Ray Price, 1926-2013

David Cantwell | December 16th, 2013

rayprice2Ray 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. raypricenudiesuit

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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  1. Andrew
    December 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    If there was anyone who was born to sing it was Ray. What a voice, even in his 80s. Very tragic to lose him and George Jones in the same year.

  2. Paul W Dennis
    December 17, 2013 at 6:12 am

    I only got to see Ray perform live one time, a few years back when he was already in his 80s. He had a cold that nigt but still put on a fabulous show – no a lot of conversation but a lot of songs, sung as only he could sing them.

    My Dad really like Ray’s 60s recordings so I grew up hearing a lot of Ray Price on the radio and on Dad’s record player.

    Ray was a master of the art form

  3. aburtch
    December 17, 2013 at 10:11 am

    This is a very well-written obituary. The author knows his stuff.

  4. Dave D.
    December 17, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Nice obituary. The last song my Dad danced to, from his hospice bed, was a request for Ray’s Crazy Arms.

  5. Barry Mazor
    December 17, 2013 at 11:04 am

    If there are any of you here are under-familiar with David Cantwell’s writing, he was my longtime co-senior editor at No Depression magazine, is the co-author of the essential book “Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles,” and recently, is the author of “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind.” I’m personally pleased we have the benefit of his thoughts on the great Ray Price.

  6. Barry Mazor
    December 17, 2013 at 11:05 am
  7. Elliott C. Michaels
    December 17, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I wonder how many of today’s so-called “country” fans even heard of Price, much less know his music. Unfortunately, I doubt whether Price’s passing would even get a mention on today’s so-called “country” radio stations, like Atlanta’s 94.9 The Bull or Kicks 101.5. All too quickly they forget!

  8. Judy
    December 17, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    I was lucky enough to see him twice. Once as a child, and once, many years later, on a show where he shared billing with Loretta Lynn. What a night that was! My strongest memory is not of the music, though, but of the man. It was half-time, between Loretta and Ray, and my daughter and I went to the restroom. The concert was being held in an auditorium at Unity Village near Kansas City, so the restrooms were more or less backstage, with not enough doors for the crowd. And I saw, standing in line to get out to the stage with everyone else, the great, humble Ray Price. There was no “star” in his demeanor, he was only a man who happened to be blessed with one of the best voices ever.

    I live in Florida now. He was scheduled to appear here in February, at the same theater where I was fortunate enough to see George Jones just a few months before he passed. I’m sorry Ray and I will not be at that show.

  9. Luckyoldsun
    December 17, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Excellent article. And it made me look up the meaning of “apotheosis.”
    Ya learn something new every day!

  10. Thomas
    December 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

    …to call ray price a country singer is like calling a zebra horse. undoubtedly, a most prolific vocalist and crooner there’s not a single country vibe coming from him in all the footage that I’ve ever seen and heard about him. with an italian sounding tune, he could have played the role of that mafia-singer in “the godfather”. not a soul on earth would have thought they casted the wrong guy.

    compared to george jones’s country – ray price’s sounds like cereal jingles.

  11. Barry Mazor
    December 18, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Anyone who’d call Ray Price “not a country singer” would have to have a terrifically tiny, myopic and limiting idea of what a country singer is. George Jones would happily have explained it to you, Thomas.

  12. Luckyoldsun
    December 18, 2013 at 10:28 am

    “For the Good Times” qualifies a a cereal jingle in the same sense that “Strangers In The Night” does.

  13. David Cantwell
    December 18, 2013 at 10:31 am

    I think, Thomas, that your comment says more about the limits of what you’ve “seen and heard about him” than Ray Price himself. This introduction to Price’s music that I put together for Slate might prove enlightening: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/12/16/ray_price_died_best_songs_by_country_singer_known_for_for_the_good_times.html

  14. Judy
    December 18, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Thomas, go on YouTube and listen to “City Lights”, “The Other Woman”, “San Antonio Rose”, “Crazy Arms”, and “You Done Me Wrong”, then come back here and say that Ray Price was not a country singer.

  15. Thomas
    December 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    …thanks folks for trying to help me getting to grips with ray price being a country artist. it is much appreciated.

    exchancing those glances over a bowl of cheerios… – no, that most likely won’t do the trick, luckyoldsun.

    well, judy, of all the songs listed only “crazy arms” really qualifies as a country song (not counting the obvious “san antonio rose”), where singer, material and production link up the way it ought be. all the others sound somewhat detached in one or the other department.

    thanks for the link barry and david. interesting, that experienced journalists like you are not bugged by the fact, that he only starts sounding fully engaged and convincing with his material since the sixties (when country became “politan” and not vice versa)with “make the world go away” being the best example for that. that and everything later on makes his earlier foray into country music rather looking like quite a misunderstanding or stepping stone, at best, to me.

    then again, my birthdate is later than ray price’s honky tonk and oddly fitting suits years, which might explain, why i hardly find traces of country (vibes) in his otherwise splendid catalogue of music (even though i have been looking for it quite some times in the last few years). it does not have to be country to sound great in my ears, but when labelled like that, then i expect a little more country than that.

  16. nm
    December 18, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Thomas, I’m curious about what qualities/characteristics/whatever you think define a country act. You clearly have certain attributes of “singer, material and production” in mind — are you able to explain what they are, to your ear? Or, maybe, give examples of what you think qualifies? Because I could give you reasons why IMO Ray Price’s voice, songs, and production are country, but rather than just argue with you about it I’d like to figure out a little more clearly what you mean by “country.”

  17. Luckyoldsun
    December 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Thom–
    Are you posting these commentaries from your phone?
    Or are the shift keys on your keyboard not working?

  18. Dan Doty
    December 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    I wonder how many of the comments we read come from people who ever actually saw Ray Price in concert? In the late 50′s my wife and I saw him as a guest on the legendary “Louisiana Hayride” in his full Cherokee Cowboy “Nudie” What a priviledge was ours.
    I distincly recall him being asked,a few short years ago, what he thought about the then popular artists and material being recorded as “country” his reply of few words was “I would hate to know that I had anything to do with It”.
    Some critizize him for adapting to something other than hard core country. Let’s not overlook the fact that Ray Price was versatile and smart enough to do just that.

  19. Luckyoldsun
    December 18, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Styles change.
    In the ’50s, Price and other country stars dressed like escapees from Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show.”
    In the ’60s, they dressed like they were going to work as salesmen at the insurance office down the block.

  20. nm
    December 18, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Well, I was lucky enough to hear Ray Price sing in person two or three times. But I don’t think one must have heard him live in order to have an opinion on what he sounds like, or to want to post on a thread on his career.

  21. John
    December 18, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Listen to the Album, Touch My Heart, with Swinging Doors, A Way to Survive. The Same Two Lips etc. Pure Country. I have to admit I preferred that side of Ray but nevertheless, what a great artiste.

  22. Luckyoldsun
    December 19, 2013 at 12:28 am

    It’s funny how many “Ray Price”s there are. It’s like every Rhodes seems to be named Dusty–but that’s generally a nickname.

    There was President Nixon’s speechwriter Ray Price–who continued to write newspaper op-ed columns into the ’80s. And there’s a motorcycle daredevil Ray Price. And–according to Wikipedia–there are a bunch of rugby players and cricketeers in the UK and even Zimbabwe with that name.

  23. Country fan
    December 19, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    I have seen Ray quite a few times, the first being at the old KRNT theater in Des Moines. Ray never ” gave up the music for the show”. Love the shuffle, what a talent!

  24. TX Music Jim
    December 20, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I was blessed to see Ray on three occasions once at a Willie picnic in 1989 and OMG the voice in person was amazing then in 2007 for the last of the breed tour and you know to outsing Merle is unheard of but he did it. The last time was in 2010 he was 84 and his voice was still pitch perfect and the crowds were still large. There is is some great singing going on Heaven I have no doubt. God Bless Ray Price.

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