internet was to
be a good medium in which to talk about music. I asked questions as they
occurred to me, in less time than a coffee break. He responded right away,
or later, depending on his work schedule and the complexity of the answer.
First, a little background
(if you know all this already, you can skip right to the E-mail):
Price grew up in the
middle-class suburb of Fair Lawn, N.J., where by the age of 10 he was
already a fan of James Brown, Otis Redding and the Miracles. He formed
his first band, the Rhythm Kings, at Penn State around 1970, and eventually
moved them to Pittsburgh. They were the kings of Shadyside, until Price
was recruited by guitarist Roy Buchanan, with whom he spent a few years
on the road, recording two albums.
In '77, he formed
the Keystone Rhythm Band and became a top local attraction, regularly
selling out weekend shows at Graffiti, and touring the East Coast. In
1990, after the KRB's crossover rock album, "Free at Last,"
didn't break nationally, Price cut back, disbanding the KRB, and forming
a smaller unit designed more for rhythm and blues.
Last year, they cut
"Danger Zone," a fine collection of vintage R&B. Price,
45, lives in Point Breeze with his wife and three kids, can be found in
the clubs a few times a month, acting on his lifelong "obsession."
Q: I've heard musicians
refer to their music as a gift and as a journey. What's your metaphor?
A: I think of it more
as an obsession. I was drawn to blues, gospel and R&B at a very early
age, and it has played what I think is an unusually large role in shaping
me. I think of myself more as a fan of music than as a creator. I sing
and lead bands as a way of preserving the link between myself and the
thing with which I am obsessed. I don't consider myself particularly gifted
-- I have a small vocal range and I never had the patience or discipline
required to become proficient on any instrument. I've played with brilliant
musicians, and they are not like me. If I have a gift, it is the ability
to feel music deeply and establish a link between music and my emotions.
Q: Is music something
that permeates your being? Do you hear, create, respond to it all the
time? Or is music a part or facet of you? Is it a relief from stress?
A retreat from boredom, an escape?
A: There are a lot
of questions here. It is all the things you mention, but if it weren't,
nothing essential about my relationship with music would be lost. That
is, I don't listen to music or sing in order to relieve stress or boredom,
or to escape -- I listen and sing because I HAVE to. The result may or
may not be that stress is relieved, boredom is mitigated, or reality is
escaped; those things are really beside the point.
Q: You call music
a hobby. A hobby can be any activity: crochet, bowling, martial arts,
bird watching. For me, the word hobby implies failure. The person loves
to do this thing, but lacks the talent, insight, perseverance, or luck
to succeed. Have you felt a sense of failure about your music?
A: When I use the
word "hobby," I'm emphasizing the fact that I don't make a living
at music anymore. Maybe "avocation" is more neutral than "hobby."
I think I'm also alluding to the paradox that I seem to be at my best
when I'm not trying too hard; that is, when I get wrapped up in the business
side of music -- writing songs to anticipate some imagined market, worrying
about how many people are in the room, worrying about losing musicians
to some more lucrative position -- I lose all the spontaneity that is
necessary to allow the music to come through me. Having music as an avocation
frees me to define success and failure in purely artistic terms. I have
felt a sense of failure only insofar as I haven't been commercially validated.
But everything is relative, and there are millions of talented people
who will never achieve the level of validation that I've enjoyed.
Q: Among some black
musicians in Pittsburgh, there's a resentment that "white guys trying
to sound like black guys" get the better-paying gigs.
A: They're right.
Q: Other black musicians
think that clubs run mainly by white people simply forget to call. The
clubs aren't discriminating against black musicians, but acting clannish,
or cliquey, calling on their friends.
A: This is a more
generous view that also has some validity. Your questions have me thinking
about Pittsburgh in relation to Southern soul music. The irony is that,
despite an overt tradition of Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation,
there has been much more black-white cooperation in Southern music than
there is in a place like Pittsburgh.
Guys like the Allman
Brothers come out of a Southern tradition that is tied up with frat parties
at Southern universities and beach music scenes in which white kids loved
black music -- real black music. This scene crystallized in the studios
at Memphis and Muscle Shoals that produced most of the great soul records
of the '60s. In Memphis, the rhythm section was Booker T and the MGs --
two white guys and two black guys; and the horn section was the Markeys
-- a white guy and a black guy. In Muscle Shoals, the formula for all
the hits of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and many
others was a black singer backed by white studio musicians. It's hard
to imagine something like that ever happening here (although it is also
true that the Southern scene died in the early '70s as a consequence of
the racial tensions that followed Martin Luther King's assassination).
This story is told in a book called "Sweet Soul Music," by Peter
This may explain why
the best white R&B/blues singers are mostly Southerners -- Tony Joe
White, Delbert McClinton, Gregg Allman, Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Hall, many
others. What is more common and typical of places like Pittsburgh is that
white people actually prefer a poor imitation to the real thing. All you
have to do is look at the Billboard charts -- one of the top-selling albums
is Eric Clapton's "From the Cradle," which is intended as a
respectful tribute to the classic blues players (much like "Danger
Zone"). But the irony is that the very success of the album defeats
its intentions, because its success begs the question of why the classic
blues players never approached the commercial success of "From the
Cradle," which in the end, is simply not as compelling as the sources
that it quotes. To a large extent, I've been a beneficiary of the poor
taste of white people. Being aware of that made me uncomfortable for a
long time; defining music as an avocation helps me with my discomfort.
Q: Are you a white
guy trying to sound like a black guy?
A: No, but I was for
a very long time. I found my own voice about 10 years ago, but the voice
I found would have been far different if I hadn't spent so much time as
a white guy trying to sound like a black guy.
Q: Is the rock/blues
niche the place for "white guys trying to sound like black guys"?
A: Yes, you're right,
the rock/blues niche is the place. But I HATE rock/blues. The white guys
I admire are Kim Wilson, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Bobby Radcliff,
Roomful of Blues, and the various Southern singers I mentioned earlier.
My current band is less rock-oriented than the KRB, although my guitar
player, Lenny Smith, is able to deliver the goods to the air guitarists
in the crowd. He grew up in Muscles Shoals, Ala., so he has that Southern
soul thing I love.
My music has been
shaped by the audience that I play to. When you play in front of an audience,
to some extent you are always going for what you know they will like.
Q: What bands are
in your circle?
A: Joe Grushecky,
Norman Nardini and I form the triumvirate of aging blues-influenced Pittsburgh
rock stars who were popular in the '80s. Glenn Pavone and his bassist
played in the Keystone Rhythm Band.
Q: Now that you have
a cushy high-tech job, is it possible that you won't be able to sing the
A: If you accept the
premise that I ever could sing the blues, then I don't see any reason
why having a good job should change that. B.B. King has been wealthy for
a long time, and I don't think his ability to sing the blues ever diminished.
I think the question comes from a superficial identification of blues
with suffering in the material sense. Yes, blues is a mode of expression
that can be a response to suffering, but that's not all it is. It's a
language that can be used to express many other emotions.
Q: Have you ever been
poor? You said your career change was not money-motivated. You weren't
a starving artist.
A: When I was poor,
I was poor by choice. It was a counter-culture thing, and I was living
the way I wanted to live. I've never been poor by necessity.
Q: Is the William
Pollak part of you subsidizing Billy Price's freedom of artistic expression?
A: That's a good way
to put it. But you know, when I'm working in this office, the fact that
I'm also a singer rarely enters my mind. I'm engaged in what I'm engaged
in at the time.
Q: Where do you get
A: I do get tired
and I do complain, both to myself and to my family, about my exhaustion.
For a while, I was playing every Wednesday night at the Balcony, and although
I usually enjoyed the gigs, Thursdays at work were difficult. Friday night
gigs after a full day at work are also difficult, but the music and the
experience of performing rejuvenate me.
Q: You tried journalism
first. When searching for a new occupation, what were your requirements?
A: I became discouraged
with journalism after I published the story, "Jackie Wilson's Lonely
Tears," on which I had expended a couple years of intense investigation,
interviewing, road trips, etc. I found that it had cost me a lot of money,
even after I had cashed the check. I could have used the article, which
was on the cover of the Village Voice, as a first step to gaining entrance
inside some doors, but I still craved the immediate gratification of performing
in front of a crowd. The gratification of getting something published
is, as you know, much slower.
My requirements for
a career change were that I develop a marketable skill that involved a
level of creativity and craft. I don't always enjoy my work, but I'm fortunate
to usually be able to conjure an optimistic attitude about things.
Q: The musician who
used the metaphor "music is a journey," said it's not where
you've been, but where you're going. Do you have a sense of where you're
A: I think that the
journey metaphor is a dangerous one that leads to following that carrot
straight into some Holiday Inn lounge, with a bad toupee on my head and
a bulge hanging over my sequined pants. I'm trying to get closer to the
best singer I can be -- that's the only journey I'm on. There have been
musical moments in past few years when I've been able to pause and say,
"This is it; this is perfect; there's nothing more to be accomplished."
Q: Are you an "aging
rock star" because other people say so?
A: When I use this
phrase, I'm referring back to the way I felt in the late 1980s, when I
was supposedly on top of things in Pittsburgh. We played Graffiti every
few months and usually sold it out. Being a rock star definitely has a
half-life, and when you are in your 30s, you are aware that the clock
is running. I didn't want to play that game, exactly, but I somehow felt
that I had to or was supposed to. There is no such clock for an artist,
though, and that is a game that I do want to play. Howlin' Wolf didn't
start recording until he was 45. Muddy Waters did his best work when he
was in his 40s and 50s.
Q: The expectations
you have of your fans are modest. What do you expect?
A: One of the foundations
of the kind of music I perform is call and response. I expect the audience
to play their part, as I play mine. I'm often disappointed. Black audiences
know how to play their role, and it's a shame that I perform for black
audiences so seldom.
Q: What can you do
in Pittsburgh to reach a better racial mix? (I know that you are a singer,
not a politician.)
A: The club scene
in Pittsburgh reflects the culture of which it is a part. That is very,
very difficult to change. A lot of people have tried. I used to play mixed
clubs in the '70s like the Fox Cafe and the Crazy Quilt, but clubs like
that aren't around anymore, and I've settled into the all-white blues
club circuit, where black culture seeps in only through the filter of
an exclusionary white mentality.
I think that another
reason for the shuffling and furtive glances that blacks display when
talking about me is the fact that I perform "retro" black music.
Blacks in general tend not to be nostalgic about discarded musical styles.
So whites who perform black music are often several steps behind contemporary
black musicians. There's a book by Amira Baraka called "Blues People"
that you might think about reading sometime. When I read it, it was the
first time I saw the music I loved (and at the time, based my life on)
described in terms that made me squirm. Baraka refers to ragtime and Dixieland
and, by extension, the blues revival, of which I have been a part, as
"the debris ... of vanished emotional references": musical forms
that have long ago been abandoned by their most creative and talented
practitioners in favor of more contemporary forms of expression. The consequence
of this view is that these musical forms are emotionally barren and artistically
Am I talking myself
out of ever stepping on stage again here? It probably makes a lot more
sense for me to think of myself and others like me -- Stevie Ray Vaughan,
Clapton, Van Morrison, Pavone -- as rock artists who have been strongly
influenced by black music. To call us blues artists does a disservice
to the real ones.