By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Discharged almost three years later as World War II wound down, Price returned to Dallas to graduate from Adamson High School and enroll in Arlington's North Texas Agricultural College, older, wiser, and determined to become a veterinarian. However, when a group of fellow students attending school on the GI Bill encouraged him to become a singer in a small band they had assembled, he quickly agreed. His versions of popular tunes by such recording stars of the time as Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and the Ink Spots drew good crowds to a hole-in-the-wall Dallas nightclub called Roy's House Café.
"It was fun," he says, "but I never had any thoughts of trying to earn a living in the music business. But there was this guy who lived next door to me in the old Naval barracks in Grand Prairie. He was our guitar player and was always writing country songs, and asked me if I'd go down to this little studio in Dallas and sing a couple of them for a demo record he wanted to make.
"The first studio we went to was too busy to mess with us, and it was suggested we try some little place over on Ross Avenue. When we got there, Hank Thompson was recording some songs for a radio show called Early Morning Sunshine." Thompson stayed around to listen to Price and asked if he could return the following day.
The purpose of the meeting was for the young Price to meet the owner of a regional record label who arrived with contract in hand. On that day in 1949, Ray Noble Price signed with Nashville-based Bullet Records and forever put aside his dream of tending to the ills of animals. Soon he had recorded "Jealous Lies" and "Your Wedding Corsage," was performing regularly on Dallas' Big "D" Jamboree, and was headed out to the honky-tonks of America.
"To get a start in the business back then, you played one dark, foul-smelling honky-tonk after another," Price says. "Four hours of smoke-filled rooms where people never really came to hear you sing. They were there to get drunk, raise hell, and find somebody to shack up with for the night. Willie [Nelson] loves to tell stories about those days when he played the bucket-of-blood joints out on the Jacksboro Highway in Fort Worth. To protect the band from getting hurt by flying beer bottles, they put up chicken wire in front of the stage. The more upscale places had a few rules: Drinks were served only in paper cups and the ashtrays were disposable, made of tinfoil. The idea was to cut down on the skull fractures.
"We all played those places, but I never liked them."
Too, someone was always trying to cheat you out of your wages. "Everybody who owned a beer joint viewed himself as a promoter and had every way in the world to screw you out of your money. Some of them would try to sneak a line into your contract that said if you showed up 30 minutes late, you had to go on and do the show but wouldn't get paid. And more often than not, those who did pay did so with a check that bounced sky high.
"If they didn't draw a crowd, it was your fault, never theirs. There was this one ol' boy who owned a joint down in Bandera, and couldn't get a crowd to watch a piss ant eat a bale of hay. Never spent a dime on promotion but he never blamed himself when nobody came out. His way of dealing with the problem was simply to say that he'd not made any money so he wasn't going to pay you. The only people who ever got paid by him were those who sued his ass. And I'm proud to say I did. More than once."
Such was the dues-paying process of a man who would quickly climb from country music's hoot-and-holler hell to become one of the genre's best-selling performers. By the mid-'50s he'd moved to Columbia Records and was a regular on the Billboard charts. In 1956, he made his first leap to No. 1 with the platinum-selling "Crazy Arms," which knocked a newcomer named Elvis Presley from the coveted perch and remained there for a record-setting 45 weeks. By the time the Kris Kristofferson-authored "For The Good Times" was released and sailed to No. 1 in 1970, no less than 51 Ray Price recordings had appeared on the charts. Thirty-two more were to follow. Eight times, he would be named the industry's premier performer.
And along the way, he met and helped launch the careers of country music's Who's Who.
Long before Willie Nelson was earning acclaim as a superstar entertainer, it was Price who signed him to a writing contract, paying the talented fellow Texan to write songs like "Hello Walls," "Crazy," and "Night Life" for him and other C&W stars like Patsy Cline and Faron Young. Ultimately, Willie would perform as a bass player for Price's Cherokee Cowboys. Roger Miller had little hope of doing anything but working for the Amarillo fire department before Price invited him to join the band as a fiddle player. "He turned out to be the worst I ever heard," Price remembers, "but I didn't have the heart to run him off. Finally, I asked him if he thought he could play guitar and sing a little." He had no way of knowing that Miller's talent would blossom into megastardom with such hits as "King of the Road." An aspiring musician named Donny Young--who later changed his name to Johnny Paycheck and hit it big with "Take This Job and Shove It"--got his start with Price. Same with Johnny Bush, the author of country music anthem "Whiskey River."