Bluesman Topper Price Remembered

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By Glynn Wilson

Blues harp player and singer Topper Price, one of Alabama’s more interesting musicians and characters, died Wednesday night at his apartment on the Southside of Birmingham. He was 54 and was about to release his third solo album.

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Topper Price, R.I.P.

The official cause of his death has not been released by the Jefferson County Coroner, but sources close to Mr. Price say he had a seizure after eating dinner Wednesday night with his fiancée, Kelly Casey. The seizure could have been caused by a drug overdose. Paramedics tried and failed to revive him.

No funeral or official memorial service is planned for the next week, Ms. Casey said in an interview. But Topper, whose real name was Terry O’Neil Price, wanted to be cremated, she said, so the plans for that were in the works Friday.

“He didn’t really want a funeral, just for some friends to get together,” Ms. Casey said, so plans for a memorial service will be announced sometime next week.

“I’m supposed to be planning a wedding, not a funeral,” Ms. Casey told a reporter for the Birmingham News and the Locust Fork News and Journal. “He was an incredible guy. He had one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever met in my life.”

Paul “Sleepy Gumbo Bailey” Walters said the Magic City Blues Society was dedicating a blues jam to Topper Friday night at Burly Earl and taking donations to help pay his burial expenses.

“He was one of the premier harmonica players in Alabama,” Mr. Walters said as he announced the untimely death to the Blue Mail list Thursday with “a heavy heart.”

Mr. Price was born in the Plateau community near Mobile and had no close relatives in Birmingham, according to Ms. Casey, although he did have a father and a daughter living in the Mobile area.

I first saw Topper play myself in Mobile back in the 1980s, then got to know him in Birmingham while operating the NewsBreak newsstand, bookstore and coffee bar from 1986 to 1989.

Topper performed all over the Southeast over the past 30 years and played with some of the music greats in blues and Southern Rock, including Dickie Betts of the Allman Brothers Band, Scott Boyer and Cowboy, The Convertables, The Band and The Radiators, along with Albert Collins, Johnny Shines, Wayne Perkins and Brother Cane.

“Topper gave a lot of joy to people in this town,” Walters said. “There was something magnetic about him. He was the top harmonica player in the state, with a unique and powerful style. When you’re talking about blues in Birmingham, you’re talking about Topper Price.”

Mr. Price recorded two CDs during his career, according to the News, including “Long Way From Home” and “Nature (Part 1).” Casey said he had recently completed his third CD, tentatively called “Nature (Part 2),” in a home studio and was looking forward to its release.

He played me a cut from the CD a few weeks ago outside The Nick, and we talked about plans to promote it.

“It was an extremely long time in the making,” Casey confirmed. “But it was the most important thing he had going on. He was very, very proud of it.”

Topper had a lot of loyal fans across the state, not just in Birmingham. He played regularly in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery as well.

“I loved this guy,” said Cheryl Sabel, a fan from Montgomery. “I went to hear him every time he was in town.”

Mr. Price wasn’t a music teacher, but he did have an influence on other musicians, including soul singer, harmonica player and “American Idol” finalist Taylor Hicks, according to the News.

Hicks said he would sneak into nightclubs as a teenager to hear Mr. Price perform, and was influenced by his showmanship. Mr. Price would drop to his knees during solos and moved on stage with flamboyant passion.

“He was not only a harmonica player, he was an entertainer,” Hicks said. “He taught me the difference. I remember when he was playing at The Mill; there was a banister on stage and he used to wrap his leg around it. That really struck me. He was one of the finest harmonica players that I’ve heard. He had a great voice. He was the real deal – a bluesman.”

Guitar player Jeff Adkins, who has played with Topper Price and the Upsetters on and off for the past 10 years, said Topper was “the single greatest, well-rounded musician I’ve ever played with, and by far the best band director, conductor.”

I asked Topper one day outside the old Highland Music store at 30th and Highland where he learned to sing and play the blues. He told me an elaborate story about once going looking for the “Blues School” on a certain street corner on the Southside of Chicago. I think they made a movie about that.

As Tuscaloosa News columnist Tommy Stevenson said about Topper, “Like Rhett Maddox, he was a mess. A talented mess, but a mess nonetheless.”

Another blues harp player, Jock Webb, said in addition to being a great player and a funny character, Topper was an incredibly generous guy who didn’t hesitate to help other people, either by covering a gig when someone else couldn’t make it or helping inspire kids in the Blues in Schools program.

“He was always there, man,” Webb said. “I could call him up from Boston or Atlanta, and he would answer the call to help, no matter what.”

John McClusky, a Tuscaloosa lawyer who was handling Mr. Price’s affairs, said the one thing just about everyone who knew him says about Topper, “He was a true gentleman.”

Matt Kimbrell, a percussionist from a talented musical family from Birmingham who knew Topper for many years, upon learning the news of Topper’s death, said what a lot of people feel.

“It just breaks my heart, man.”

Monday Update

On Tuesday, May 29, The Nick will host a Topper Price open mic memorial with no cover charge, although donations are welcome. Then on Wednesday, June 27, The Nick will also host a Topper Price fundraiser to help cover cremation expenses, according to the Magic City Blues Society.

Also, the Jefferson County Coroner’s office is saying it will be next week at least before a final cause of death will be determined and released.

© 2007 – 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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