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Pittsburgh Artist of the Week: Billy Price

Pittsburgh soul singer Billy Price has worked with countless other artists through the years including legendary guitarist and bluesman Roy Buchanan who inspired the new song “Change Your Mind (in Memory of Roy Buchanan).”

Billy recently spoke with WYEP's Joey Spehar.

Change Your Mind (in Memory of Roy Buchanan):

Vocals – Billy Price
Bass – Larry Fulcher
Guitar – Josh Sklair
Keyboards – Jim Pugh
Drums – Tony Braunagel
Tenor and Baritone Saxophone – Ron Dziubla
Trumpet – Mark Pender
Lead Guitar – Joe Bonamassa

What’s your musical history up to this point?    

After playing in garage and fraternity-party bands in high school and college (Penn State), I moved a band to Pittsburgh called the Rhythm Kings, where we played every night for a while on Walnut Street at the Fox Café and started a kind of retro revival of traditional blues and R&B. It was there that I met the manager for Roy Buchanan, a great guitar player from the Washington D.C. area who was signed to Polydor Records. Roy’s manager invited me to record and tour with Roy, and I recorded two albums with him for Polydor in the early 1970s and did some touring with Roy and his band.

In the late 70s and 80s, my band Billy Price & the Keystone Rhythm Band became popular in Pittsburgh and along the east coast as one of a number of blues- and R&B based bands that were touring around that time. We recorded four albums before we broke up in the late 80s. I took some time off from singing around then and started in a new day job at Carnegie Mellon University that kept me busy for years until I retired a couple of years ago; but I still found time to start and lead the new Billy Price Band, play as much as possible, and record and release a number of albums on various blues and independent labels.

I had the opportunity to sing off and on over the years with one of my musical heroes, Otis Clay, the great soul singer from Chicago, and in 2015 we recorded a full-length album together called This Time for Real, produced by New England guitarist Duke Robillard. That album won the 2016 Blues Music Award (BMA) for best soul-blues album, although unfortunately it was the last recording of Otis’s career—he passed away a few months before we won the award. Since then, I’ve been nominated for several other BMAs and have continued to record and release albums. My most recent album is Person of Interest, which is due to be officially released on the Little Village label on August 2.

How do you describe your sound? 

I was a traditionalist for most of my early career, hewing closely to the conventions of classic urban blues and especially southern soul music and performing and recording a lot of cover songs in those styles. As time passed, I became more and more interested and engaged with writing my own songs in collaboration with members of my bands and other songwriters. My sound today still adheres to the conventions of the music that inspired me when I was younger, but I now perform mostly my own songs in my live shows, and my latest album, Person of Interest, is the first album I’ve ever released entirely composed of music that is original to me.

Tell us more about the song "Change Your Mind." What inspired you to write it and what does it mean to you?  

When I wrote this song with Jim Britton, the keyboard player in my band, it was sort of a seduction song for the sad and defeated. The narrator of the song attempts to persuade the interest of his intentions, who has sworn off relationships after a series of failures, to make an exception in his case. After we finished the song, I noticed a couple of things that made me connect the song with Roy Buchanan. The title, Change Your Mind, was close to the title of the song I sang with Buchanan that I am probably best known for, Can I Change My Mind, from the Live Stock album. That was a cover of a hit by Tyrone Davis that I had suggested to Roy that we play and record. Also, the musical treatment of Change Your Mind reminded me somewhat of probably the best song from the studio album I did with Roy, That”s What I’m Here For—a song called Please Don’t Turn Me Away. So I got the idea to dedicate this song, Change Your Mind, to the memory of Roy Buchanan.

I discussed this with the producer of Person of Interest, Tony Braunagel, and suggested that we find a guitar player who had been influenced by Buchanan and get the guitar player to do a Buchanan-influenced solo on the recording, something that would invoke Roy’s style and approach. Tony is one of the best blues and rock drummers in the world—he leads Taj Mahal’s band—and he suggested Joe Bonamassa, with whom Tony sometimes plays. So he asked Joe to contribute a guitar track on the song, and Joe was happy to do so.

"Person of Interest" is a great name for an album. How'd it come about?

Jim and I were in songwriting mode, and I was in the car driving home from Charlotte, NC and listening to the news on the radio. There was some sort of crime report, and they mentioned that there were no suspects yet but that there was a “person of interest.” So right away, it occurred to me that that could be a song title, and I started to imagine a guy who suspects that his wife or partner is cheating on him with someone he knows; but he’s not quite ready to make accusations, so the third party is still just a person of interest rather than a suspect. I imagined that this could fall right into the subject matter of a soul-blues song in a humorous way, and Jimmy and I were having a great time trading off lyrics all throughout my drive back to Pittsburgh.

I agree that it’s a great title for an album, and it’s odd to me that it took us so long to decide on it while it was sitting there for a month or two staring us in the face. I think I resisted for a while naming the album after one of the songs, searching for an album title that would in some way encapsulate what I was trying to do on the entire album, and not really getting anywhere with that. But then when I suggested Person of Interest as the album title to Tony, we knew pretty soon that it was going to be a good choice.

What was the first album that really changed your life?   

The first one was probably The Ray Charles Story, Volume Two, on Atlantic Records from 1962. Don’t ask me why it was Volume Two and not Volume One, because I couldn’t tell you! But this one had What’d I Say and a lot of other great songs that fell right in that sweet spot between blues, jazz, and gospel, a hybrid style that evolved into soul music, and I was completely captivated by it.

A few years later, Otis Redding released Otis Blue, which included the balled I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, and that album and song smacked me right between the eyes. I wore it out on my record player, along with Ain’t Nothing You Can Do by Bobby Bland, My Golden Favorites by Jackie Wilson, Eight Men and Four Women by O.V. Wright, and many more. Then a few years later, I became obsessed with both Al Green and Otis Clay. 

Who are some other Pittsburgh artists you think more people should listen to?  

I am a friend and fan of the singer-songwriter Jon Bindley, and a while ago I wandered into one of the monthly western-swing shows he does with a side project he calls Honky-Tonk Jukebox. Those shows are tremendous fun that to me represent the best of Pittsburgh music and culture, and Jon sometimes lets me come on stage and sing with them. It’s amazing how much this reminds me of singing with the Rhythm Kings. That band did a lot of swing-style late 40s/early 50s R&B, but what we were doing then was essentially the same thing that Jon & Honky Tonk Jukebox are doing these days with western swing. And Honky Tonk Jukebox has some tremendous musicians including the great Pete Freeman on pedal steel and a young Buchanan-influenced ringer on guitar named Donnie Bell.

On my recent album-release show at the Pittsburgh Shrine Center, I augmented my band with two great singers, Anne Celedonia and Addi Twigg. They are both great, great singers whose music would reward anyone who engages with it. I liked hearing them behind me so much that I invited them to work with us again in our upcoming show at South Park on July 12.

Any other super interesting things about you we should know?   

I have been a fanatical baseball fan all my life and had the misfortune of connecting my passion for baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the mid 1970s. I don’t have to tell you how that has turned out.

Joey Spehar is a Pittsburgh native who started as a volunteer D.J. at WYEP, fresh out of college in 2006. He took on any job they’d let him do like editing audio, engineering remote broadcasts, and shoveling snow.