|Topper Price on stage with the Subdudes. (Photo by Chris Baker)|
Local musician, libertine, and hard-living nightlife veteran Topper Price shuffles off with a legacy of unbeatable stories.
By Ed Reynolds, May 31, 2007
Topper Price, a local blues harmonica virtuoso and singer, died on May 16 at age 54, a victim of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle he enthusiastically led for nearly 40 years. A legend in Alabama for his spirited, emotionally charged performances in seedy bars and the occasional elegant nightclub, Price—a baseball fanatic—once defined his style with this appropriate quote: "Chicago-style rhythm and blues, buddy. That's my pitch. That's the one I can knock out of the ballpark."
A joke that spread around town in the days following his death was that with Topper's demise, angry bartenders were ripping up tabs that he'd left unpaid for months, if not years. Topper was a mess—a "mess" in both senses: as a rascal for whom we harbor fondness, and as a self-destructive personality in the way he often conducted his life.
Strangers, close friends, and mere acquaintances were continually amazed at Topper's gregariousness and seemingly endless knowledge about a number of topics. If anyone wondered who pitched the third game of the 1982 World Series, for example, Topper had the answer. Price could tell you what car Mario Andretti was driving the year he won the Formula One world racing championship (a Lotus), then give engine and chassis specifications before reeling off accomplishments by drivers A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, or Al Unser—and that was before he got around to discussing music or obscure historical facts about World War II. He rarely shunned an admirer who wanted to talk, and would spend hours at a bar asking strangers questions about their lives, though it usually helped spur conversation if the strangers were buying the drinks.
In a 1999 documentary by Birmingham filmmaker Chris Holmes, Topper explained how he started in show business: "I played my harmonica everywhere I went, at wildly inappropriate times. Wrong keys, wrong bands. Walked up to people I didn't even know and started playing for them. I was the prototype of a really enthusiastic, horrible harmonica player who drove everybody around him nuts. Finally people started giving me lessons just to get me to be a little better, because they knew they were going to have to listen to me anyway . . . So I was bad for a long time and then all of a sudden one day I was pretty good. People started asking me to play instead of asking me to leave. I guess that was my big commercial break."
Price eventually met Wet Willie singer Jimmy Hall, who gave Topper his most useful harmonica lesson. "Just blow as hard as you can and you'll figure out the rest," Hall said. Price's masterful touch of country and blues literally defined Dickey Betts' early solo work after Price was invited to play on the former Allman Brothers Band member's first solo record. Topper's late buddy Rick Danko invited him onstage with The Band from time to time. "Hey, pal. That was j-u-u-u-st right," drummer Levon Helm told Price one night in Atlanta after Topper played with The Band on "Mystery Train."
Topper was known to call friends on the anniversary of their parents' deaths, and he'd drop by the hospital to visit those whom he knew only peripherally. He often phoned friends unexpectedly simply to tell them that he loved them and was thinking about them.
“I was bad for a long time and then all of a sudden one day I was pretty good. People started asking me to play instead of asking me to leave. I guess that was my big commercial break.”
Tim Boykin was Topper's guitar player for a decade. "Topper was leading the band, and he would do stuff to try to scuttle the band performance, trying to screw up the band on purpose. Sometimes I would stand behind him, if we had new guys playing that night, and cue the band to what was supposed to happen. Topper would get pissed off at me because I would give the band the right cues," Boykin said, laughing. "But I sure did love Topper and I miss the hell out of him."
Price's ability to play while extremely intoxicated was legendary. Boykin remembered Topper would get pretty drunk and forget who he was playing with. "He'd turn to me and call me 'Rick' [Kurtz, who often swapped out guitar duties with Boykin], but he could still play his ass off and not even know where he was."
Once, his backing band The Upsetters were playing in Florida. "God, he almost burned down a condo we were staying at in Destin," said Boykin. "He put a TV dinner in the oven without taking it out of the cardboard box and went to bed. Smoked up the damn condo."
Don Tinsley, who played bass with Topper in The Upsetters for 20 years, recalled Topper's swagger whenever he entered a room, his head tilted at a cocky angle. "If it wasn't his gig he would wander up with that swagger and lean on the stage, as if to say, 'you're going to get me up to play, right?' The first time I met him was at a club in the late '70s or early '80s when he walked up and did that to the Amazing Rhythm Aces. They didn't even know him."
Tinsley's favorite story involved a dead opossum. "We were coming back from an out-of-town gig up over the hill by Vulcan. We started down and there was a car coming up the hill. All of sudden, from out of nowhere, the biggest opossum I'd ever seen in my life was slowly ambling across the road. We slowed up a little and it kept on walking, but the other car didn't see it. Topper stuck his head out of the window of our van and shouted "Heeeey!" as loud as he could, and he sounded exactly like James Brown. And the guy in the oncoming car looked at Topper and the opossum stopped and looked at Topper, and the other car squashed the opossum flat. That was Topper, trying to do the right thing."
|Price in the recording studio with Robert Moore|
The day Upsetters guitarist Rick Kurtz learned that Topper had died, he found a baseball glove that Topper had given him in 1988. "We played catch in the backyard all the time when I lived with him for a while . . . About a year after that he gave me [Minnesota Twins slugger] Rod Carew's instruction book on hitting a baseball. Here I was, 38 years old, and that's something you give a Little League kid. It was beautiful. He even signed it for me: 'Kurtzy, I want you to have this.'"
Highland Music owner Don Murdoch said that his wife always insisted that Topper be invited to Murdoch's Christmas parties. "Everybody would be standing around, making small talk, with things not too lively. Then Topper would show up, pull out his harp, and start doing Christmas carols. He saved my Christmas party every year," Murdoch said.
Murdoch recalled the day that he and an ex-girlfriend were driving to lunch in his convertible sports car with Topper. Murdoch's lady friend had a severe case of poison ivy and was complaining constantly as they drove. While at a stop light, Topper suddenly stood up in the back of the tiny convertible and loudly sang the classic "Poison Ivy" while they waited for the light to change. The light turned green, and Topper took a bow as fellow motorists applauded and cheered.
Topper's former road manager Joey Oliver spoke of the night that Topper played a party at the home of Southern Poverty Law Center director Morris Dees in Montgomery. At the end of the evening, Topper playfully punched Dees in the arm as he often did to others. Dees did not find it funny, and Topper turned to Oliver and said, "Joey, I think I just fu**ed up. I just hit the man who got rid of the Ku Klux Klan."
Oliver remembered being at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with Price, who was backstage after playing with The Radiators. Topper spied CBS newsman Ed Bradley and introduced himself. About that time, Price's girlfriend walked over and asked Bradley, "Do you know Topper?" Bradley smiled and said, "Everybody knows Topper."
"I've often credited Topper with giving me a career," said Damon Johnson, formerly of Birmingham's Brother Cane. The band's 1993 hit "Got No Shame" featured a blistering harmonica intro by Topper. "That harmonica intro is what made our song stand out above everything else on rock radio at the time. . . . We worked with a producer named Jim Mitchell, who was an assistant producer and engineer on the Guns N' Roses album Use Your Illusion." Mitchell wanted to use a harmonica player who had worked with Guns N' Roses but Johnson argued for using Topper. Price, who had never heard the song, came into Airwave Studios in Birmingham where Brother Cane recorded the harmonica overdub, and recorded two takes, the first of which is heard on the song. "The first note that the world heard of Brother Cane was Topper inhaling [to begin] the intro to 'Got No Shame.'"
Jazz singer and trumpeter Robert Moore, who recently moved from Birmingham to Oregon, spoke at length on Price: "Topper robbed my liquor cabinet constantly. He would put bottles that he'd drained back into my freezer, empty. But Jesus, I loved him. I'll never forget once asking him about an old Memphis soul tune, to which he instantly recounted the year, the producer, label, musicians on the date, etc. It floored me. Why Google when a phone call to Top would tell you more? And the range of his data bank wasn't restricted to music. I bought a used Ford pickup a few years ago. Top only looked at it, and said to me, 'Moore, that's a 289 right? I think those engines were made in Canada by Ford that year—great vehicle.' I later opened the truck door to examine the ID plate, and found that every detail he'd 'guessed' was exactly accurate."
One summer while living in Mobile, Topper had a brief fling of sorts with Charles Manson clan member Patricia Krenwinkel before he discovered that she was a fugitive (Krenwinkel participated in the Tate/LaBianca murders in 1969). Topper, who was then about 16 years old, was watching television with some friends when a news bulletin announced that Krenwinkel had been arrested in Mobile (Manson had sent her there to live with her aunt after the murders). Krenwinkel had been apprehended at a favorite Mobile hangout of Topper and his pals. "We've got to get out of this house!" said one guy, terrified that the police might raid the home, where Krenwinkel had been hanging around for a week or so. When Topper asked why everyone was so freaked out, one fellow said, "Hey Top. Remember Katie, that girl who's been giving you back rubs whenever she stops by? That's Krenwinkel."
I'll never forget being at The Nick around 3 a.m. when Topper, usually low on cash and always searching for free drinks, walked outside and spied a dozen plastic cups of half-consumed cocktails on the banister in front of the club. With lightning speed, he grabbed each cup and drank the leftover contents. Before walking back into the club, he stopped long enough to spit a hail of cigarette butts, machine gun-style, against the outside wall. My jaw dropped, just as it had several nights previously when he snatched the cup of water The Nick's security guard had been using only moments earlier to polish his shoes outside the club. Topper downed the liquid that he must have assumed was bourbon and water.
If only Topper had cared about his own health as much as he did about the well-being of his buddies. I remember once complaining about my problems with gout. "Eddie, what you need to do is go to the grocery store and get a can of Bing cherries. That's Bing cherries, you got that? It's a miracle cure," he growled in his affected Howlin' Wolf voice. Months later he asked about my gout. I told him the Bing cherries didn't work. Then I asked how he had been doing, and I'll never forget his response—the last words I ever heard from him. That his reply referenced chemistry was appropriate. "Eduardo, my friend, I'm a free radical in search of a covalent bond."
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