PRICE, NOBLE RAY [RAY]

Tony Wilson
Ray Price
Ray Price performs at Panther Hall in Fort Worth for a broadcast of Cowtown Jamboree, a popular Saturday evening country program on KTVT television in the 1960s. Price helped define the honky-tonk country sound of the 1950s and later enjoyed success with a more sophisticated lush Nashville sound of the 1960s. Photograph by Wayne Beckham, Panther Hall Collection, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.

PRICE, NOBLE RAY [RAY] (1926–2013). Ray Price, legendary country music singer and songwriter, was born on January 12, 1926, on a farm in eastern Wood County, Texas. He was the son of Walter Clifton Price and Clara Mae Bradley Cimini. When Price was a small child, his parents divorced, and his mother moved to Dallas. During his childhood, Price spent time between Dallas and the family farm, where he helped his father. Price's mother, who played the piano, and his stepfather were clothing designers and wanted him to enter the fashion design field but he was not interested. Music, however, had a far stronger attraction for Price, and he began singing and playing guitar in his teens.

In 1943 Price, at the age of seventeen, joined the United States Marines; he lied about his age. He served in the Pacific Theater. Following his discharge in 1946, he studied veterinary medicine at North Texas Agricultural College (now University of Texas at Arlington) on the G.I. Bill. While a student, Price met a group of veterans who were also musicians. They occasionally played at Roy's House Cafe in Dallas. One night Price got up and sang a song with the band and discovered his true vocation. He was having second thoughts about becoming a veterinarian and was regarded to be too small to work with large cattle and horses, a major part of a Texas veterinarian's practice. He continued to work on his father's ranch, but his vocal talent was attracting some attention, and he was invited to sing at functions in the Abilene area. Price was noticed by Abilene KRBC radio station and was booked to sing on its Hillbilly Circus program in 1948. He then joined the Big D Jamboree on Dallas's KRLD-AM in 1949. The show was picked up by the CBS radio network and gave Ray Price his first national exposure.

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Around this time, Price became friends with another Texas singer, Lefty Frizzell, also destined to become well-known in country music. They met at Jim Beck’s recording studio in Dallas. Price had begun writing songs, and Lefty Frizzell recorded Price's composition “Give Me More, More, More of Your Kisses.”  Price’s demos, cut at Beck’s studio, caught the attention of Bullet Records in Nashville, which resulted in Price signing his first recording contract. His first and only single for Bullet was “Jealous Lies,” released in 1950.

In 1951, on the recommendation of Peer-Southern Publishing's Troy Martin, he signed with Columbia Records in Nashville and released “If You're Ever Lonely Darling,” a song written by Lefty Frizzell. Success was slow coming at Columbia until Price met Hank Williams in the fall of 1951. Williams asked Price to tour with him, and they became friends and songwriting collaborators, co-writing, “Weary Blues (From Waiting),” which Price recorded. The song, though not a major hit, did fairly well for Price, and, encouraged by Williams, he moved to Nashville in January 1952 and joined the Grand Ole Opry, where Williams introduced Price on the Prince Albert segment of the prestigious radio show. Price rented a house on the corner of Natchez Trace and Westwood Drive in Nashville, and Williams moved in. However, Price eventually moved out amid Williams’s turbulent divorce from his wife Audrey. When touring with Williams, Ray Price would stand in for him and sing Williams's songs when the star of the show was incapacitated.

The last time Ray Price saw Hank Williams was in Dallas, just before Christmas. Price invited Williams to spend Christmas with him and his mother. “...but Hank said he wasn't certain what he was doing,” wrote Colin Escott in Hank Williams: The Biography. “They agreed to meet in Ohio right after their New Year's dates.”

“Me and Hank, when we met, it was an instant friendship,” Price told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in 2010. “You know, in an entire lifetime, you may come across just one or two people you instantly like. I lived with Hank during the last year of his life. He was about the only mentor I ever had.”  For a time, Price reflected a strong Williams influence in his singing but eventually found his own voice.

After Williams died, Price managed Williams's band, The Drifting Cowboys, for a while. In 1953 Price formed his own band, the Cherokee Cowboys, an aggregation especially notable for its alumni. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the band included, at various times, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Johnny Paycheck, Shorty Lavender, and fiddle player Buddy Spicher.

Ray Price acquired a business interest in the Pamper Music publishing company. Their house writers included Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson, and Hank Cochran and gave Price a ready source of potential recording material. Price’s 1958 release of “City Lights” was a hit and the big break for Bill Anderson, while his 1959 rendition of Harlan Howard’s “Heartaches by the Number” helped establish Howard’s career in Nashville.

Ray Price and Roger Miller met at a show in Amarillo in the 1960s. Price eventually hired Miller to replace singer Van Howard in the Cherokee Cowboys. Miller wrote the Ray Price classic “Invitation to the Blues” (1958) and sang harmony on the recording. Willie Nelson added to Price's burgeoning repertoire with “Night Life,” which Price bought from Nelson in 1960. Price recorded the song as the title track of his 1963 album Night Life. The song was a hit for Price, and he began using it as the opening song for his shows. Price noted in the album liner notes that the song was “especially” written for him by “a boy down Texas way.” The single reached Number 28 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles.

Price's prominence in country music, especially in the honky-tonk genre, was built on hits such as “Talk To Your Heart” (1952), “Crazy Arms” (1956), and “The Same Old Me" (1959). “Crazy Arms” was Price's first Number 1 hit and became a country standard. He was also becoming known for the “Ray Price Shuffle,” a 4/4 arrangement of a song with a walking bass line, heard on many of his recordings from the late 1950s onward, including his 1957 Number 1 hit, “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You.”

“I'd played a lot of dances,” Price recalled. “Sometimes when you're playing a lot, everyone will be dancing right in rhythm, so we'd just stop the music all of a sudden and you'd hear their feet shuffle. That kind of blew my head out. I went to the drummer and said, ‘Can you give me a shuffle beat?’ And it just worked out. Everyone picked up on it. I didn't have any idea what it would do, but it turned out. If there's one thing you can't take away from me, I've got that.” Price was also one of the earliest acts to bring a band with drums to the Grand Ole Opry.

In the mid-1960s Price gravitated to the “Nashville Sound,” and sang ballads using rich orchestral arrangements and vocal backings. Among his recordings from this period are the 1967 rendition of “Danny Boy,” and “For the Good Times” (1970). Written by Kris Kristofferson, the song became a crossover hit for Price and reached Number 11 on the pop charts. Price had three more Number 1 country music hits during the 1970s. These were “I Won't Mention It Again” (1971), “She's Got to Be a Saint” (1973), and “You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (1973). 

Ray Price had a phenomenal string of hit singles from the 1960s into the 1980s. These included “Make the World Go Away” (1963), “Please Talk to My Heart” (1964), “Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” (1965), “She Wears My Ring” (1968), “I'd Rather Be Sorry” (1971), “Like Old Times Again” (1974), “A  Mansion on a Hill” (1976), and “It Don't Hurt Me Half As Bad” (1981). Price's last major country hits were “Diamonds in the Stars” and “Forty and Fadin’,” both released in 1981.

Price also released some notable collaborations. In 1980 he recorded duets with Willie Nelson on “Faded Love” and “Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me,” for Price's San Antonio Rose album, and in 1982 he teamed up with Nelson and Roger Miller on “Old Friends,” a track for the album of the same name. Price joined famed Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble and the Texas Swing Band on “One Fiddle, Two Fiddle,” heard on the soundtrack of the movie Honky Tonk Man (1982). It was released as a single the same year, coupled with “San Antonio Rose.” Price also cut “A Whole Lot of You” and “She's In Paris” with Faron Young, for a 1991 album Memories That Last for Step One Records.

From the 1980s on, however, Ray Price's recordings were only getting into the lower reaches of the country Top 100. Like many seasoned Nashville veterans, he was being edged out by younger singers turning out pop-rock “country” recordings. Price had parted ways with Columbia in 1974. Unhappy with the trends in Nashville, he returned to his native Texas to live on his ranch near Mount Pleasant, northeast of Dallas, in Titus County. He continued to record, however, and cut albums with various labels including Myrrh, ABC/Dot, and Monument. Through the latter half of the 1980s, Price recorded for the Nashville independent Step One and in 1992 returned to Columbia for one album. Price recorded albums for Justice (Prisoner of Love, 2000) and Audium (Time, 2002) without much success. However, his album with Willie Nelson for Lost Highway Records, Run That by Me One More Time (2003), was his first album to appear on Billboard’s country album chart in about fifteen years. Songs on their album include Floyd Tillman's “I'll Keep on Loving You”; Bob Wills’s “Deep Water”; a Price original, “Soft Rain”; a Willie Nelson original, “I'm So Ashamed”; and two of Willie Nelson's that Price had previously turned into hits—“I Just Destroyed the World” and “I'm Still Not Over You.”

In 2007 Lost Highway released Last of the Breed with Price, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard. The two-disc set featured twenty country classics plus two new compositions and was Price's third album with Nelson and his first with Haggard. The album debuted on the U.S. Billboard 200 at Number 64 and sold about 13,000 copies in its first week. This album was Number 33 on Rolling Stone 's list of the Top 50 Albums of 2007.

The three then undertook a short U.S. tour in March of the same year. After the tour, Haggard remarked, “I told Willie when it was over, ‘That old man gave us a goddamn singing lesson.’ He really did. He just sang so good. He sat there with the mic against his chest. And me and Willie are all over the microphone trying to find it, and he found it.”

In all, Ray Price recorded more than 120 singles, including nine Number 1 hits, and he charted with seventeen B-sides from those singles. He cut more than fifty studio albums, and some ten compilation albums of his recordings have been released. “Price has demonstrated a versatile vocal style that consistently places him in the upper echelons of country music favorites,” noted author Bill Malone.

Ray Price won numerous industry awards. The Academy of Country Music voted “For the Good Times” the 1970 Album and Single of the Year, and in 1971 his recording of “For the Good Times” earned the Grammy for the Best Male Country Vocal Performance. The Country Music Association named I Won't Mention It Again the 1971 Album of the Year. His duet with Willie Nelson on “Lost Highway” off the Last of the Breed album won the 2008 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 1996. In 2001 he was an inductee into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.

On a personal note, Ray Price was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1999. In a 2008 interview in the Houston Chronicle, he said Willie Nelson called him and told him that he had just earned $5 million in free publicity with the drug bust.

Price made two TV appearances in 2009 on the FOX-TV show Huckabee. The first was with the Cherokee Cowboys and host Mike Huckabee playing bass guitar. Price sang “Crazy Arms” and “Heartaches by the Number.” A few weeks later on the same show, he joined the Cherokee Cowboys and Willie Nelson, again with Huckabee on bass guitar, and performed duets on “Faded Love” and “Crazy.”

On November 6, 2012, Price announced that he was fighting pancreatic cancer and that he had been receiving chemotherapy for the previous six months. In February 2013 the cancer appeared to be in remission, then Price was hospitalized in May 2013 with severe dehydration. On December 2, 2013, he entered a hospital in Tyler, Texas, then left on December 12 to return to his ranch for home hospice care. Ray Price died at his home in Mount Pleasant, Texas, on December 16, 2013, and was interred at Restland Memorial Park in Dallas.

Ray Price married twice. He and his first wife divorced in the late 1960s. Price married his second wife Janie Phillips on June 11, 1970, and they remained together until his death. He is survived by a son, Clifton Ray Price, from his first marriage.

Beauty Is…The Final Sessions, Price's last album, released in April 2014 by AmeriMonte, was a collection of primarily love songs dedicated to his wife. He had completed his studio work in October 2013 and commented, “I think it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever recorded.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Daniel Cooper, “Ray Price,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (http://countrymusichalloffame.org/Inductees/InducteeDetail/ray-price) accessed March 20, 2014. Patrick Doyle, “Ray Price Dead at 87: Country Star Loses Cancer Battle,” Rolling Stone, December 16, 2013 (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/ray-price-dead-at-87-country-star-loses-cancer-battle-20131216), accessed February 9, 2016. Colin Escott with George Merritt and William MacEwen, Hank Williams: The Biography (New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994; rev. ed. Back Bay Books, 2004). Houston Chronicle, March 2, 2008. Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, July 16, 2010. Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). Restland Funeral Home and Cemetery (http://restland.tributes.com/our_obituaries/Noble-Ray-Price-97368811) accessed March 14, 2014.  

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Handbook of Texas Online, Tony Wilson, "Price, Noble Ray [Ray] ," accessed May 26, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpr51.

Uploaded on March 23, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.