Ray Price, 1926-2013
Ray Price, whose intense-yet-intimate vocals were regarded, on his early hard-shuffle country hits and on his later string-swollen Nashville Sound recordings, as the apotheosis of both honky-tonk traditionalism and crossover countrypolitan, passed away this afternoon at 4:43 p.m. in Mount Pleasant, Texas, according to family spokesperson Bill Mack. Price was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, and had been in and out of the hospital for the past several months while fighting a case of sepsis. He had been released from the hospital to spend Thanksgiving at home, but according to a Facebook update from son Clifton Ray Price, was admitted to the East Texas Medical Center the following Monday in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Price was 87.
He was among the most influential and commercially successful figures in all of country music. Between 1952, when “Talk to Your Heart” became his first hit, and 1980, when “Faded Love,” a duet with Willie Nelson, became one of his last, Price scored eight country chart toppers on top of nearly fifty more top ten hits. The most famous of these, a 1970 version of the Kris Kristofferson song “For the Good Times,” was a major pop hit as well, and became, two decades into an already major career, his signature performance. “Make believe you love me,” Price pleads to a departing lover in the song’s chorus. He pauses, filling that empty space and the words that follow—“one more time”—with need, resignation, even shame, none of which is inherent in Kristofferson’s lyric. It is Price’s masterly phrasing that tells us his lover’s refusal to pretend any longer is why she’s leaving in the first place.
Ray Noble Price was born January 12, 1926, in Perryville, Texas. His parents separated when he was three. He split his time growing up between his mom’s place in Dallas and his dad’s farm, but in either locale he favored Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Bing Crosby on the radio. He served in the Marine Corps near the end of World War II, stationed stateside, then enrolled in what is now the University of Texas at Arlington, where he studied to become a veterinarian. He began singing there, as well, harmonizing with friends in coffeehouses for fun, mostly on pop hits by Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers, and Perry Como. Soon, encouraged by friends, he quit school to pursue a singing career, and in late 1949 or early ‘50, he cut his first record, “Jealous Lies,” a ballad in the country-pop style of George Morgan. It didn’t sell, but it pushed Price to keep at it. By 1952, he’d signed to Columbia Records and moved to Nashville.
Price became closely affiliated in these years with Hank Williams. Hank landed Ray his first Opry appearance and wrote the song “Weary Blues from Waiting” with Price in mind. The two were even roommates for a time: Price sang in more-or-less direct mimicry of his friend—he replaced him occasionally on stage when Hank was too drunk to perform—and he briefly inherited Williams’ band, the Drifting Cowboys, when the star died.
Price found his own voice on “Release Me,” a pained 1954 ballad that found him reframing Hanks’s down-to-earth emotionalism via a crooning delivery more akin to Wills’ lead vocalist, Tommy Duncan—except loaded with vibrato. Two years later, on “Crazy Arms,” he found his distinctive sound. A honky-tonk dance floor favorite, “Crazy Arms” spiked its shuffle with 4/4 bass—a rhythmic innovation that let it compete with Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley during country radio’s rockabilly summer of 1956, when Price’s record was number one for twenty weeks. The hits came in a rush after that—“I’ve Got a New Heartache,” “Wasted Words,” “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” “City Lights,” “Heartaches by the Number,” “Heart over Mind” and several more, all now considered hard-country classics, all powered by Price’s keening croon and crowd-moving rhythm.
Price wrote none of these songs himself, but he had an ear for great songs—and an eye for young talent. He was an early champion of songwriting legends Harlan Howard, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Bill Anderson, Mel Tillis and, somewhat later, Kristofferson and Jim Weatherly. His band, the Cherokee Cowboys, became something like a country version of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a proving-ground for up-and-coming stars. Nelson and Miller did stints in the band, as did Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, and Darrell McCall. A key to the band’s sound was its various pedal-steel guitarists, particularly Jimmy Day and, on Night Life, a classic honky-tonk-meets-supper-club album from 1963, Buddy Emmons. Indeed, Price himself often sounded like a human version of a pedal-steel guitar—pitched lower, of course, but with a similar interest in making notes shimmer and quiver, a kindred fascination with sharp or subtle shifts in texture and with the deceptively simple artistry of sustain.
Backed by fiddle and pedal steel, and accompanied by the twangy, high harmonies of Van Howard, Price gained a reputation as an old-school country holdout against the mainstream encroachments of the Nashville Sound. Yet Price was himself a modernizing figure. The Ray Price Beat, as it became known, was state of the art, and with the support of his longtime producer Don Law, Price began putting strings on his recordings as early as 1957. After his version of “Make the World Go Away” topped the country charts in 1963—Price’s voice sounded appropriately catastrophic amidst all those there-there-now violins—his singles began to feature string sections (“Burning Memories,” “I’m Still Not over You”) at least as regularly as they did twin fiddles (“A Way to Survive,” “The Other Woman”)—and were fan favorites either way.
Price’s recording of the old Irish ballad “Danny Boy” was a Top Ten country hit in 1967, but its string-swollen setting and crawling cadence also inspired a backlash among some fans: Price had betrayed them, and country music, it was said, by going pop. Such a view would only be reinforced by Price’s subsequent singles—“She Wears My Ring,” “For the Good Times,” “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” and “I Won’t Mention It Again,” among them—which were lush and smooth-sounding rather than twangy and hard. This reading of Price’s career—a hard country hero who sold out and went soft—persists even today, in some quarters.
Price, not surprisingly, told a different story about his body of work, as did the bulk of his audience: He’d loved both pop and country all along; his blending of the two fulfilled rather than negated his art. “There’s no difference between singing a country song in a western suit,” he liked to say, “and then going around behind the curtain and coming out the other side with a tux on and singing the same country song with a pop arrangement.”
Price sang with fiddles and pedal steel and, when he could afford them and thought it aesthetically advisable, with string sections, for the remainder of his career. The hits stopped coming for him in the early 1980s, but that career was ongoing. He’d completed work on a new album just this year, and on all of his most recent recordings, including Prisoner of Love (from 2000) and Last of the Breed (2007, with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), Price’s instrument was in remarkable shape, his vocal smarts as sharp as ever and his chops nearly so, to the amazement and continued appreciation of his fans.
That voice was the thing—a strong, husky baritone that would unexpectedly take wing, strained but still solid on the ground, urgent but nonplussed. He was the crooner’s crooner, singing of human complexity in all its precarious perfection.
“I want to be remembered as a real nice person,” he said in 2000. “And a hell-ay-cious singer.”
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