Gilbert Price

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Gilbert Price (10 September 1942 - 2 January 1991)

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Price was an American baritone and actor who was one of Langston Hughes's protégés. His first starring role was in Hughes’s Jericho-Jim Crow (1964), for which he won a Theatre World Award.

Price was born in New York City to Leon and Carmen Price, who were nominal Protestants. His father had had some experience in show business, having worked with Redd Foxx as a comic. His mother's mother, whose Caribbean accent Gilbert could imitate accurately, was from St. Kitts. For years, Gilbert thought that "Granny" was from a country in Africa.

The Prices had two other children, Jeanette (Stargill) and Stanley.

When the parents separated, Leon moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where after his wife died he had three other children with Virginia Patterson Price: a daughter, Tracy Michelle, and two sons, Mark Leon and Don Vincent.

Gilbert Price was educated first in New York City public schools, but he transferred to a Catholic elementary school, his mother believing he would get a stricter education with nuns as teachers. In the elementary school, he converted to Catholicism. As a teenager, however, he was educated at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and became a lead singer in their choir, a member of which was Barbra Streisand.

Fly Blackbird (1962)

Gershon Kingsley, the play's conductor, hired Price to sing in the play that premiered 5 February 1962.

Jericho-Jim Crow (1964)

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in 1964, the 21-year-old Price starred in a Langston Hughes play, Jericho-Jim Crow, which was performed at the Sanctuary Theatre in Greenwich Village for 32 performances.

Price received a Theatre World Award and was featured in a Life" article, "Stages Fill With Anger and Eloquence, A Burst of Negro Drama."

Richard F. Shepard, in The New York Times, described the play's depiction of the Negro struggle up from slavery.

The book was by William Hairston and Langston Hughes].

The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd (1965)

When Anthony Newley was casting for Roar upstairs in the Variety Arts Building at 225 West 46th Street in Manhattan, actors at the "cattle call" were given material to speak or sing. Price got a copy of “Feelin' Good” and raced downstairs to the recording studio owned by his friend, Warren Allen Smith, who recalls that

  • I cleared Studio A and helped him prep by accompanying him on the piano. We weren’t sure whether "Feelin' Good" was going to be a fast or a slow number, but we ran through the song several times, he ran back upstairs, and when he sang Newley exclaimed that he had not been looking for a black, had not wanted a baritone, had not wanted a person of Gil’s size, “but you’ve got the greatest fucking voice I’ve ever heard!” And Gil got the job. I was the first to play Newley’s song on a piano, I kept telling myself!

The other songs in the play were "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)?", "A Wonderful Day Like Today," "It Isn't Enough," "Where Would You Be Without Me," "My First Love Song," "Nothing Can Stop Me Now," and "Sweet Beginning."

In London, the play starring Norman Wisdom was not successful. In New York City, Newley performed the role of Cocky, who plays by the rules in life, and Sir (played by Cyril Ritchard), was the one who ignores rules and lives life as he chooses. It ran for 232 performances after opening on 16 May 1965.

Promenade (1969)

Price sang several songs in Promenade's chorus: "The Clothes Make the Man"; "The Cigarette Song"; "Two Little Angels"; "Crown Me"; and "All Is Well in the City."

The play was a collaboration of Reverend Al Carmines and Maria Irene Fornes and starred Alikce Playten, Shannon Bolin, and Florence Tarlow. Madeline Kahn was one of the original cast membeers but left before the cast album was recorded.

It featured Ty McConnell and Price as Prisoners 105 and 106. They escape for a better life, then encounter a variety of unpleasant people.

Mass (1971)

Gilbert performed at Leonard Bernstein's request either at the opening on 8 Sep 1971 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts or in California, or both.

Lost in the Stars (1972)

The play opened as a revival at the Music Box Theater on 30 October 1949 and closed after 273 performances on 1 July 1950. Maxwell Anderson wrote the lyrics to music by Kurt Weill, based on Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country.

Price, playing the role of Absalom Kumalo, joked that this allowed him to "die 6 evening and 2 matinee performances per week."

The Night That Made America Famous (1975)

As one of the performers, along with Harry Chapin, Mercedes Ellington, and Delores Hall, Price sang the Harry Chapin lyrics and music at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Price received the 1975 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical. He also was nominated for the 1975 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976)

Price played the role of Lud in the play that previewed 21 April 1976 and only had 20 performances. His friend, George Faison was co-director with Gilbert Moses. The book and lyrics were by Alan Jay Lerner, and the music was by Leonard Bernstein.

The play flopped, after out-of-town tryouts in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Critics generally praised Bernstein's score but savaged Lerner's book.

The plot, which was about the White House, showed Mr. and Mrs. John Adams moving in but hiring Lud as the person in charge of the place. When Thomas Jefferson is elected, the Adamses move but Lud stays. President after elected President arrive, and Lud remains. Eventually, his son takes over. Primarily about race relations, the play mentions Jefferson's alleged affair with a black maid, James Monroe's refusal to halt slavery in Washington, and the problems after the Civil War when Andrew Johnson is impeached.

Timbuktu (1978)

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Price starred as the handsome Prince of the Realm, Kasa, The Mansa of Mali in the musical produced by Luther Davis that was directed and choreographed by Geoffrey Holder. It opened 1 March 1978 and closed 10 September 1978 after 243 performances. Set to music by Alexander Borodin, George Forrest, and Robert Wright, the musical comedy was based on "Kismet" by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis.

Timbuktu! was a musical fable based on Kismet but in a West African setting, the city of Timbuktu. Fate plays a big part in the story of how Price, the prince, rose to be the king.

Eartha Kitt made a grand entrance, carried on the shoulders of a handsome and muscular former Mr. Universe, Joe Lynn. Amid all the pomp and circumstance, she purred and brought the house down with, "Anything new in town?"

Melba Moore and Ira Hawkins rounded out the cast, Moore in the role of a possible lover for the prince.

Price was a 1978 Tony Award nominee for Best Actor in a Musical, his 4th such nomination. He sang "Stranger in Paradise," "Night of My Nights," "And This Is My Beloved," songs that were familiar to many in the audience. Those in the musical cognocenti heard a voice with the timbre of a Paul Robeson, something they did not hear from singers Kitt and Moore.

Trivia

Price appeared on numerous Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, and Merv Griffin television shows.

He had a Canadian show and also one in Australia.

In 1987 he made an unpublicized trip to Cuba to sing for political prisoners. He was entertained at a party where Castro appeared, and he was surprised that the revolutionary Cuban was graying. The first American entertainer to be allowed into a prison for political prisoners, he performed and talked with many but avoided political subjects. When one prisoner gave him a wad of paper that he took from inside his shoe and placed in Price's hands, he requested that the note be given to a relative of his near Hartford. With Warren Allen Smith, he later drove to the Connecticut address and were unable to find anyone who knew the prisoner's relative - Price concluded the two strangers to that community were assumed to be federal agents. A letter to the prisoner's address was returned, "unknown." Friends criticized Price for having acted so dangerously, even daring to bring a rock back as a sourvenir from Castro's front yard.

Political matters did not much interest Price. What angered him, however, was Amiri Baraka's (LeRoi Jones's) once turning him down for a job, saying he wasn't black enough. Jews in showbusiness, he told Smith, a white non-believer, had never treated him badly.

One of his companions, George Stanton from Canada, was known to have had a police record. Price lived dangerously within subcultural sites. A description of his personal life has been written by Smith and includes memories about Langston Hughes.

Final Days

After Timbuktu! with its weekly paycheck of around $2,000., Price was unable to find employment. He had never before had a regular job, not even temporary work. For a decade he tried, always complaining about agents and about the dearth of jobs for blacks. Warren Allen Smith, his close friend who managed his finances and served as a buffer for those wanting to borrow money, found he began out of necessity footing many of Gil's expenses. When the play ended, Price soon had almost no spending money, although Smith claimed that except for Price's fixing up an apartment to live with George Stanton in Manhattan's West 70s and indulging in drugs, Price was not profligate. For almost a decade he scrounged, giving generously of his talent but unable to help pay the rent where he lived in Harlem with his mother.

Receiving an offer to teach at a school in Vienna and with the help of Joan Grisham in Hyde Park, NY, he left and told friends he was happy to be in such an artistic and music-appreciating environment. One CD was made in Vienna, a sad one in which Price's powerful voice was accompanied by an oompah-oompah brass band. When Price did not show up at his classes for several days, students went to his apartment and found the body.

Smith's further memories:

  • Because in a who’s who book of blacks I used my address in Gil’s listing to shield him from the curious, The New York Times telephoned when Gil died, inquiring about the details. I had no knowledge of his death and decided not to reveal that before going to Europe he had shown me medical papers that indicated he was HIV+. The newspaper’s staff eventually informed me about Gil’s having been accidentally asphyxiated by a faulty propane heater while he was staying alone in someone’s apartment, that of an Austrian who was on a trip to Africa.
  • Using his address book, I then arranged a razzledazzle showbiz memorial in the Actors' Chapel. Gil's entire family came. I had not known that Gil had a half-brother, and I met his father for the first time. “Wiz” arranger Harold Wheeler played piano, "Timbuktu" director-choreographer Geoffrey Holder spoke eloquently and dramatically (“Gil, Gil, I know you’re up there looking down at us”), and sportscaster Dick Schaap was M.C. The first and last words were by two of Gil's Maryknoll priest-friends, one being Father Phil Wallace from Seattle. I supervised the sound, lighting, publicity . . . and tears.
  • Individuals listed in Price's address book were notified about the memorial, and one - Arthur C. Clarke - sent a large check to Smith which was given to Price's sister, Jeannette, so she could go to the gravesite arranged by Austrian actor-friends. At the time, Jeannette was living off New York City welfare checks.

A friend, Ann Brashear, found from a friend in Bratislava the following:

  • The Feuerhalle cemetery is located in the vicinity of the Zentralfriedhof.

(See Schomburg Library materials.)

External Links

Internet Broadway Database


You Tube Clips

Hear Price singing:

I've Gotta Be Me

Old Man River

Feelin' Good


• Price sang often, sometimes on a minute's notice when Cardinal Spellman asked him to. For example, he sang when Mrs. Paul Robeson asked him to perform for a private function, remarking that he and her husband's timbre was similar. And he appeared in Dynel at the Old Reliable Theatre Tavern in New York City, according to producer Robert Patrick.