An American Original: Ray Price 1926-2013

Monday, 16 December 2013 09:26 PM Written by 



Noble Ray Price, who died of pancreatic cancer at 87, at 4:43 Central time today, kept going until almost the end. He resumed performing after announcing his diagnosis in November 2012, had recorded a final album produced by Fred Foster and continued playing occasional dates with the Cherokee Cowboys before hospitalized for dehydration in mid-May. Combined with the death of George Jones in April, it's one hell of a year for losing classic country acts, including two of the genre's fountainheads.

A bout with sepsis brought on cardiac complications.  But he managed to get home to his ranch before Thanksgiving before a brief hospitalization. This time he was only there briefly. With the cancer gaining ground his wife Janie announced he'd be returning to his ranch for hospice care and included Price's final farewell to his fans. Sadly, an embarrassing premature report from his son Cliff that he'd died led to confusion for some media outlets including myself until clarified.

A native of tiny Perryville, Texas, Price's parents were divorced .He lived part of the time with his mother and her new husband, part with his father. He'd already decided to become a veterinarian before joining the Marines in 1944. After his discharge, he resumed his vet studies and he began singing in clubs around Texas as a hobby.  He also hung around Jim Beck's Dallas studio where in 1949 he recorded the single "Jealous Lies." He hadn't found his own voice yet and the Eddy Arnold flavor was obvious.

In 1950 he was performing on the Dallas-based stage and radio show the "Big 'D' Jamboree" when song promoter Troy Martin met him in Texas. Impressed, Martin brought Price to the attention of Columbia Records, pushing an initially reluctant country A&R man Don Law to add him to the label's roster. Law signed him on March 15, 1951. During a Nashville visit, Price met Hank Williams Sr. at the WSM Radio studios. Hank quickly became a friend and mentor. As Hank's opening act, Price learned plenty about performing and a lot about Hank. He often covered for the boss when he was too drunk to appear.  

After his first hit single in 1952, Price, who joined the Opry that year,  added 44 more charted singles. Eight went to # 1; 10 crossed over to pop success. 15 of his albums reached Billboard's country Top Ten and two earned Gold Records. Many of his hits, "Release Me" (1954), "Crazy Arms" (1956) "Heartaches By the Number" (1958) and "For The Good Times" (1970) are all country standards.

That doesn't begin to tell the story. In the interest of space, this bullet list will hit a few of the high points.    Price was….

One of country's most fearlessly innovative artists. He began as a proponent of twang, moved quickly to a smooth sound and in the end became comfortable with both.

An Outlaw before anyone applied that word to a country singer. Willie and Waylon were Texans with ideas that didn't always please Nashville. So was Price. He kept control of his music and blazed his own path, controversy be damned.

Creator of the Cherokee Cowboys. One of the greatest of all country backup bands and incubators of talent, its graduates included future stars Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and …Willie Nelson. Add to that instrumental giants like guitarist Pete Wade, steel guitarists Jimmy Day, the innovative, jazz-flavored Buddy Emmons and fiddlers Wade Ray, Tommy Jackson, Shorty Lavender and Keith Coleman. Jackson created the famous Bob Wills-inspired "lonesome fiddle" behind Price's vocal.

Sight & Sound Visionary. Many 50's singers wore flashy western suits with piping and other adornment. Price, during his honky-tonk period, created retina-blasting, elaborate rhinestone-studded designs for himself and the band, manufactured by Hollywood western tailor Nudie Cohn.  You'll see some of it in the videos below.

Most people fear re-inventing themselves even once. Price did it three times.

First Reinvention. His earliest honky-tonk hits reflect him Hank-style, but after Hank's death in 1953, Price realizing channeling Hank was a dead end, drew on his Texas roots to create his own voice, with 1954's "Release Me." To find a new sound he turned back to his Texas roots. Having grown up with the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, he hired a large Texas band, the Western Cherokees, similar in lineup to the Playboys. He renamed them the Cherokee Cowboys.

He also emulated Wills by using drums. Drums were banned on the Grand Ole Opry since the 30's but Opry singer Carl Smith added a drummer to his band in 1954. On the road he used a full set. The Opry only allowed a snare. It remained so until the show allowed full drum sets in 1974.

Price went a step further rhythmically Well versed on the heavy dance beat Wills used, he created a variation: the insistent 4/4  "shuffle" beat that drove his 1956 hit "Crazy Arms" and so many others.  The shuffle became his trademark, copied by other singers (Buck Owens and George Jones among them) and popular for decades.  He told various stories of how he settled on the idea.

Second Reinvention.  A longtime fan of Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett and other pop crooners, in 1966 with Columbia's approval, Price did a 180, embracing orchestrated ballads. It's worth noting that orchestrations were not entirely new to him. He recorded an entire album with full orchestration: his 1960 Columbia hymn album Faith. No one complained because it was a sacred effort.  Eddy Arnold's success a year earlier no doubt helped his decision fly with Columbia Records.  The decision was his alone.

Onstage, tuxedos replaced the Nudie suits; in the studio and onstage, the Cherokee Cowboys gave way to symphonic backing, attracting a new audience but leaving many longtime fans hostile. He was heckled at shows. Some radio stations refused to play the new records and at least once he was spat upon. Even some in Nashville's music industry accused him of selling out. Fed up, Price moved back to Texas in 1968. But country-pop successes like "For The Good Times" (1970) and "I Won't Mention It Again" (1971) vindicated him. 

Third Reinvention. Price largely performed with strings through the 80's though on rare occasions, he'd reunite onstage with Cherokee Cowboy alumni or revisit the old sound as he did on the 1980 duet album San Antonio Rose with Willie In the 90's, he reconciled both phases, the twang and the smooth, with a new Cherokee Cowboys versatile enough to do justice to his honky-tonk hits and country-pop material.

Pride In His Achievements. Price's contrarian nature may have delayed his entry into the Hall of Fame. When he was finally inducted in 1996, he accepted his plaque onstage at the Opry House and slyly declared, "Thank you. It's about time." He was serious. 

To prove all the points above, here's the music:

"Jealous Lies" (1950)

He was still working in Texas when he recorded this single released by Nashville-based Bullet Records. Still seeking his own style, he took his cues from Eddy Arnold. 

"I've Got To Hurry, Hurry, Hurry"  (1952)  This is Price working overtime to sound like a Hank Williams clone at a time he was working shows with Hank.  The backup musicians are Hank's Drifting Cowboys: lead guitarist Sammy Pruett, Jerry Rivers on fiddle, Howard Watts playing bass with Don Helms playing the same trademark steel guitar licks he played behind Hank.  Two Country Hall of Famers fill out the date, both future Nashville producers: Chet Atkins on guitar and Owen Bradley playing piano.

"Release Me" (1954)  Price had been following Hank Williams's vocal style during and right after his time with the legendary singer. But he realized he had to have his own style and "Release Me" marked the beginning.  In later years Price introduced the song onstage noting he had the version "B.H." or before Englebert Humperdinck's 1967 pop version

"Crazy Arms," (1956)  Where the shuffle began. This was filmed around 1956-57, the time of the single. On harmony: Van Howard, one of his best harmony singers.  Note the flashy outfits.  At one point him and the band even wore full headdresses,

"Invitation To The Blues" (1958) The vocal assistance comes from Price's new harmony singer: future country great Roger Miller, the song's composer. The steel guitarist is Jack Evins.

"Heartaches By the Number" (1959) The definitive version of the timeless Harlan Howard ballad, with harmonies by Ray Sanders.

"In The Garden" (1960) From his Faith album.  His first recordings with string orchestrations.  Not a complaint was uttered, probably because it was gospel material. 

"Night Life" (1963)  The single only reached # 28, but this bluesy, melancholy composition is considered a great moment in Price's career, the title song of the album seen here, It's not just his vocal, but the haunting pedal steel guitar played by Cherokee Cowboy Buddy Emmons, one of the instrument's true virtuosos.  The "boy down Texas way" who wrote the song was, of course, Price's pal Willie Nelson, who'd written the song before he ever met Price. 

"Danny Boy" (1967) This hit singe marked his transition to country-pop but outraged his honky-tonk fan base. The hip and ultra-sophisticated string arrangements were the work of arranger Cam Mullins, whose roots were in jazz.  

"I Let My Mind Wander" (1967) An incredible Mullins arrangement of a Willie Nelson ballad that reveals Mullins' own jazz roots. There is nothing easy listening about this.

"For The Good Times," (1970) A fine performance of the hit single that made this Kris Kristofferson a standard, from the 70's syndicated show That Nashville Music.
For my money, this is one of the best TV performances I've seen.  The voice and the orchestra fit especially well, same as the recording.

"Run That By Me One More Time" (2003) A Willie 70th birthday show reuniting the two friends, who'd tour together with Merle Haggard and Asleep At The Wheel headlining the "Last of the Breed" tour

"I Wish I Was 18 Again" (2012) From a private party, the quality of his vocal, given his age and health, was a minor miracle.

The man is gone. Price fought hard up until the end. He held on a lot longer than many expected.  The influence and the music will endure.

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