By now, most collectors of 1950s country and hillbilly are familiar with the name Mel price and the sterling quality of his numerous recordings on labels like Regal, Blue Hen, Starday and Dixie.
Mel, what are your early recollections of playing music ?
I started out singing western songs. I would sing Streets of Laredo, Night time in Nevada and things of that nature. There was very little country or hillbilly music around. I started listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery radio.
Who inspired you musically ?
Well, I’m going to say Eddy Arnold ; he had a show on WSM at 5:15 every morning. I’d listen to him before I went to work – I worked in a feed and floor mill. And Ernest Tubb, Paul Howard.
Were you playing in bands before WWII ?
Yes, I started – my brother and I – in amateur shows when I was about 16, 17 years old. By 19, I had the first little band I ever had and we worked a barn dance. They didn’t even have any electricity in the building. We had a fiddle player with us – no, he was a violinist. He could only play classical music, so he wasn’t of great value to us. Later on, after the war, we went to the same barn, and I stayed out there seven years…we’d work on Friday nights. They had electricity by then.
I was in the 35th Infantry division, the old Santa Fe division. I was a machine gunner. And I said if I ever get out of this thing and get back home, I’m gonna call my band the Santa Fe Rangers.
I had a fellow named Lawrence Willis playing the bass ; he stayed about a year. He was a farmer. Merritt Murphy was one of the early people : he played the Little Roy Wiggins-style steel guitar. Rhythm guitarist Bob Fluharty was in the original band. My brother, Owen, played for a while.
How did you get signed with Regal/RFD Records out of New Jersey?
We were on our way to cut another record at Coleman Records. We cut that in the basement of some guy’s house in New Jersey…pretty bad recording. On our way there, we stopped into Regal, and the fellow said, « Do you have a contract with them (Coleman) ? » We said no, so he said, « I’ll try you out. » So we stayed that morning and several (songs) with them.
The Regal people knew very little about country and western music ; they had mostly blues and rhythm. They wouldn’t allow us to record the way we wanted to – they wanted to produce them on their own.
« The Game Of Broken hearts » (Regal 5068) went to #1 on WCKY in Cincinnati for about three weeks in 1950. I called the Regal people up and said, « We’re doin’ okay on this record . » They said, « What ? » They hadn’t even produced any copies for the market, hardly.
Your next records were made for Santa Fe and Blue Hen.
Santa Fe…that was a label I made myself. Some good songs, but never got anywhere with ’em.
Blue Hen was owned by Sam Short. He had a grocery store in Harrington, Delaware. He came to me and said he was interested in cutting some sessions with us, so we put out several on Blue Hen. And he really took an interest in it. We never had any trouble getting them played ; the deejays would play our stuff.
Did Sam have his own studio ?
No, we cut those at radio stations : WASL in Annapolis and WBOC in Salisbury. We cut one in Philadelphia.
How did you become associated with Starday ?
I don’t really remember, exactly. I talked to Don Pierce, and we did some stuff for Don. Never met him. One time, Don said, « Instead of using you on Starday, we’ll pt you on Dixie. » I had my own studio in Easton by that time (1959).
What about Red Wing ?
Red Wing was my own label. We went out to Lonzo and Oscar’s studio in Goodlettsville, Tennessee to record. We went in there at about one o’clock in the morning and came out at about seven. « Memories of France » had always been one of my favorites.
I kept on doing it (the USO tours) until the middle of the 1970s. I had opened some music stores, and it was beginning to take time. I was growing older, and it was awfully hard to find men who wanted to travel anymore. I think it was in 1978 I went to work for a little radio station that’d just opened up. I spent 14 years on that station until they sold it. I finally gave up the band in 1992, but I still play on the weekends.
Merritt Murphy died when he was 40 years old. Bob Fluharty left me in 1959. Gene Long (steel) was only 52 when he died. Kenny Fairbanks (bass), about six years ago. That band (Bob, Gene and Kelly) was perhaps the best band I ever had.
Reprint of the Mel Price interview published in the Hillbilly Researcher 25, early 2000s. Music from the HBR 12 CD.
Melvin Price, an appreciation (from Bopping’s editor)
As you can hear the podcasts below, the vast majority of Price’s records are boppers, either shufflers (« What A Way To Say You Love Me » or « The Pace That Kills ») to fast tunes (« Bill Bailey » or « Until »), and it seems that years were not important for him. He kept the pace he was the most familiar with. And he was also at home with Starday (« Gonna See My Baby » or « Midnight Whistle Blues »). Indeed he even had his own rockabilly « Little Dog Blues » on the famous Dixie 2000 serie.