Born Ray Noble Price, January 12, 1926, in Perryville, TX; divorced first wife, 1968; married wife Jeanie, c. 1982. Education: Attended North Texas Agricultural College, 1946. Addresses: Record company-- Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
When Ray Price began recording in the early 1950s, he appeared to be the singularly anointed heir to Hank Williams's honky tonk throne. Yet Price, both innovative and fiercely independent, eventually evolved into the king of a style that came to be called "countrypolitan"--lush, carefully orchestrated, and well removed from the genre's lean and lonesome roots. Price was, in fact, much more than a competent honky tonk singer or country's first major artist to successfully employ intricate arrangements; he was, as music scribe Dave Marsh attested in the liner notes to The Essential Ray Price: 1951-1962, "an underrated honky tonk singer, possibly because he became such an exceptional balladeer."
Price was surely among country's most exacting singers. He was also a genius at selecting material, early on recording songs by time-proven stars like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bill Anderson, Mel Tillis, Jim Weatherly, Harlan Howard, and Roger Miller. Price's influence is felt to this day; the "Ray Price beat," a laconic shuffle used on such brilliant '50s honky tonk fare as "Crazy Arms" and "Release Me," is now the first word in country's rhythmic language.
Known as the "Cherokee Cowboy"--he was born in Cherokee County, Texas, on January 12, 1926--Price came to music after considering other vocational options. Though raised in Dallas, Price was introduced to farming, ranching, and animal husbandry while still a boy. He chose to study veterinary science at North Texas Agricultural College in Abilene before his education was interrupted by World War II. After serving with the Marines in the Pacific, Price returned to Abilene in 1946. Ranching would remain of vital interest to him throughout his life.
By 1947 Price was playing guitar and singing with various bands at sundry social functions. In 1948 he suspended his schooling to perform regularly on radio station KRBC's Hillbilly Circus in Abilene. Though still intent on ranching someday, in 1949 Price joined the prestigious Big D Jamboree in Dallas, sponsored by radio station KRLD. The program was eventually broadcast nationally by CBS, giving Price his initial mass exposure.
With the Nashville scene still in its infancy, Texas was the informal center of country music. One of the hot spots was Jim Beck's recording studio in Dallas, a facility visited consistently by stars such as Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman. Price began hanging around at Beck's and soon became friendly with Frizzell; he hastily contributed a song titled "Give Me More, More, More of Your Kisses" to one of Frizzell's 1950 sessions. After recording some undistinguished sides at Beck's--Price was still hard to separate from his heroes Hank Williams and Moon Mullican--he signed with the small Nashville label Bullet. His first record, "Jealous Lies," went nowhere.
Yet the Bullet recordings brought recognition: on March 15, 1951, Price signed a recording contract with the much larger Columbia label. Now socializing frequently with Frizzell, Price followed the older singer to Beaumont, Texas, where he met Hank Williams in the fall of 1951. Williams took Price under his wing, working shows with him and getting him a coveted spot on the Grand Ole Opry. In 1952 Price enjoyed his first hit, "Talk to Your Heart."
For a while Price even lived with Williams, worked with his band the Drifting Cowboys, and filled in for the troubled, self-destructive singer when he was unable to perform. Even after Williams's death, on New Year's Day, 1953, Price continued occasionally to front the Drifting Cowboys. But he longed for a sound closer to the western swing he first heard in east Texas, an exciting, less impassive style.
With that aim, Price formed the Cherokee Cowboys--three fiddles, bass, drums, guitar, piano, and steel guitar. By 1954 he was on his way to a fine collection of country hits. "Release Me" and the defiant "If You Don't Somebody Will" both reached the Top Ten. On March 1, 1956, just as Elvis Presley was shaking country music to its core, Price released the Ralph Mooney-penned "Crazy Arms." In addition to unveiling his trademark shuffle, "Crazy Arms" instituted the now-traditional second harmony on each chorus and the predominance of a single, linear fiddle line.
As Price later told Country Music' s John Morthland, "The sound they had going at the time in country was a 2-4 sound with a double stop fiddle. 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; 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."
Number One for 20 weeks, "Crazy Arms" is one of country's monumental recordings--as compelling coming across the airwaves as it was in an unlit roadhouse. In what would later seem a gentle irony, Price was then considered the hardened country traditionalist, ignoring pop's more sugary sentiments. With the death of Williams and the decline of Frizzell, Price and his rhythmically insistent songs of hurt and disappointment nearly singlehandedly kept the hard country torch aflame in the late 1950s.
Although Price had other hits in 1956, notably "Wasted Words" and "I've Got a New Heartache," country music itself was struggling in the wake of Elvis's rockabilly revolution. Price remained undaunted, refusing to sing rock and roll; indeed, the fiddles and pedal steel were even more prominent in his subsequent recordings. By the end of the '50s, Price's influence had become enormous.
In 1958 Price made a hit of the touching "Curtain in the Window" and Bill Anderson's great story of urban anonymity, "City Lights." A year later he was voted favorite male country vocalist in nearly all of the major music magazines. Price's own 1961 hit composition, "Soft Rain," was inspired by his grandfather's death. And by the early 1960s, the Cherokee Cowboys were a way station for a future who's who of country music: Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck played bass; Roger Miller at one point was the drummer; Hank Cochran played guitar; and Buddy Emmons was Price's longtime pedal steel player.
Price became a huge concert attraction and continued to enjoy hit records--Nelson's "Nightlife" was Number One in 1963--but his association with the Grand Ole Opry ended in 1964: he was dropped for not appearing the mandatory 26 weeks on the Opry stage. By the mid-1960s Price would leave Nashville, where he had taken up residence, for Texas, the result of divorce, the death of his father, and a controversial career direction.
After recording a 1957 gospel album with the Anita Kerr Singers, Price had begun seriously considering the use of orchestrated string arrangements with softer, more poignant material. "That got me on the track that people liked strings, so I began adding strings down through the years to certain songs," Price told Morthland. "I was experimenting, until I did 'Danny Boy.' That's when I went all out, and that's when it all hit the fan."
Truly, it was not until 1964's "Burning Memories" and a 1967 remake of the standard "Danny Boy" that the world would hear the new Ray Price sound; his vocal register lowered and subdued, the fiddles and pedal steel replaced by strings, Price made widely popular countrypolitan music that left longtime hard-country fans disgusted and feeling abandoned. Once considered Hank Williams's hand-picked successor, or at least George Jones's great honky tonk contemporary, Price was now lumped in with more conventional crossover stars like Eddy Arnold.
Still, much of this new Price material was emotionally moving. And it improved. In 1969 Price had major hits with Kris Kristofferson's tender lament, "For the Good Times," and Arnold's "Make the World Go Away." He charted his final Number One in 1973, with "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me." In 1974, after 23 years, Price left the Columbia label for ABC/Dot.
The late 1970s were uneven for Price, among the highlights a Hank Williams tribute album in 1976 and a Cherokee Cowboys reunion LP in 1977. Price moved to Monument in 1978, the label where Roy Orbison had created his dense, operatic singles. Price recorded some decent material with Monument--"Misty Morning Rain" and "Feet" were both hits. Throughout this period Price was also a highly successful rancher, donating his thoroughbreds to Texas A&M University in 1979.
By 1980 Price found it difficult to obtain a recording contract. Turning to his old sideman Willie Nelson--by then a superstar--Price recorded the superb San Antonio Rose, an album of duets. It was a stirring return to his old sound. Hits from that outing included a remake of Patsy Cline's "Faded Love" and "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me." In 1981 Price initiated the "Ray Price Country Starsearch," a contest that called for him to appear at the finals in all 50 states. In 1983 he performed "San Antonio Rose" for the soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood film Honky Tonk Man; he also portrayed a member of Bob Wills's legendary band the Texas Playboys.
Since the mid-1980s, Price has largely tended to his ranching concerns; he lives outside of Dallas with his wife, Jeanie. He has recorded pleasant, though uneven, albums with several labels, including Dimension, Viva, Warners, and Step One. After reconciling the mammoth contrasts in his influential career, Price had most recently re-signed with Columbia. Ray Price's long musical purpose has been informed by a stubborn self-reliance that found him updating hard country when it was questioning its own relevance, and then abandoning it altogether when he heard in his head a sound more compelling.
by Stewart Francke
Ray Price's Career
Played guitar and sang with various bands at social functions, mid-late 1940s; performed on radio shows Hillbilly Circus, KRBC, Abilene, TX, 1948, and Big D Jamboree, KRLD/CBS, Dallas, beginning in 1950; worked with Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys, early 1950s; signed to Bullet label, c. 1950; signed to Columbia Records, 1951; appeared on Grand Ole Opry, 1952-64; released single "Talk to Your Heart," 1952; formed Cherokee Cowboys, 1953; recorded gospel album with Anita Kerr Singers, 1974; signed with ABC/Dot, 1974; with Willie Nelson, recorded San Antonio Rose, 1980; recorded for various labels; re-signed with Columbia; rancher and sporadic concert performer, 1985--. Military service: U.S. Marines, World War II, Pacific Theater.
- Selective Works
- For the Good Times Columbia, 1970.
- (With Willie Nelson) San Antonio Rose Columbia, 1980.
- Happens to the Best Pair, 1986.
- The Honky Tonk Years (recorded 1951-1956), Rounder, 1986.
- Sometimes a Rose Step One, 1989, reissued, Columbia, 1992.
- The Essential Ray Price: 1951-1962 Columbia Legacy, 1991.
- Hits on Monument Monument, 1991.
- Greatest Hits (four volumes), Columbia.
- All Time Greatest Hits Columbia.
- Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A, University of Texas Press, 1984.
- Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin's, 1984.
- Periodicals Country Music, March 1976; September 1977; July 1980.
- The Journal of the American Academy for the Preservation of Old Time Country Music, Volume II, Number 5, October 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Dave Marsh to The Essential Ray Price: 1951-1962, Columbia Legacy, 1991.