Topper Price reflects on his life in 2000: ‘Music has been my salvation’

Topper Price, a bluesman from Alabama, was born on August 16, 1952, in Mobile County. He died in Birmingham on 16 May 2007, aged 54. Price, a mainstay of Birmingham’s music scene, would have turned 70 in 2022. To honor his memory, we present a 2000 interview with Price conducted by The Birmingham News as a preview of his appearance that year in ex City scenes festival. It was published on June 9, 2000, under the title “Birmingham Blues Legend Talks Life, Music and a Place Called Home”.

Terry O’Neil Price laughs when he tells you his real name. His furrowed brows rise and the 47-year-old musician lets out a raucous, tire-plowing noise with a wild edge to it.

Just call it Topper – just like the nightclub owners and hundreds of fans in Birmingham have been doing for the past 11 years or so.

High price. Harmonica player. The blues singer. The leader of the bored. Colorful guy and the undisputed local celebrity.

Most people who follow the area’s music scene can point him out right away because they’ve seen Price tear through Howlin’ Wolf’s “Worried About You Baby” or wrap his gritty voice around “You Don ‘t Know Me” by Eddy Arnold.”

They’ve seen his many shows at venues such as the 22nd Street Jazz Cafe, the Garage, Fourth and 23rd, and the Mug Shot Saloon.

His stage persona is, if not legendary here, the closest thing to it: small frame, curly hair, hazy/flashy eyes, lazy smile. The way Price throws himself into a song or to his knees during a particularly intense harp solo.

But does anyone really know Topper off stage? The man who adores his wife of two years, nurse Valerie Standridge, and enjoys the view from his front porch in rural north Jefferson County? The one who has trouble sleeping, collects autographs, roams with four dogs and is not immune to gardening?

CONNECTED: The high price: a small treasure trove of memorabilia illuminates the life of the Alabama bluesman

The Birmingham News recently spent a few hours asking the lovely Price about his personal life, habits, profession and background. All in the interest of blues research, of course, and just so you’ll have another dimension to consider during the Upsetters’ set at 7:30pm next Friday at City Stages.

Here’s what Topper said.

How is the country where you live?

I like it there. We have 20 acres in the backyard and 20 acres in the front yard. I can look across and see a small stream and see my father-in-law’s house. My wife is a very good nurse and she has a 20 year old daughter. It’s really cozy out there in the woods. We have four dogs and the occasional skunk.

Have you always lived in the Birmingham area?

I’m from Mobile originally. I moved here in ’88, ’89. I lived in New Orleans for a while and in Atlanta.

Did you form the Upsetters right away?

First I was in a band called the Convertibles with Scott Boyer and Richard Bell. Brian Wheeler was in that group, and Rick Kurtz. We were a really successful club band and we were making good money too. We all wrote and wanted to write, but we loved making covers. We had two or three record companies looking at us, but they said we were too eclectic to fit into a bin in the store. We thought we’d never be anything but a club act. So the Convertibles were split.

When people ask about the Upsetters and what kind of band it is, what do you say?

I always say we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band that plays the blues, or a blues band that plays rock ‘n’ roll.

How did you start playing harmonica?

I started playing in bands on my 14th or 15th birthday. On the way to my first rehearsal, I said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. You all play instruments. All I do is sing.” A guy handed me a harmonica and said, “Blow this.” In rehearsal, I found a note that would work and played it over and over, and people loved it. I worked hard to learn the harmonica for four or five years.

Shouldn’t it be hard to learn because you can’t see what a harmonica player’s mouth is doing?

It is completely dark. It’s a lot of trial and error, then natural selection. I teach harmonica and most of my students don’t come back after the first lesson. But I used to walk around with a harmonica in my pocket, playing them all the time, driving people crazy.

Do you need to develop a harmonica like trumpet rim?

It’s more the tongue and the throat and how you carry yourself and (the project). Playing the harmonica is more like singing.

Have you learned anything from listening to famous musicians on the stereo?

When I was very little, my aunt worked at a record store in Mobile, a real cool store. She brought home records from Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino. I used to go to the record store and Mom and Pop who ran it would give me harmonicas to play. There I was, a little kid running around with a harmonica.

What makes the harmonica right for you?

It is a true spiritual instrument. In serious music, whenever someone wants to evoke country Americana or nostalgia for things gone, they bring out a harmonica.

What’s the difference between a blues harmonica and a folk harmonica like Bob Dylan?

Nothing. There are many different ways to play the harmonica. I think Bob Dylan is one of the greatest harmonica players that ever lived. The first song I try to teach someone is “Like a Woman.”

How do you see yourself as a musician?

The harmonica has done me a lot of good, but I think of myself as a singer. Actually, I’m a better harmonica player than a singer. And I’ve been lucky enough to work with very good musicians.

In Upsetters are you the definitive leader?

My name is at the top. I get the grief.

Do you have a favorite place to play?

When BB King was asked if he likes playing small or big venues, he said he likes to play the best he can. This is how I am. With a small venue, you can really command an audience. With a larger group of people, you get a greater sense of excitement. It doesn’t matter to me; I just want to give them 100 percent.

What’s the biggest crowd you’ve ever played for?

I was sitting in with the Subdudes at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, to maybe 15,000-20,000 people. I did a solo there. I also sat in with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the Mobile auditorium.

Have you performed for a really small crowd, just a few people?

I usually wait until the crowd has passed the set.

Do you ever feel pressure to perform?

Well, I’ve played a few funerals — that’s a different kind of pressure. Everyone’s sitting there and they’ve just lost someone they love. I ran into a girl I knew in Mobile who said, “I’m burying my dad tomorrow, Topper. I wish you would play at his funeral.” The next day, I sat next to her at the grave site and played “Amazing Grace.” She immediately started crying. My knees began to shake; my mouth said as much. When I finished, she immediately straightened up. It was cathartic for him.

Are you more of a composer or performer?

I am absolutely a performer. My greatest talent is leading a group, working a crowd. I am an instrumentalist and singer.

What would you like to happen in your career?

I’d like to be a more prolific writer, play in Europe, the Middle East and Australia.

But you’re not too bad here, are you?

I earn some money. We travel several hundred miles from here and play places. The main thing I want to be is a good and solid artist and performer.

Do you have fans that keep popping up everywhere you play?

Yes, but I’m always surprised by people we’ve never met before. There’s nothing I love more than getting my boys together and going somewhere we’ve never been before — getting on stage and taking it.

How do you feel when you perform on stage?

I’m thinking all the time. I realize it’s my job to make people think I’m not thinking. It is controlled spontaneity.

Do you perform when you are sick?

Of course. I took it out. Stay. Save. The stage is where I feel most comfortable, strongest, most ready to take on the world. Even if I’m sick as a dog, I’m out there.

Do you ever get scared before performing?

Oh yes. But I try not to show it. The other night I was watching someone sing the national anthem on TV. Now, that’s scary. I’d love to sing it at a game one day. No one has asked me yet, but I practice. I’m ready.

How many harmonicas do you own?

Two that actually work. I have about 50 harmonicas in the car but 48 don’t work. I am very difficult with them.

Have you changed since you got married?

Well, I used to feel like I was alone all the time. I lived a large part of my life feeling that the only time I was ever at home or ever happy was on stage. I did that work for me. But I don’t feel that way anymore. And the funny thing is that now on stage I feel even more at home.

So has music helped you through hard times?

Music has been a lifesaver for me all my life. There really is. When I was growing up, things were not going so well with my family. My parents would be at work, and I would sit in my room and listen to the records. Music has been like food for me, like bread, like food. Practically everything good in my life has come through music.

What keeps you going these days?

Opportunity! I have some success. This city has done so much for me and I work with the best people I can get. I could do something else, but I don’t want to.

So what will Topper the Old Man be like at age 65 or 70?

Still writing songs and playing.


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