Singer-bandleader Ray Price, who crafted dozens of country hits ranging from the hardest honky-tonk to the lushest pop during a seven-decade career, has died. He was 87.
In November 2012, Price told the press he had been receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Originally an acolyte of his close friend and sometime housemate Hank Williams, whose band he would adopt as his own, Texas-born tenor Price developed his own style in the early ‘50s, drawing on the Western swing of his native region for inspiration.
Propelled by a powerful shuffle beat and backed by his flashy, fiddle-driven group the Cherokee Cowboys – whose personnel over time included future stars Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck – Price rode to the top of the charts with such dancefloor-packing classics as “Crazy Arms” and “Heartaches By the Number.”
However, in the late ‘60s, Price embraced the string-laden, chorale-drenched “Nashville Sound,” alienating many in his original audience with such florid yet highly successful ballads as “Danny Boy” and “For the Good Times.”
In later years, Price — who authored 109 chart singles, many of them self-penned — successfully reconciled the two sides of his performing personality as hardcore country singer and pop-skewed balladeer, and restated his honky-tonk credentials via an album and tour with his peers Nelson and Merle Haggard. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
He was born Jan. 12, 1926 in Perryville in Texas’ Cherokee County. Raised by his mother in Dallas, he was attending agricultural college in Arlington when he began singing semi-professionally. By 1948, he was performing on “Hillbilly Circus” on Abilene’s KBRC; a stint followed on “Big D Jamboree” on KRLD in Dallas, the Southwestern answer to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
An independent single issued by Nashville’s Bullet Records flopped, but Price attracted some attention as co-writer of honky-tonk star Lefty Frizzell’s “Give Me More, More, More of Your Kisses.” Frizzell’s A&R man Don Law signed Price to a Columbia Records contract in 1951.
During a trip to Nashville for an Opry guest shot later that year, Price was introduced to Hank Williams, then country’s biggest, and most dissolute, vocalist. Soon thereafter, Price cut “Weary Blues (From Waitin’),” a song custom-tailored for him by Williams; at the star’s behest, Price relocated to Nashville early in 1952.
For much of that year, Price toured with Williams as an opening act and aide-de-camp, witnessing first-hand the collapse of the star’s life and career due to profound drug and alcohol abuse. For a time, the two vocalists roomed together at Price’s house, prompting a falling-out between the two. After Williams’ sudden death on Jan. 1, 1953, Price employed the Drifting Cowboys as his touring band, and they appeared on several of his early singles.
Some of those records kickstarted Price’s career: “Talk to Your Heart” rose to No. 2 on the country charts in 1952, while a Williams-styled 1954 cover of Jimmy Heap’s ballad “Release Me” climbed to No. 6.
But, realizing that replicating Williams’ sound would only take him so far, Price refocused and personalized his approach in 1954, drafting the members of Houston band the Western Cherokees and renaming them the Cherokee Cowboys. Sporting bespangled uniforms from Nudie of Hollywood and sometimes full Indian headdresses, Price’s hot group – which included such instrumental stars as steel player Jimmy Day and fiddler Tommy Jackson — soon became one of country’s most prominent live attractions (though they were often supplanted in the studio by members of Nashville’s “A-Team” session unit).
Formulating an expansive style that built on Western swing king Bob Wills’ bluesy foundation, Price broke through in 1956 with a pair of punchy singles with soaring harmony vocals by guitarist Van Howard: the classic “Crazy Arms” (No. 1) and “I’ve Got a New Heartache” (No. 2). Other chart-toppers of the era included “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” (1957) and “City Lights” (1958); the latter single was backed with “Invitation to the Blues,” written by Price’s fiddler Roger Miller, on his way to stardom in his own right. Another No. 1 single, “The Same Old Me,” was released in 1959.
In 1961, Price recorded “San Antonio Rose,” an album-length tribute to Bob Wills; personnel on the LP included the well-traveled 28-year-old singer-guitarist Willie Nelson. Still on the verge of his own recording contract with RCA, Nelson – who was also a staff writer for Price’s publishing company Pamper Music — wrote the title track for Price’s moody 1963 album “Night Life.”
As the ‘60s progressed, Price’s work tilted increasingly toward balladry. He hit No. 2 in 1963 with a string-slathered version of Hank Cochran’s “Make the World Go Away,” which became a No. 1 smash in Eddy Arnold’s hands two years later. In 1967, he committed wholeheartedly to the countrypolitan style with a lavishly orchestrated No. 9 version of the Irish air “Danny Boy.”
Price disbanded the Cherokee Cowboys that year. On stage, his rhinestoned suit was replaced by a tuxedo, and fiddles were displaced by contracted string sections. A full-blown pop sensibility animated his No. 1 hits of the early ‘70s: a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” (which collected a 1971 Grammy Award for best male country vocal performance), “I Won’t Mention It Again,” “She’s Got to Be a Saint” and “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”
After leaving Columbia in 1974, Price recorded with diminishing commercial affect for Myrrh, ABC and Monument. He briefly returned to Columbia in 1980 for a second album titled “San Antonio Rose,” a duet session with Willie Nelson, then the biggest country star in the nation; “Faded Love,” a cover of the Bob Wills standard, reached No. 3.
Thereafter, Price recorded mainly for smaller independent labels like Dimension and Step One, frequently in a gospel mode, but toured behind a mix of his honky-tonk and pop hits. After a studio absence of nearly a decade, Price released the pop-skewed “Prisoner of Love” on the Texas indie Justice Records; it was succeeded two years later with “Time,” produced by former Monument Records chief Fred Foster for Koch Entertainment’s Audium imprint.
Price reunited with Nelson for a second duo album, “Run That By Me One More Time,” in 2003. Four years later, Price, Nelson and Merle Haggard joined forces on “Last of the Breed,” which spawned a Grammy-winning collaboration, a Price-Nelson duet on Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway.” The three country legends toured together extensively.
Price, who in later years lived on a farm outside Dallas, continued to play shows on his own into his late 80s, with his son Cliff serving as his opening act. Even as he underwent cancer treatment, he planned to record another album, “Love Songs.”
Other survivors include his wife Janie.