Everybody's got it, but few are able to express it. When white guys try it, they usually tack on a "blue-eyed" prefix so that when they can't deliver the goods they have a built-in excuse. Soul is both the medium and the message. It's not used much any more to describe a style of music or the feeling behind it, but it's still out there.
Billy Price is the real thing, carrying on the tradition of Otis, Pickett and Solomon Burke. But you won't find the most obvious soul men in Price's repertoire. "I sorta got that out of my system when I was younger," Price said by phone from his Pittsburgh home. "I was a nut for Otis Redding. I was a member of the Otis Redding Fan Club when I was in high school. I started to really get into the HI Records sound after awhile, not just Al Green, but Syl Johnson and all those folks, Otis Clay especially."
You can add O.V. Wright and James Carr to the list as well--Price dedicated 1981's They Found Me Guilty to Wright and has covered Carr's "Dark End of the Street" and "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man."
He doesn't look the part, nor does he share the background of most soul purveyors. Price, who holds a master's in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon, is manager of communications at Software Engineering Institute, a Carnegie Mellon research institute, and is an adjunct professor at the school. But those highbrow pursuits haven't stopped him from exploring the depths of his soul.
Billy Mellon adopted his stage surname from Lloyd Price and had his first band at age 12. But it was the Rhythm Kings, the band that Price started while at Penn State in the '70s, that attracted attention. Price was hired as a vocalist for guitarist Roy Buchanan from '72 - '76, before dropping out of the business to get his degree. Then he went back on the road, touring the Keystone Rhythm Band for nearly a decade.
That experience led Price to decide that he wouldn't have much of a quality of life if he just did music. "I've found that when I stopped doing this full time that I was just going to have to make too many compromises that didn't feel right to me to be able to keep doing it," the singer says. He wanted to keep his integrity intact, not wanting to be pushed around by the industry or his own management. "Eventually I thought this might be better and more satisfying for me as an avocation rather than a vocation."
Price doesn't sound like any particular soul singer, but he possesses the vocal characteristics of the best--liquid smoke wrapped in barbed wire. He's backed by a tight, horn-heavy band that provides the punch of the old HI Records/Al Green sessions. And although Price insists he can't sing like Green, he's got that same intensity and a gospel scream as churchy as the Rev's.
Billy Price plays the Cat's Cradle on Saturday, Sept. 17 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 day of show.