Ray Price was the mentor and the leader. He was discovered and brought to Columbia Records by Lefty Frizzell, and he made his first record on Columbia with Lefty's band. That was a song called "If You're Ever Lonely Darling." After that, after he made his debut on Columbia, he gave many other people a chance to do the same thing. He brought Roger Miller to the surface, and he gave Willie Nelson a job in his band.
In 1966, I was on tour with Ray down in the states of Texas and Oklahoma, and that was the first time I met Ray. Of course, I was a fan for many years before that. If I'm not mistaken, we toured 93 straight days together, took five days off and went home, then came back and did 45 more. That was back in the days you did two shows a night and got paid for one.
Back then, he was like he was when we did the Last of the Breed tour [in 2007, with Willie Nelson]. Every night he was politely giving me and Willie a vocal lesson.
He's always been a great singer — a real first-class vocalist. I don't think anybody will argue with that. He holds that microphone right on his chest and he never moves it. Willie and I are all over the mike trying to get sound, but he's found it. The "Last of the Breed" record and tour, that was something he wanted to do again, and we wanted to do again, but it never got to happen.
On that same  tour I was on with him, this kid came out to one of the shows — it was Hank [Williams] Jr. His mother said to me, "You're opening the show for Ray Price, what you need is Hank Jr. opening shows for you." So Hank Jr. came out on tour and started opening my shows — he was 14 years old. It was meeting Ray Price and meeting Audrey Williams and Hank Jr. on that tour, so it was very memorable.
The beat he came up with, what they call "the Ray Price shuffle," what it was, was an attempt to not sound like Bob Wills. He started that little shuffle thing and it caught on really good. "Crazy Arms" was the benchmark — that's when it started, and it spread all over the state of Texas and really, all over the world. It was a staple.
When I worked the nightclubs in the first part of the '60s, before I had my own records, songs like "Heartaches by the Number," "City Lights" and more of Ray's great songs, those were songs you had to know.
There's mountains and valleys in this business, but Ray had his second run in the '70s and '80s with "For the Good Times" and those great ballads that kept his streak going for so long. Johnny Cash used to say "there's nothing a hit record won't cure."
There were many things that Ray did. He had a full working ranch and he worked it all the time. He was a rancher and he liked fighting cocks, and one time he gave me a fighting cock as a gift — he put it on the seat of my tour bus, slammed the door and then just walked away, laughing.
I talked to Ray less than two weeks ago, when they brought him home from the hospital and took him off whatever they had him on. He was awful weak. I just told him, "I'm not gonna bug you. Here's the number — call me if you need anything. God bless you and I love you."
It's a great loss to the music world, but he suffered for a long time in the last few years, and I'm glad he's not suffering any more.
God bless all the Ray Price fans, and I'll just say I was glad to know that guy.
Merle Haggard is a two-time Grammy Award winner, multiple Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music Assn. award-winning singer and songwriter and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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