RAY PRICE (1926-2013)
One night back in 2007, as gossip about the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith’s newborn daughter buzzed throughout the media, listeners filled the Grand Ole Opry House, hoping to escape for a few hours of great Country Music from three musical giants: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price, on their epic “Last of the Breed Tour.”
One by one, each introduced himself. Then the last of the three stepped forward and spoke in that graceful timbre that had been his hallmark for more than half a century. “My name is Ray Price,” he intoned, triggering warm applause. A pause … and then, “I’m 81 years old.” The audience responded even more enthusiastically. And finally, after another short silence, he confessed, to tumultuous laughter, “And I am not the father of Anna Nicole’s baby.”
Dignity tempered by humor: That was one attribute of Price’s demeanor onstage. But what earned him admission to CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996 was even more important: a voice and a willingness to take chances that inspired and elevated everyone in Country Music.
Raised in Dallas, Price served as a United States Marine in the Pacific theater during World War II. He began gigging locally after his discharge in 1946, eventually leaving North Texas Agricultural College in Abilene to perform full-time. He cut his first tracks in 1951, signed with Columbia Records and lofted a single, “Talk to Your Heart,” to No. 3 in 1952.
Relocated to Nashville, Price befriended Hank Williams, who arranged the young Texans’ Opry debut, wrote him a hit song titled “Weary Blues” and took him in as a housemate. He also strongly influenced Price’s formative style, so much so that when Williams died in 1953, Price took his place as front man for the Drifting Cowboys.
Soon, Price began sculpting his own sound, and not just vocally. He added a drum kit to his band, the Cherokee Cowboys, which helped create the rhythm pattern now known as the Ray Price Beat. The world heard it on “Crazy Arms” in 1956, which topped the Country charts for 20 weeks and implanted the four-beat shuffle throughout Country Music. Blessed with an ear for young talent, Price mentored many future stars who passed through his group, including Johnny Bush, Buddy Emmons, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and his future tour partner, Willie Nelson.
In the 1960s, he passed another milestone by adding lush string arrangements to his performances. From “Make the World Go Away” and “Burning Memories” to “Danny Boy,” released in 1967 and buffeted by 47 strings, Price became the exemplar of orchestral Country. Only he could have maintained this polished approach while also championing Nashville’s brilliant new writing talent, Kris Kristofferson, on another No. 1 single, “For the Good Times.”
(Price had already played pivotal roles in spotting songwriting legends-to-be. His recording of “City Lights” helped put Bill Anderson on the map in 1958. And Harlan Howard was still driving a fork lift when Price turned his “Heartaches by the Number” into a hit in 1959.)
From 1956 through 1966, Price sent 23 singles into the Top 10. As late as 1973, he scored three No. 1s: “I Won’t Mention It Again,” “She’s Got to Be a Saint” and “You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.” Even in 1981, he reached the Top 10 twice, with “Diamonds in the Stars” and “It Don’t Hurt Me Half as Bad.”
Until recently, Price was still doing about 100 shows each year on the road, in addition to dates at his own theater in Branson, Mo. He had to cancel dates there in May and June due to kidney stones. In fragile health, he succumbed to pancreatic cancer Dec.16, 2013 in Mt. Pleasant, Texas . He was 87 years old.
“We have lost one of the best vocalists in the business and a class act as well,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA CEO. “Ray’s smooth baritone on classics like ‘For the Good Times’ and ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me’ are Country classics for all time. He will be missed not only by generations of fans, but also by the many Country artists he has inspired and influenced.”
“More than one of the greatest singers in the history of our format, Ray Price spearheaded the evolution of Country Music through several eras,” said Ed Hardy, President of the CMA Board of Directors. “I spent many enjoyable hours listening to Ray Price’s music in my early days as a Country fan. In recent years, I felt honored and privileged to have spent time with him backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and will treasure those moments. Country Music will never forget our beloved Cherokee Cowboy and our prayers extend to his wife Janie, his family, and his numerous fans around the world.”
photos: CMA Archives