Ray Price, trend-setting country singer and mentor, dies at 87

December 16, 2013

Ray Price, a Hall of Fame singer regarded as one of country music’s rebel talents for his trend-setting shuffle beat and his Vegas-style balladry and for nurturing the career of an aspiring songwriter named Willie Nelson, died Dec. 16 at his ranch outside Mount Pleasant, Tex. He was 87.

Billy Mack Jr. confirmed the death to the Associated Press. Mack, a family friend, told the news agency that he was acting as a family spokesman.

The wife of Tom Perryman, a family friend and spokesman who is a disc jockey with KKUS-FM in Tyler, Tex., also confirmed his death. Mr. Price had pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Price spent his early career copying his mentor, the singer Hank Williams. He substituted when Williams went missing or was too drunk to perform and took over Williams’s band, the Drifting Cowboys, after Williams’s death in 1953.

When a fan told him that he was sounding “more like Hank every day,” Mr. Price grew alarmed and left the band to develop a more individual sound. “I was never afraid to take a chance,” Mr. Price later said. “I’d rather be sorry for something I’ve done than something I didn’t do.”


Ray Price’s pioneering shuffle beat in the 1950s influenced honky-tonk artists. (AP)

His style evolved from his own wide-ranging tastes — saloon singer Tony Bennett, the western swing of Bob Wills and even opera, which he had been weaned on as a child. Leaving Williams’s bluesy twang behind, Mr. Price’s tenor alternately caressed and belted a lyric and often finished with a vibrato-laden crescendo.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Price added a driving shuffle-drum beat and a walking style of bass associated with jazz and blues to honky-tonk country. The rhythm, clearly aimed at the dance floor, helped country music maintain its popularity during the rock-and-roll onslaught.

The “Ray Price shuffle,” as it came to be known, was first heard on his 1956 recording “Crazy Arms.” The single knocked Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” from its No. 1 position on the country charts and was later entered in the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame. Other honky-tonk singers such as George Jones, Faron Young and Buck Owens quickly adopted the new style.

Mr. Price’s touring band, the Cherokee Cowboys, performed in outrageous western suits, often with elaborate Indian headdresses and the image of an Indian engraved on the bibs.

The band also served as an incubator for Nashville talent. Singers Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall, Johnny Paycheck, Roger Miller and perhaps most notably, Nelson, all toured as Cherokee Cowboys early in their careers. Nelson and Miller also worked as contract songwriters for Mr. Price’s publishing firm, Pamper Music. Nelson joined the band as a bass player when he was still primarily a songwriter.

“I took Willie out on the road as my bass player, and after a few gigs, he said, ‘I bet you didn’t know I’d never played the bass before,’ ” Mr. Price once told the Austin American-Statesman. “I said, ‘I knew the first night.’ ”

If he joked about Nelson’s bass playing, he didn’t worry about the other instrumentalists. Pedal steel guitarists Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons, fiddlers Tommy Jackson and Buddy Spicher and guitarist Pete Wade all became in-demand studio musicians.

Mr. Price recorded several Nelson compositions, including the bluesy “Night Life” (1962), with pedal steel guitarist Emmons’s memorable saxophone-like solo and Mr. Price’s highly emotional delivery. “Night Life” also was the title track for an early concept album in which individual songs share a common theme — in this case, the loneliness felt by those who spend their lives in barrooms.

Although they were kindred spirits musically, the relationship between Nelson and Mr. Price was frequently contentious. Mr. Price once brought a prized fighting rooster to Nelson’s barnyard, where it could be cock of the walk among Nelson’s hens. Instead, the rooster killed two hens. And when Mr. Price didn’t come by promptly to pick up the bird, Nelson took his shotgun and killed it.

“I called Ray and told him what I’d done,” Nelson recalled in his memoir. “I think everything Ray was trying to say kind of got clogged up in his throat. Finally, he said he would never record another of my songs for doing that.”

By the late 1970s, the two had clearly patched things up. They collaborated several times, including two albums of duets (“San Antonio Rose” in 1980 and “Run That By Me One More Time” in 2003). They also toured in 2007 and recorded with fellow country performer Merle Haggard, collectively billed as “The Last of the Breed.”

In The Washington Post, reviewer Chris Klimek wrote of the Last of the Breed concert at the Merriweather Post Pavilion that “the real surprise was Price’s supple-but-authoritative baritone, weirdly undimmed by age. The expressive, controlled delivery Ray practices is a dying art, and the fact that he can still do it seems miraculous.”

Mr. Price reached the country charts more than 90 times between 1952 and 1989, including at least eight No. 1 hits. Among his signature recordings were “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” (1957), “Heartaches by the Number” (1959), “City Lights” (1958), “Burning Memories” (1964) and “Release Me” (1954), later a pop hit for Englebert Humperdink.

Mr. Price made a dramatic change in 1966 with a lushly orchestrated version of the Irish pop standard “Danny Boy.” Although singers such as Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold had added orchestral strings and choirs to country music — Nashville later termed the style “countrypolitan” — Mr. Price’s efforts took awhile to catch on with the public, and he was criticized for going too pop.

“It almost destroyed me,” he later told The Post. “A few fans even spit on me. That was fun. But now of course everybody uses strings and not a one of those disc jockeys says a thing about it.”

The new approach paid off handsomely in 1970 with the Kris Kristofferson song “For the Good Times.” The song dealt frankly with a last tryst during — or perhaps after — a breakup. Mr. Price gave it an unusually gentle reading well-suited to its intimate theme. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard country charts and secured Mr. Price even wider exposure after an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. Country music historian Rich Kienzle called him “one of the pioneering contrarians of country music.”

“Price had a charisma, a boldness about him,” Kienzle said. “He took a very basic Texas sound and put something out on the stage that was phenomenal.”

Mr. Price was born Jan. 12, 1926, in Perryville, Tex., and raised mostly in Dallas. His parents divorced when he was a child, and he credited his stepfather, an Italian clothier, with immersing him in opera.

“I got familiar with the operas when I was young, and later on I studied voice for eight years, not to sing country but to sing opera,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I just didn’t have the desire or body for it. I was always slim. But I don’t see the difference in the songs. You can either sing a song or you can’t.”

After Marine Corps service in the Pacific during World War II, Mr. Price’s interest in country music was whetted when he heard a live broadcast by Hank Williams. He started performing with a trio on a Dallas radio show, the Big D Jamboree, and made his first record, “Jealous Lies,” in 1950.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Although he briefly retired in the late 1980s, Mr. Price resumed touring and mixed his honky-tonk and Vegas-balladry in equal measure. The engagements continued even after doctors treated him for an aneurysm in 2001.

“I tried retirement once, for about four or five years, and I don’t want it anymore. I thought I was ill all the time,” he told the San Antonio News-Express. “I just sat around afraid to move, thinking I was dying. I went to a lot of doctors, and finally one told me I was borderline diabetic.”

“I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to go out, I’ll go out singing.’ ”

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