Merle Haggard can still remember the first time he heard Ray Price's voice come out of the radio, fronting Lefty Frizzell's band on "If You're Ever Lonely Darling" in 1951. And the memory of hearing "I'll Be There" for the first time in 1954 still makes him break out into song.
More than a decade later Haggard opened for Price on a 90-day run and the two formed a friendship that would last almost five decades. Haggard took time Tuesday to talk about his early influence and longtime friend, a day after his fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member passed away at 87 at his Texas home. Haggard says Price's music, and his independent spirit, were always inspirational.
"He was probably the first outlaw," Haggard said. "I think Willie (Nelson) will agree. He was out there fighting for what he believed and doing it his way, and being criticized and all that. I remember when he laid the guitar down and started hiring violin players and all that, and everybody thought he was crazy. Crazy like a fox. He knew what he was doing."
Known for his velvety baritone, Price helped usher in the honky-tonk era in the 1950s, then refuted that more rough and rockin' sound later, just as it was being embraced by the listening public in the 1970s.
"He brought country music to a different level I think," Haggard said. "He was laying pop music behind country songs and having success. He won an award for `For the Good Times.' A lot of people said, `What is Ray Price doing? He's got all those violins and things.' He held up that award and said, `This is what I've been trying to do.'"
Country singer and songwriter Bill Anderson said he got his first major success in country music when Price recorded his song "City Lights."
"He leaves behind an unequaled legacy," Anderson said in a statement. "From `City Lights,' where he sang about `a purty picture,' to the beautiful pop-styled ballads like `For The Good Times' and `Night Life,' this man has been one of the greatest singers the Good Lord ever allowed to roam this earth. And right on through his last performance, he maintained that unbelievable vocal quality and the undeniable styling of a true artist."
The country legend died Monday at his home in Texas after battling pancreatic cancer. Price's chart legacy is an impressive one. With 109 titles charted between 1952-89, Price's history on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart spans more than 37 years with 46 top 10 entries, eight of those reaching No. 1.