Ask almost any country music entertainer about Ray Price, and you'll receive similar response: "The Voice!" Yes, I realize this same complimentary tag was deservingly used on Sinatra and others, but with Mr. Price, now in his 80s, it has a very special ring to it. The Price voice is priceless! He had those magical "pipes" when he first became a professional during the beginning of the 50s, but the tones became more precious as the years passed. It's been said that certain singers are blessed with the same advantages as good wine. They simply sound better with the passing of time. This certainly applies to Ray Price.
Ray began grabbing the attention of the country music fans when he joined the "Big D Jamboree" in Dallas in 1949, after serving time in the Marines from 1944 until 1946. Before the "Big D Jamboree,” Price followed the usual pattern set for those attempting to make it as country singers. There were the "blood-bucket" honky-tonks, filled with heavy smoke, drunken patrons, and lousy loot. Ray said, "If you planned to make it in the country music business, you simply took whatever job was offered. It was called 'exposure'. There were some of those joints where chicken-wire was dropped in front of the stage in order to protect the band and the singers from being hit by beer bottles tossed by over enthusiastic drunks. They didn't mean to hurt you...or kill you...it was just their way of letting you know they were in the hall, enjoying your music."
The pay was so pathetic that musicians had to find daytime jobs in order to survive. According to Ray, "Some of the lucky ones had wives or girlfriends who were willing to find jobs in order to pay the rent and put food on the table. Otherwise, you'd find a job washing dishes in cafes or working in service stations during the daytime hours. Then, you'd do the honky-tonks at night. Most times, the club work began around eight or nine o'clock and shut down around midnight or one o'clock in the morning. The club owners might pay you $10 or $12 per night, in the bigger joints. A big bucket was placed at the front of the stage for "tips,” but very little was dropped in the bucket. It might amount to $5 or $10, total. Fridays and Saturdays, there might be $20 in the bucket. The band would split the "tip" money. Sometimes, the club owner would keep all of the money in the bucket with the excuse that he thought he was payin' us more than we deserved, and that the bucket-money would help pay the electric bill. We seldom argued with him. After all, we were being allowed to pick and sing on his stage while making a few bucks. Besides that, if we didn't agree with what he was doing to us, there were plenty of 'pickers' waiting for the same opportunities to 'do their thing.' Yeah, it was a hard row, but when you were attempting to establish some kind of following in the music business, you would work for nothing in order to hear the beautiful sound of loud applause."
The exceptional singer finally made it to Nashville in the early 50s, rooming for awhile with the great Hank Williams. Hank rapidly realized the strong potential of the young singer from Perryville, Texas. When Hank died at the age of 29, Price took over his band and signed a recording contract with Columbia Records, where he would remain for decades. In 1953, Ray formed his dynamic band, the Cherokee Cowboys. Among those who would eventually become members of this swinging outfit were Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush and Darrell McCall.
In the 1960s, Price developed his new approach to song styling, known as the "Nashville Sound." He utilized plush, multi-violin arrangements, along with top ranked back-up vocal groups. Although many country disk jockeys pointed fingers at Price, accusing him of forsaking the authentic country sound, the hits became stronger for Ray. One country disk jockey made a statement that represented most of his peers: "Ray Price was so damned good, we played his lush sound to satisfy ourselves, and our girlfriends. Besides that, the listeners were demanding his new sound."
Because of Ray Price's unbelievable talent and great attitude toward his fans and the disk jockeys, his musical arrangements became the standard procedure, especially for his magnificent voice. Simple fiddle and steel-guitar accompaniments were still utilized by Ray on some songs, but the big orchestrations with the best vocal back-up groups had become the patented "Price Sound."
Ray said, "Contrary to what some D.J.s said, I never turned my back on true country music. I would still use the fiddles and steel-guitars on some of my songs, and loved doing those arrangements. However, I had constructed a pattern that I thought best fit my voice and my musical material. I guess the listeners felt the same. Those arrangements became big hits for me."
Should examples of perfect recording techniques be needed, just listen to Ray Price present his heavenly arrangement of "Danny Boy." Or, if you want to witness the hair rising up on your arms, put Ray's rendition of the Kris Kristofferson composition, "For the Good Times,” in your iPod or CD player.
Ray Price has accomplished more than he realizes in the highly diversified avenues of music. He is at perfect ease while singing "country,” "pop" or "gospel" renditions. Television star Johnny Carson referred to him as "the man with unbelievable 'pipes!’"
Something else that needs to be brought to light: Ray has never forgotten that, basically, he is a country-music singer. When visiting Johnny Carson or any of the popular television programs, he wore the best tailored western suits and shining cowboy boots. And he seemed to be highly complemented when referred to as a "country singer."
While watching and listening to Ray Price as he performed at Fort Worth's beautiful Bass Hall ("Cowtown's Carnegie Hall") recently, I also took note of those in the audience wearing tuxedos and gorgeous gowns. They were obviously taken by the gentleman on stage, dressed in a very nice western suit and cowboy boots. Without a doubt, they realized that as they stood and loudly applauded after almost every song, it was for a man with "true class."
A well dressed gentleman seated in front of me presented a typical review of the works of Ray Price. After the long applause had slowly faded, he leaned toward the beautiful lady seated next to him and unashamedly shouted, "My God! What a voice!"
She smiled and replied, "Aren't you glad we came?"