Billy Price: Born to Sing the Blues

The iconic Pittsburgh singer is set to release a new album

Billy Price.

Billy Price is all set for the release of his latest album.

Pittsburgh soul and blues legend Billy Price knew from an early age that he wanted to be a singer. Growing up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, Price (then known by his formal name, William Pollak) sang in grade school and had the most popular bands in junior and senior high. And of course the band was doing all soul songs. He also had a band while attending Penn State University. After graduating he was in the Rhythm Kings, even playing the famous Fox Cafe in Shadyside. He was noticed by the late renowned blues rock guitarist, Roy Buchanan, who drafted him to be the lead singer of his band. Post Buchanan, Price formed the highly talented Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band. And after closing the chapter on the Keystone Rhythm Band after many years, he went on to have a richly rewarding solo career which included being nominated for and winning numerous national blues awards including the prestigious Blues Music Award. He even recorded an album with the late great soul singer Otis Clay.

Now Price is ready to reach a new zenith in his career with his first ever album of all original songs, Person of Interest. He will be having an album release concert Friday, June 7 at the Pittsburgh Shrine Center Pavilion. Billy the Kid and The Regulators open.

I sat down recently with Price over coffee and pastry at 61B Cafe in Regent Square. I told him that I first came to know him and his music through being a fan of the Keystone Rhythm Band. The group included guitarist Glenn Pavone who went on to form Glenn Pavone & The Cyclones, and Eric Leeds on saxophone who later played with James Brown and Prince. 

Person of Interest

Price is very excited about Person of Interest and why shouldn’t he be—all original songs and a stellar cast of session musicians. Price said the idea for the song (and subsequent album title) is “When you hear a news report about a crime and they say they have one person of interest that they’re looking at, so I applied that to a cheating theme. There are a lot of cheating songs in soul and blues. So the idea is that there’s a guy across the street and there might be something going on between his wife and this guy and he’s not ready to say the guy’s a suspect, but his radar is up and he’s a person of interest.” The track is fun and funky with a lots of sharp instrumental play.

Writing and Recording Process

Price co-wrote the songs with people from all points of the compass including Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, France, and Nashville. The writers are Jim Britton, Tony Braunagel, Fred Chapellier, Jon Tiven, and Sally Young respectively.

In speaking about writing the music, Price said, “Mostly the person I write with is my keyboard player Jim Britton. He likes the same kind of music that I do. He’s very prolific and sends these musical ideas to me and then I’ll take the musical idea and turn it into a song.” 

Referring to creative talents on the album, he said, “I worked with Tony as the producer. Tony played drums for years with Bonnie Raitt, has played with Robert Cray and lots of other people. He’s a pretty well known producer and has won Grammy Awards for his production on a Taj Mahal album and he’s the leader of Taj Mahal’s band. He works at a studio called Ultratone in Studio City [Los Angeles]. Ultratone is a little kind of a garage behind the home of Johnny Lee Schell. Johnny plays a couple of guitar solos on the album. He’s a great guitar player. He was the engineer and mixed it. It’s Johnny’s operation, but Tony always works there when he produces people and he just picked people that he thought would be good for this album. It was a real privilege to work with these people.” The talented session players included Jim Pugh (keyboards); Larry Fulcher, Reggie McBride, and James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass; Tony Braunagel (drums); a full horn section with Eric Spaulding, Mark Pender, and Ron Dziubla; Lenny Castro (percussion); and guitarists Joe Bonamassa, Shane Theriot, Josh Sklair, and Johnny Lee Schell.

Roy Buchanan Tribute Song with Joe Bonamassa

I asked what it was like to work with Roy Buchanan. “I was a young guy and the other guys were older. I don’t think I fully appreciated it until years later when I realized the opportunity that I had. It was a great way to get a start in the music business,” Price replied.

Writing the song “Change Your Mind” reminded him of his time playing with Buchanan so he thought he would dedicate the song to him. Price wanted a hotshot to play a Roy Buchanan type solo on the song and said, “Tony is friends with [guitar virtuoso] Joe Bonamassa and plays with him sometimes so Tony was easily able to get him to play a solo. It was a great solo because it invokes Buchanan without copying him.” Bonamassa was also attracted to the project as he is a life-long fan of Buchanan.

The song opens hard with Bonamassa’s guitar crying out the blues against a backdrop of strong drums, and tinkling piano notes. The fiery guitar recedes into more of an accentuated role just as the sax comes on strong. Price is singing, “But give me one chance darling / And they’ll be no more crying / I can make you change your mind.” Bonamassa’s guitar catches fire again near the end of the song and goes on a fantastic run. If you love a good traditional blues song this is one for you.

“Mercy” Me

Another interesting story about a song on Person of Interest is the gospel-soul ballad “Mercy.” Price said that in the late 1980s while recording Free at Last, his final album with Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band, “Mercy” was an original song that the band never finished in the studio. “A couple of years ago, one of my fans in the Philadelphia area brought a recording to one of my shows that she had made from the audience back then, and offered to give me a copy,” says Price. “I had forgotten all about ‘Mercy,’ but when I heard it for the first time in many years, I decided to resurrect it. And after we laid it down in the studio, I’m glad that I did.”

You’ll be glad too if you also listen to “Lose It.” It’s a beautiful song with silky smooth vocals by Price singing about how he feels when he’s in love. Other musical accouterments are snappy drums and percussion, whirling organ and keys, good bass, and jazzy guitar notes. It all adds up to a top-notch pop song.

Not Boxed In

Jim Pugh, executive director of Little Village Records, who played keyboards on Person of Interest and on Price’s previous two recordings, Reckoning and Dog Eat Dog, made the decision to release the record on his organization’s label.

The whole album is excellent and has a little something for everybody’s ear, with songs including “Inside that Box,” “Song I Never Heard Before,” “She Checks All the Boxes,” “The Gift,” and “Damage Control.” Clever lyrics and song concepts coupled with very talented players and generous use of brass make Person of Interest one of Price’s finest albums.

More information and tickets for Billy Price’s Person of Interest album release party at Pittsburgh Shrine Center June 7 is available at Price’s website. 7:30 p.m. 1877 Shriners Way, Cheswick. 

Price’s Pittsburgh-based touring band features Dave Dodd (drums), Tom Valentine (bass), Lenny Smith (guitar), Jim Britton (keyboards), Eric Spaulding (sax), and Joe Herndon (trumpet).

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.

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