Country Music Hall of Fame member Ray Price, one of country’s prime hitmakers from the 1950s through the 1970s, died Monday (Dec. 16) at his home in Mount Pleasant, Texas, following a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Whether moaning honky-tonk blues or purring an intimate love song, Ray Price set dauntingly high standards. To appreciate his musical reach, one had only to listen to his first hit, “Talk to Your Heart” (1952), move on to the earnest shuffle of “City Lights” (1958) and then consider his sonorous, lavishly orchestrated “For the Good Times” (1970).
Although Hank Williams, his friend and one-time roommate, was an early vocal influence, Price was marked just as deeply by the great crooners of his youth — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Perry Como.
Born Jan. 12, 1926, in Perryville, Texas, Noble Ray Price came of age in a world far less musically fragmented than it is now.
Radio was still the exciting media then, and even small stations boasted an inspiring mixture of locally-grown and network-carried sounds — everything from rural string bands to romantic pop warblers to symphony orchestras. Paving the way for Price in country music were the likes of Eddy Arnold, Red Foley and Tennessee Ernie Ford, middle-of-the-road crooners who regularly commuted between hillbilly and mainstream minstrelsy.
Price’s musical apprenticeship was brief. After serving in the Marines from 1944 to 1946, he enrolled at North Texas Agricultural College, intending to become a veterinarian. However, he began performing around campus and eventually dropped out of school. In 1948, he made his radio debut in Abilene, Texas, where he began billing himself as the Cherokee Cowboy.
The next year, he progressed to the Big D Jamboree in Dallas. After recording briefly for Dallas-based Bullet Records, Price signed to Columbia in 1951. While still in Texas, Price fell under the artistic sway of Hank Williams. In Nashville, the two became close friends and, for a while, roommates. After Williams died, Price temporarily hired his band, the Drifting Cowboys. Later editions of Price’s stellar bands included Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck.
To the degree that Price mimicked Williams’ style, he did it well. But he soon moved beyond it. The song that gave Price his own solid musical presence came in 1956. Sweeping in on a wave of fiddle and tears, “Crazy Arms” shot to No. 1 (Price’s first of eight visits to the top) and stayed there for 20 weeks. The next year, “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” crossed over to the pop charts. He would have nine more pop crossovers, the loftiest being “For the Good Times,” which went to No. 11 in 1971.
Price notched his second-most durable hit in 1958 with “City Lights,” a 13-week chart-topper. Although he routinely achieved Top 5 and Top 10 status throughout the 1960s, he did not reach No. 1 again during that decade. But as early as 1965, with “The Other Woman” and “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me,” Price showed he was already into his smooth ballad stage, a point he drove home in 1967 with a lush and dramatic version of “Danny Boy.”
“For the Good Times” re-energized Price’s career. Besides its crossover success, it earned him a Grammy for best country vocal performance and set him up for three more No. 1 singles: “I Won’t Mention It Again” (1971), “She’s Got to Be a Saint” (1972) and “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (1973). His last of 109 charted country singles came in 1989 with “Love Me Down to Size.”
Price was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996 at the age of 70. Still elegant and in superb voice, he greeted the millennial year of 2000 with the primarily pop album, Prisoner of Love. Run That by Me One More Time, a duets album with Nelson, was released in 2003.
In 2007, Price, Nelson and Merle Haggard released Last of the Breed, a two-disc project for Lost Highway Records, and conducted a brief tour under the same name.
During a November 2012 interview with the San Antonio Express-News newspaper, Price revealed he had be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At the time, he acknowledged he had been receiving chemotherapy for six months. The cancer was discovered while his gallbladder was being removed after a gall stone attack.
He was hospitalized several times during the past year, including being admitted in October for treatment of sepsis, a complication of an infection when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight the infection cause inflammation throughout the body.
Price was dismissed from the hospital and spent Thanksgiving Day at home. He was readmitted to the intensive care unit of East Texas Medical Center in Tyler, Texas, on Dec. 2.
Price’s family announced on Thursday (Dec. 12) that Price had opted for home hospice care rather than seek further treatment.