Monday, December 16, 2013
Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price died
His music will live on.
Ray Price, among country music’s most iconic crooners, has died at the age of 87 — just one day after Rolling Stone, USA Today, CMT and others prematurely buried the Perryville-born Adamson High School graduate.
The Country Music Hall of Famer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2011, and spent months in and out of the East Texas Medical Center in Tyler. But the cancer spread to his liver, lungs and intestines, and on December 12 Price returned to his Mount Pleasant home to receive hospice care. Wife Janie had been by his side ever since, holding his hand while the singer of “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms,” “For the Good Times” and other jukebox immortals began “fading rapidly,” in the words of Fort Worth country-radio icon Bill Mack, who is serving as the family’s spokesman.
According to Mack, Price “left for heaven” at 4:43 p.m. today.
“He went in perfect peace,” says Mack. “Janie is grateful for the concern and love and prayers from the people. And, personally, I’ve never received more emails and Facebook messages than I have in the last few days.”
Services will be held at Restland Funeral Home and Cemetery in Dallas.
Price’s death comes eight months after George Jones — a “Texas contemporary,” in the words of Country Music, U.S.A. author Bill C. Malone — succumbed to hypoxic respiratory failure. As critic Michael Corcoran noted over the weekend, “If George Jones was the Frank Sinatra of country music, Ray Price was its Tony Bennett.” But all Price ever wanted to be was Hank Williams, as evidenced by his earliest singles on the Bullet Records label.
He was born January 12, 1926 in Perryville, about 100 miles east of Dallas near Winnsboro. But when he was 4 years old, he moved to Dallas, where his mother lived with her second husband. He lived on the farm with his father in the summer, then came back here during the rest of the year. He graduated from Adamson High School, briefly served in the Marines, heard Hank Williams on the radio some time around 1947, hit the dance-hall circuit a year after that, then enrolled at North Texas Agricultural College, where Price thought of becoming a veterinarian — until he dropped out in ’49.
Shortly after that, Price hooked up with producer Jim Beck, whose studio was on Ross Avenue. At the time, Beck was country’s up-and-coming record-maker, having cut “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” with Lefty Frizzell, which Beck co-wrote. He introduced Price to the folks at Nashville’s Bullet Records, which was stocked with Texas-born country singers, and the label released his first single, “Jealous Lies”/”Your Wedding Corsage,” which stalled somewhere between hither and yon on the country charts.
Price spent most of 1949 and ’50 playing the big bills at the Big “D” Jamboree at the Sportatorium, then finally caught a break in 1951 when he started a slow dance with Columbia Records. That’s also when he met his idol in the street outside a Nashville radio station, and Price and Hank Williams in short order became close friends — roommates, even, when Hank and wife Audrey split. They wrote a song together, “Weary Blues (From Waiting),” which both men recorded in 1951. It wasn’t the hit Williams had hoped for, and Price came back home.
But Williams didn’t give up on Price, and in January 1952 he helped land the Texan a spot on the Grand Ole Opry — the break of a lifetime that led Price to Nashville, where he and Williams shared living quarters and even a band, the Drifting Cowboys. It’s little wonder Price’s earliest records sound almost like echoes of Williams’ so-lonesome, tear-in-my-beer twang.
He found his own sound courtesy of a steel guitar player from California named Ralph Mooney, who co-wrote a little something called “Crazy Arms,” which became a chart-topper for Price in ’56 and ended up being recorded by just about everyone who ever walked across a wooden stage wearing boots. Said Mooney, who died in 2011, “I would starve to death if it wasn’t for those royalty checks.”
“Crazy Arms” wasn’t just a big hit, but country’s salvation, wrote Malone in his country-music history: ”a refreshing reassertion of hard-core country music at a time of rockabilly ascendancy.” And, notes Malone, for Price it was just the breakthrough he needed, serving as “a vehicle for the introduction of Price’s shuffle-beat sound into country music.”
“I always thought of myself as a rebel,” Price told The Dallas Morning News in 1979. “Back in 1957 when I added strings, everyone thought I was crazy.”
“Crazy Arms” spent 20 weeks at No. 1 on the country charts, where Price became a 4/4-shuffle fixture for years. He brought Bob Wills’ fiddle into the future while slowly, surely moving toward a pop-radio sound; Price was NashVegas before it was cool. And he, like Williams, knew talent: Roger Miller, Johnny Bush and Johnny Paycheck did their time in Price’s band, the Cherokee Cowboys, and no less than Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran and wrote for his publishing company. Nelson even played bass for Price’s band at $50 a gig — long after “Night Life” started earning the kid from Abbott thousands in royalties.
But as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, Price started moving far, far away from traditional country; and by 1964 he was recording with strings and choirs. Then came the final straw for traditionalists: In 1967 he recorded “Danny Boy” with a massive orchestra. Years later he said he recorded it “because the jocks wanted it,” and Price would later insist it was part of his effort to shake off categories and stretch his muscles.
“You can’t label everything,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 1972, when he agreed to perform at a benefit concert for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “I recorded with 50 pieces. I had a 28-piece orchestras for accompaniment on record, night club and concert dates. I used strings from the Nashville Symphony for my Faith album, starting a new trend in country music.”
Price remained a chart fixture until 1989 — an almost mythological run that included 1970′s No. 1 “For the Good Times,” which was written by Kris Kristofferson and eventually recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Al Green to Elvis Presley. In 1974, though, he was dropped by Columbia Records and moved back home, where he even rekindled a relationship with his former university — which has been rechristened the University of Texas at Arlington, where, in 1979, Price was appointed the honorary chair of the annual alumni fund campaign.
Yet despite his myriad chart-toppers, Price wouldn’t be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 1996. And “many noted that the honor was long overdue,” says the Hall of Fame’s own entry on Price, which goes on to call him one of “country’s great innovators.” Price, of course, never saw it that way.
“I just like what I’ve done and how it’s worked out,” he told Rolling Stone just days ago. “It’s been great. … I haven’t lost my voice, thank God for that.”