Price He's Paid

Ray Price has seen it all, from bucket-of-blood joints out on the Jacksboro Highway to Hank Williams' surgery scars

MT. PLEASANT -- It was getting late on that brisk Thanksgiving evening in 1950 as a new face in the expanding world of country music stood onstage in an out-of-the-way East Texas honky-tonk. An inventive promoter, eager to lure the holiday crowd, had offered patrons free turkey dinners and beer before Ray Price, billed as the "Cherokee Cowboy," began his performance.

The turkey had run out long before the beer. So had the holiday spirit.

The warmth and good will of the season had evolved into drunken curses and bare-knuckle brawls. Looking back from a half-century vantage point, Price recalls that the thing about which he felt most thankful that long-ago night was that he and his band managed to get out alive.

Ray Price, the man who would be--and sometimes was--Hank Williams.
Ray Price, the man who would be--and sometimes was--Hank Williams.

"After a while," he recalls, "I found myself paying more attention to the fights that were breaking out than I was to the songs I was trying to sing. I started counting them: Twenty-eight as best I remember. And Lord only knows what was happening out in the parking lot. Actually, it was sort of amusing until somewhere around midnight when they started throwing beer bottles toward the stage."

Price, suddenly wondering what had possessed him to give up on his boyhood dream of becoming a veterinarian and pursue music, abandoned the microphone in midsong and was crouched behind the protection of his band member's bass. It was then that the club manager, crawling on his hands and knees in an attempt to stay below the line of fire, approached. "Ray, you've got a long-distance phone call," the proprietor said. "Might as well take it. Looks like we're about done for the night."

On the line was country music legend-in-the-making Hank Williams, calling from Nashville. "Can you be here by 11 in the morning?" he asked. Due to a last minute cancellation, Williams had a spot for the unknown Price on his nationally syndicated Prince Albert tobacco-sponsored radio show.

"I left immediately," Price remembers, "and wore out a set of tires getting there. I had to stop in Memphis and buy new ones. But I got to the studio with 30 minutes to spare and made my national radio debut. To do so, I'd broken every speed limit known to mankind on icy roads from Texas to Tennessee, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time if I was ever to become successful as a country singer."

That was a half century and millions of record sales ago. Before the lengthy string of No. 1 hits, gold records, Grammys, invitations to perform at the White House, and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Before many in Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall's recent sellout crowd, wildly cheering the 74-year-old entertainer whose rich and clear tenor seems never to age, were even born.

His recently released CD, Prisoner of Love (out on Buddha/Justice Records), is evidence that Price, a music legend whose first recordings played at 78 rpm, continues to ignore the boundaries placed on him by Nashville and others, even when he was country music's best-selling performer. While the new release includes several benchmark Price hits, it also offers up his own styling of the Lennon and McCartney song, "In My Life," as well as standards popularized by Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong.

In a pop-culture time when "legends" are made in the blink of an eye, Price is the real thing. The Reno Gazette-Journal summed it up nicely in a recent concert review: "Ray Price is to country music what Frank Sinatra was for decades to pop." The only difference: Price is still at it, his haunting, melodious voice belying both age and the miles he's traveled. He is on the road, playing 150 dates a year. Only when the voice goes, he says, will he no longer perform. It is evident that he is enamored of music that touches the heart and causes the foot to keep time.

Price was born to a hard-scrabble East Texas cotton-farming father who worked long hours for short wages and a mother who dreamed of becoming a clothing designer in the Big City. He was 3 when, at his mother's urging, the Price family made the move to Dallas, with her husband driving a horse-drawn milk truck while she labored as a seamstress for a local dress manufacturer. It didn't take long for the Prices to agree that their worlds had grown light years apart. They divorced, and the elder Price returned to the farm.

"I stayed with my mother for a while," Price recalled recently from the peace and quiet of his small ranch near Marshall, "but it was hard on her. She was only making $12 a week, paying room and board and trolley fare to work every day." In time, the struggle overwhelmed her, and she sent her son to live with his father again.

Only after she married an Italian dress designer and found financial security did she call her son back to Dallas, where he would spend his teenage years. Though his stepfather introduced him to the sophisticated world of opera and the music of many of the legendary Italian singers of that generation, Ray longed for the simplicity of the country life--hunting, fishing, singing in the church choir, and sitting with his father, listening to the old recordings of "Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers. "Finally," he says, "when I was 17, I managed to get my mother mad enough at me to sign the papers so I could quit school and join the Marines." The year was 1943.

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."

His close friendship with Hank Williams, the hard-drinking C&W icon who died at age 29, was no different. Except Williams was the one helping him. Some of the time, at least.

"My first real job in Nashville was as a front man for Hank. I traveled with him and the Drifting Cowboys, doing a couple of songs before his performance," Price remembers. In truth, his job description went far beyond warming up the audience: "Since Hank and I had become good friends, his manager had the bright idea that I could somehow make sure he stayed sober and ready to go on. I'm sorry to say that as Hank Williams' babysitter, I was a miserable failure. It's something I regret to this day, but, hell, it was an impossible job.

"Hank had these self-destructive demons dancing around in his head, and there was no one--not friends, doctors, or family--who could do anything about it. When he decided to get drunk, there was no stopping him. Nothing I ever tried worked. We walked, we talked, even wrote a few songs together. But sooner or later he'd get a bottle and it was all over. He'd sit in a hotel room and pour a water glass to the brim with whiskey and chug-a-lug it. It would come back up, and he'd just pour another glassful. He just kept doing it until he could keep it down."

Price recalls a long-ago New Year's Eve in Norfolk when he'd opened the show before an expectant audience of 10,000, then retired to the wings to watch Williams' performance. "The promoter came up to me, his face red and angry, chewing on a half-smoked cigar like it was a dog bone. He says, 'Hank ain't gonna make it. You're gonna have to do the show.'

"At the time I'd only made a couple of recordings and, frankly, didn't even know the words to that many country songs. I had no idea what to do. The guy looked at me and said, 'Jes' get your ass out there and fake it.'"

Price, who tried to do a few of Williams' songs to which he knew most of the words, rates the night as one of the most disastrous of his lengthy career.

It would not, however, be the last such bind in which he would find himself at his friend's expense.

"We were scheduled to play Richmond despite the fact Hank had undergone some painful back surgery," Price says. Hank, having assured the promoter he could go on, arrived far removed from sober.

"I introduced him, warning the audience that he's recently undergone some serious surgery, trying to prepare them. So, what does Hank do? He walks straight to the microphone and immediately says, 'Y'all don't believe him, do you? Don't think I've had an operation.' And then he starts to take his clothes off, ready to show the sellout crowd his scar and God-knows what else."

Once again, Price was called upon to fake it.

"When Hank was sober, he was a jewel. But those times became fewer and fewer. The Opry, which he'd helped get me on when I was a nobody, fired him. His band members, finally at the end of their rope, refused to go on the road with him. And his wife kicked him out of the house."

Williams rented a house and asked that Price move in with him.

"For all the success he had--the hit records, the sellout crowds, the loving fans--he was the most unhappy man I've ever known," his friend says. "Even when he tried to beat the drinking, checking himself into clinics to sober up, people were always taking advantage of him. Promoters, knowing full-well that he wasn't capable of performing, kept booking him. They'd come to the hotel or his dressing room and literally drag him onstage. They knew damned well he wasn't going to be able to put on a show. But by getting him onstage and then letting him fall flat on his face, they wouldn't have to pay him.

"Looking back, I think maybe that was one of the many demons that drove Hank to his early death. There were just too many people who only wanted to use him--and way too few trying to help him out."

Ray Price, then, has seen it all. And he endures. In an era of gaudy pyrotechnic productions, country singers who no longer sing country, and an entertainment industry that worships only the young, Price, dressed in a business suit and tie, accompanied by steel guitars and violins--but absolutely no gimmicks--holds to his place. In his audiences are those who began listening to his music decades ago, seated alongside college kids just discovering the magic he lends to such classics as "Danny Boy," "For the Good Times," and "Night Life."

They are there because he is, in a very real sense, the living history of country-and-western music. He is the man who has not only enjoyed a front-row vantage point from which to view its growth and change, but also played a major role. He is Ray Price, and that means something. Maybe more today than it ever did.

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