Ray Price, Country Music Legend, Dead at 87

Ray Price in front of the famed WSM microphone which is home to the Grand Ole Opry weekly country music stage concert in Nashville, Tennessee that has presented the biggest stars of country since 1925.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price, one of country music’s towering icons and a singer’s singer, died Monday at the age of 87. Price recently entered hospice after hospitalization in Texas and had been fighting a battle against pancreatic cancer since late last year. On Thursday (Dec. 12), the singer left a message to fans: "I am at peace. I love Jesus. I'm going to be just fine. Don't worry about me. I'll see you again one day."

Ray Price's 37-Year Run on the Billboard Charts: 46 Top Tens, Eight No. 1's

The news was delivered by Bill Mack, a country music radio veteran who has been acting as the family's spokesperson, who posted the following on his Facebook page after speaking with Janie Price, Ray Price's wife. "Janie just called me: Ray Price left for heaven at 4:43 p.m. central time. He went in perfect peace. Details later. Janie and the family so grateful for your prayers. Ray's body will be received at Restland Funeral Home in Dallas."

Price’s career of more than 60 years outlasted country trends, millions of miles of touring, and an often contentious relationship with the country music establishment.

With 109 titles charted between 1952-89, Ray 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.

"Ray Price was a great singer and a good friend, and most likely he best country singer who ever lived. He hired me to write songs, and I played bass and opened for him in 1961," Willie Nelson told Billboard.

"Ray Price is one of true pioneers of country music," country icon John Anderson told Billboard. "Not only one of the greatest vocalists, but one of the greatest stylists. We're all going to really miss Ray Price. He maintained integrity and never sold out."

The singer was born to hard times on Jan. 12, 1926, in Peach, Texas (though many accounts say Perryville, Price confirmed Peach is on his birth certificate), and lived in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, just 25 miles from where he grew up, since 1980.

In the late 1940s, Price, who served in the Marine Corps, began singing at Dallas clubs and on the radio while attending school on the G.I. Bill. It was in Dallas that Price recorded his first songs, for Bullet Records. “At Jim Beck’s recording studio in Dallas I recorded ‘Your Wedding Corsage’ and ‘Jealous Lies,’ and that was pretty much the end of my career with that record company,” Price said in an interview for an as-yet unpublished autobiography he had been working on with this reporter.

Price began touring with Lefty Frizzell, then a Columbia artist, which led the label’s legendary producer Don Law signing Price to Columbia on March 15, 1951. Price had nothing but praise for Law, whom he called the greatest producer he ever worked with. “[Law] never came out and tried to tell me how to sing,” Price recalled. “That was his whole secret, why he was so successful. He let the artist be himself, and didn’t try to put himself on the record instead of the artist.”

Hank Williams left with Ray Price.

Price said he didn’t have much of a “style” in the early days. “My style came on later down the road from singing in the joints and learning things,” he said. “At one point, I got to sounding too much like Hank Williams from singing with his band, but I quit doing that when a guy came up to me and said ‘you’re doing great, you sound just like Hank.’”

Price enjoyed a deep friendship with Williams, beginning when Price played on Williams’ Friday Night Frolics on WSM at Williams’ request. “Hank and I became instant friends,” Price said, relating how he and Williams wrote “Weary Blues (From Waiting)” on the way to a show early in their friendship.

“Hank called me on Thanksgiving in 1951,” Price told this writer. “I was working in Marshall, Texas, and the guy there told me, ‘hey, Hank Williams wants to talk to you.’ I thought, ‘what the hell?’ So I pick up the phone and Hank says, ‘where in the hell are you, I’ve been looking all over the damn state for you?’ I said, ‘I’m in Marshall, Texas,’ he laughed and said, ‘I’m doing the Prince Albert show [on the Opry] and I want you to be my guest.’ Actually, it blew my mind out. I’d never even had a hit, and here I was talking to the top dog in the business. I said, “you bet.” I left that night. I was driving a nasty '49 Buick Roadmaster convertible so fast I slung the rubber off all four tires. I had to stop in Memphis and buy a new set of tires. But I got there.”

Price briefly shared a house with Williams during one of the latter’s break-ups with then-wife Audrey Williams. Of Williams, Price said, “He was a great friend and I was awful sad when he died.” After Williams’ death, Price first toured with Williams’ Drifting Cowboys band, then the Western Cherokees, later morphing into the Cherokee Cowboys, which he called his band for the rest of his career.

Price first major impact on country music came with “Crazy Arms” in 1956 and the innovation of what became known as the Ray Price Shuffle Beat. Of that legendary session, Price said, “We doubled the 4/4 standup bass with the electric bass guitar played by Harold Bradley, and both of ‘em played the same note, and because of the combination of the two, it cut right for the first time,” Price said. “And that’s where all that shuffle stuff started, that night. Maybe I caught on to it at the dances, watching people’s feet shuffle when they danced. But that’s what we come up with for ‘Crazy Arms.’”

Price changed the shape of country music again a decade later with “Danny Boy,” the Irish standard, which Price cut with strings and a smooth pop arrangement.  “I asked [then Columbia exec] Clive Davis, ‘if you’ll let me do the song the way I want to do it, I promise you a No. 1 hit,’” Price recalled. “Clive looked at me like I was an idiot, because you just didn’t do that. But I was doing so good for him, he told me go on and do it.”

The late Cam Mullins was the arranger on “Danny Boy” and several Price hits in that vein that followed, including the Kris Kristofferson-penned smash “For the Good Times.” But the move toward that sound caused Price problems with the country music establishment, which accused him of “going pop,” a criticism that stung.

“When I added the strings I was thinking it would broaden country music. But country music was kind of clannish, and with ‘Danny Boy’ I went outside the clan,” Price said. “Let’s face it: most of the country radio station owners had wives in bridge clubs ashamed that their husbands had country radio stations. So you put strings in it and it makes it a sweeter song, more like a pop song. But it ain’t pop, it’s still a country song, it’s just sweeter, you hear the music for a change. So, in my opinion, it lifted it up. It’s just my music. I’m just using the best of both fields, and I felt like if you could combine it, it would work. And the people that fussed at me in the beginning ended up using strings themselves.”

Price added, “I’m no musical genius. I don’t read enough music to hurt me. Not a lot of musicians or singers read music. I never set out to be anything other than a country singer, but that don’t mean I can’t take it in another direction.”

The singer’s version of “For the Good Times” is perhaps his definitive hit. Price said when he first played the song for his band, “I got the very reaction I wanted, they didn’t like it. If a musician likes a song, it’s dead. But I predicted it would be a hit, and I went back to Nashville and we got it together, and, by God, it was. I won a lot of awards for that song, and getting awards was important, sure. It meant that they thought I was doing good, or somebody did, and it made me feel good, that what I was doing was right. It wasn't an ego thing.”

The singer was also known for having a great eye for talent, with Johnny Paycheck (then known as Donnie Young), Roger Miller, and Willie Nelson all having done stints in Price’s band. Nelson was Price’s closest friend in the business and at one time was signed to Price’s publishing company, Pamper music. “Willie’s a tremendous entertainer, as far as I’m concerned, a real dedicated person, a hard worker,” Price said. “Willie Nelson and I have been friends, and I mean true friends—sometimes you think people are friends, but they’re not—for a long time.”

In his later years, Price became disillusioned with the music business. “I’ve learned to distrust record companies in general,” he said. “They’re gonna give you the lowest royalty rate they can give you and do the least they can for you, and just wad you up and throw you against the wall to see if it sticks. And if you stick, then they'll pay a little more attention to you. And every time, it gets stickin' better and better, then when you hit with the big one, they can't do enough for you. But if you miss the next one, you're gonna be out.”

Price’s most recent album was "Last of the Breed" with fellow legends Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, released in 2006 to critical acclaim. The artist continued to tour as long as his health allowed, playing to packed houses, his vocal prowess intact.

“I guess when you look at it, I have had an amazing career, really,” Price said. “I'm afraid to say I'm doing something special, because I don't know if that's true or not. Somebody's gotta do it, somebody's gotta sing good music now, damn it, there just has to be somebody. You can't just lose all the beauty.”