Price was born Mary Violet Leontyne Price in a segregated black neighborhood of Laurel, Mississippi. Thanks to the Chisholms, a family who lived in the affluent white section of the town, her musical talents were encouraged, and she received a scholarship to attend Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio. She began as a music education major, but she completed her studies there in voice. With the assistance of Paul Robeson and the Chisholms, she obtained a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School.
While at Juilliard, Price sang Bess in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and during a European tour of the production, she met her husband William Warfield, who was singing Porgy (they were divorced in 1972).
In 1955, Price was engaged by NBC to sing the lead for a televised production of Puccini's Tosca. The announcement was met by objections and cancellations from local affiliates, but her performance in this historic broadcast was considered a critical success.
Price made her professional operatic stage debut in 1957 as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at the San Francisco Opera. In 1958, she was invited by Herbert von Karajan, who was very impressed by her talents, to make her European operatic debut as Aida at the Vienna State Opera.
On July 2, 1958, Price made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Her La Scala debut came two years later on May 21, 1960, again in Aida. Price was the first black singer to sing a major role in Milan.
On January 27, 1961, Price made a her now legendary debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore, for which she received a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest in the Met's history. Price subsequently appeared for many years regularly in New York. The New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote: "Her voice was dusky and rich in its lower tones, perfectly even in its transitions from one register to another, and flawlessly pure and velvety at the top." Price was not the first black singer to sing at the Met -- Marian Anderson broke the race barrier there on January 7, 1955 -- but Price was the first to become a major star.
Price eventually took up a broad repertoire which covered Mozart, Puccini and Richard Strauss, but was best known for her Verdi. She also gave concert recitals, singing both operatic excerpts and songs.