Singer reshaped country music
When a fan told Ray Price that he sounded like Hank Williams, the young country singer should have been thrilled. It was 1953, not long after Williams’ death, and Price had taken over fronting the revered musician’s band.
But Price did not take the comment as a compliment.
“A red light went off,” he recalled years later. “Going home that night, I told the boys, ‘I love the lot of you, but you sound like Hank.’”
Not satisfied to be merely a standard-bearer of honky tonk, he began to experiment by tinkering with rhythm and later even adding lush strings, reshaping country music with a vibrant new energy that continued long after the 1950s and ‘60s.
Price, 87, died of pancreatic cancer Monday at his home in Mount Pleasant, Texas. His death was announced by family spokesman Bill Mack.
Beyond his compellingly distinctive sound and wagonload of hit singles, “Ray Price created an era” is the way Williams’ steel guitarist, Don Helms, famously characterized Price’s contribution to country music.
That sound and era reached a pinnacle with Price’s 1956 hit “Crazy Arms,” a record so popular it topped the country charts for five months.
The song, written by Chuck Seals and Ralph Mooney, opens with the line “Now blue ain’t the word for the way that I feel.” But far from sounding dour or depressed, Price placed his crystalline tenor voice with the emotional crack atop an invigorating beat that got listeners on their feet and dancing in honky-tonks from coast to coast.
“The sound they had going at the time in country was a 2/4 sound with a double-stop fiddle,” he said, referring to the popular country beat that emphasized the second and fourth beats in each four-note measure. “I added drums to it and a 4/4 bass and shuffle rhythm and the single-string fiddle.
“I don’t know where it came from,” he said, “it’s just what I wanted. Everybody at the session thought it was the funniest thing they ever heard. They just thought it was strange. It was -- and it was on the charts for 45 weeks.”
The impact of the “Ray Price beat” is hard to underestimate.
“To this date,” Daniel Cooper wrote of Price in the “Encyclopedia of Country Music,” “the 4/4 shuffle is so deeply embedded in country music as to be second nature to many.”
“Crazy Arms” was by far the biggest hit of Price’s career, but it was just one of the more than 100 songs he placed on the country charts for nearly four decades, from 1952 through 1989.
Despite little airplay on mainstream country stations for the last quarter-century, Price toured regularly into his 80s. In 2007 he teamed up with Willie Nelson, who once played in Price’s band, and Merle Haggard for an album, “One of a Kind,” that helped introduce him to younger listeners and earned him his second Grammy Award.
The first Grammy came for his 1970 recording of “For the Good Times,” the Kris Kristofferson song that re-energized his career and jump-started a second wave of popularity for him, this time as a ballad crooner instead of the honky-tonk singer that first brought him fame.
“For the Good Times” also was named single and album of the year by the Academy of Country Music, and the following year the Country Music Assn. bestowed its album of the year award on Price’s “I Won’t Mention It Again” collection.
Ray Noble Price was born Jan. 12, 1926, in Perryville, Texas. When he was young, his parents split up. His father, a farmer, reared one son, and his mother took Price to live in Dallas.
Although his mother played piano, Price didn’t know about her musical leanings during his childhood.
“I never knew my mom played piano until I was nearly grown,” he said. “I can still recall when we were someplace during the Christmas holidays and she just sat down and began to play. Actually, it spooked me, because I’d lived with her so long and I never knew.”
Although he heard country music on the radio as a boy, he was more drawn to the music of Bing Crosby, the Ink Spots, Duke Ellington and other pop acts.
He quit high school at 17 and joined the Marine Corps, having lied about his age. He served three years during World War II, and after his discharge in 1946 he went to college on the G.I. Bill to study veterinary medicine.
Sharing housing provided for military veterans in Grand Prairie, Texas, he fell in with a group of veterans who also were musicians and often played at Roy’s House Cafe in Dallas. One night Price got up and sang a song with the band, an experience that sparked his calling in music.
In 1950, he recorded a single for the small Dallas-based Bullet Records label that went nowhere. Price also began singing regularly on the “Big D Jamboree” radio show, where his voice caught the ear of Troy Martin, a music publishing executive who worked for Peer-Southern Music and strongly recommended that Columbia Records sign him.
He landed a deal with Columbia and in 1951 recorded a song written by honky-tonk hero Lefty Frizzell, “If You’re Ever Lonely Darling,” which didn’t chart but paved the way for more releases, and by 1952 his name would appear twice in the country Top 10 with “Talk to Your Heart” and “Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes.” He also joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1952, in part because of lobbying on his behalf by Hank Williams.
Price went on to rack up 18 Top 10 hits in the 1950s, making him one of country music’s most successful performers. He put together his own band, the Cherokee Cowboys, the name reflecting the Native American part of his lineage.
The group became a breeding ground for noteworthy country musicians, with Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck, guitarist/drummer/singer Johnny Bush and steel guitarist Buddy Emmons among its many alumni.
Price also started his own music publishing business, Pamper Music, which quickly latched on to several young talents who would become some of country’s greatest songwriters, including Nelson, Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran.
Price recorded many of Cochran’s songs, including “Heartaches by the Number,” in addition to pitching them to other singers.
“They were down-to-earth,” Price told The Times after Cochran died in 2010. “They wasn’t accusatory kind of songs, they wasn’t drunken songs, they was just love songs. His songs fit me to a T, and I recorded a lot of them.... Everything was placed just right, and it wasn’t contrived. That’s something I don’t like, is a contrived song.”
In the ‘60s, Price began moving away from the hard-country sound he’d exploited so successfully, to the point where fans and some in the Nashville establishment suggested that he had turned his back on country with his smooth, orchestra-laden 1967 recording of “Danny Boy.”
“They tried to tell me I had left country music, which was a lie,” Price said in 2010. “They were just upset because I left Nashville.”
In fact, after nearly two decades living and working in the country music capital, he moved back to Texas, where he lived the rest of his life.
Hard feelings lingered in some quarters, which may have contributed to his delay in being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He wasn’t enshrined until 1996, after many younger performers had been welcomed in.
“I felt like [soap opera star] Susan Lucci,” he told an interviewer. “But really, I probably got in because Willie [Nelson] embarrassed them the year before when he got up onstage and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s about time to invite Ray Price?’”
Price continued recording albums, many released by the independent Step One label, while also tending to his 200-acre ranch in Mount Pleasant, a short distance from Perryville, where he grew up.
“People ask me how far I’ve gone in life,” he said. “About 20 miles.”
Price’s survivors include his wife, Janie, and a son, Cliff.
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