At the end of World War II, western swing was the popular type of country music, with bands led by Bob Wills and Spade Cooley dominating the juke boxes. But as the Big Band era ended at the end of the 1940s, the era of western swing ended as well—except in Texas, where they kept dancing. During the 1950s Ray Price and his Cherokee Cowboys played those Texas dance halls, mixing western swing with the honky- tonk sound that kept people on the dance floor. Ray and the group embraced the western image, although a bit differently than other acts: the group performed in Indian outfits wearing full headdress during some sets.
Ray Price is a talented, creative man who loved western swing but yearned to grow musically. As the 1960s progressed, Ray embraced the Nashville Sound and moved towards pop oriented arrangements on his recordings. But he never forgot his western swing roots and today Ray Price, in his 80s, performs a mixture of western swing, honky- tonk and “countrypolitan”—he’s had big hits in all facets of country music—during his concerts.
On December 7, 1941, 15- year- old Ray Price was an usher at the Majestic Theater in Dallas, Texas, when the news came that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “That whole theater came alive,” remembered Ray, who wanted to enlist but was too young. Ray’s brother, who was in the National Guard, had been activated in 1938 and was sent to the Pacific theater. Ray turned 16 about a month later but needed his mother’s consent to join the armed forces, and she wouldn’t hear of it. Ray quit school when he was 16. “Like a lot of kids, I thought I was real smart and didn’t need to know anymore,” he reminisced. Finally, in 1943, when Ray was 17, his mother gave her permission for him to join the Marine Corps. In the meantime, he landed a job at Dallas Aviation learning how to be an aviation mechanic.
In August 1943, Ray went to Marine Corps boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego and took basic training. After basic, Ray was assigned to a naval base in Norman, Oklahoma, where he was in training to become a machinest mate. But on the obstacle course, Ray had an accident. “I fell about 25 feet and landed just flat on my back,” he remembers. “I spent about a year in the naval hospital in Oklahoma but they never could find out what was wrong. They didn’t know anything about your back at the time, they just knew it was holding your head up. Turns out it was the rings in my spine that was injured.”
Ray spent three years in the Marine Corps during World War II but never left the United States. “I went back to active duty twice but my back was killing me,” he said. “The way the bunks were in the Marine Corps it was just a wire with springs on it and when you laid down your back just bulged down and my back just couldn’t handle it.” Most of Price’s squadron were sent overseas and “only three of us in my division made it through the war.
The rest didn’t. I hated it because I wasn’t up front with the rest of them. But as I got older, I was glad I survived. But I have mixed feelings about it.” Still, Price admits, “I’m proud that I was a Marine. It taught me to pay attention.” In February 1946, Ray Price was discharged from the Marine Corps and went to work in a steel mill in Dallas as a lathe operator. The Germans had been defeated in May 1945 and the Japanese surrendered in August, which meant the end of World War II. It took a while for war production to wind down but the government soon cancelled the orders for 9 mm shells—Price was part of the group making those—and he was transferred over to the machine shop.
“After working the machine shop all day, you came home and you looked like a coal digger—just black all over,” remembered Ray. “I didn’t like it so I thought I might for once do something smart and instead of quitting school I’d go back to school.” Ray enrolled in Dallas High School with about 20 other vets and after about three months the principal, Mr. Allen, informed them of a new test devised by the United States Armed Forces Institute which allowed students who passed that test to receive a high school diploma. This was the General Education Development Testing Service, later known as the GED, which at that time was limited to veterans but since 1963 has been available to anyone.
Ray passed the test and then enrolled at North Texas Agricultural College in Arlington (now the University of Texas, Arlington) and studied veterinary medicine on the GI Bill. He lived in an empty naval barracks about ten miles away as the Government allowed vets to stay free of charge at the facility, which wasn’t being used, and in that group of former servicemen were some musicians. This encounter with those musicians changed the life of Ray Price.
Noble Ray Price was born on January 12, 1926, in Peach, Texas, a community that no longer exists. Peach was in Wood County, which also had Perryville, with a population in the twenties in 1930.
In 1930, when Ray was four years old, his parents divorced; his mother could not take living out on a ranch and moved to Dallas, where she landed a job designing jackets and coats for Niemen- Marcus. Ray’s Dad stayed in Perryville, raising cotton, corn and some livestock. During the school year, Ray lived in Dallas with his mom; during the summer months he lived on the 190 acre ranch with his Dad, working in the fields and with the animals.
Ray’s mom married an Italian who was in the garment business. During Ray’s early years they moved to Forrest City, Arkansas, and opened a clothing factory, but in the late 1930s the factory burned down. Ray’s stepfather loved opera and during their time in Arkansas, Ray remembers attending several operas in Memphis with his parents. Ray always had a good singing voice and his stepfather insisted he take classical singing lessons. In fact, the first record Ray Price ever owned was an opera aria.
While he was in college, Ray Price and his buddies had been going to Roy’s House Cafe in Dallas. Roy was “an old showman,” remembered Price, “and he had a lot of buddies he’d worked with who were in a band or who would stop by and get onstage. He’d call people up out of the audience to sing. It was a fantastic show.” Ray sang at Roy’s, boosted by friends who’d heard him sing around the barracks. He performed songs like “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” which was popularized by Gene Autry, and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”
In 1950, Dick Gregory, a guitar player, had written some songs and one day he asked Ray if he would sing them for a publisher. Ray agreed. “I don’t know why he asked that ’cause I don’t know if I sang in front of him or not,” said Price. The first publisher they visited “wasn’t really interested in any newcomers so he sent us to another publisher,” said Ray.
That second publisher was Jim Beck, who owned a recording studio in Dallas on Ross Avenue:
They were recording some radio shows for Jim Jeffries, who was very popular in radio at that time, [said Ray] and they was taking a break so he said, “Go ahead and sing a song.” So I sang the songs and Hank Thompson was there—he was doing some radio shows with Jim Jeffries for the Texas Radio Network—and everybody was listening to me. Then Jim Beck, who owned the studio, said, “Look, we gotta go back in and make these radio shows and we don’t have any time to talk with you today so come back tomorrow.” The guitar player got real excited and I said “sure,” so we went back the next day and before I sang they introduced me to a fellow named Arthur Ganong from Bullet Records and he had a contract for me. That’s how I got in the music business.
That was in January 1950, and Ray recorded two songs, “Jealous Lies” and “Your Wedding Corsage,” which were released on Bullet Records. They didn’t chart, but they did get Ray some attention in and around the Dallas area and led to him performing on the Big D Jamboree.
The Big D Jamboree began as The Texas State Barn Dance in 1946; it was formed by radio personality Uncle Gus Foster and Slim McDonald, a Dallas club owner. They held the Jamboree at the Sportatorium, a wrestling arena owned by Ed McLemore, who served as a coproducer on the radio show. The show was broadcast over KLIF and hosted first by disc jockey Big Al Turner, then by John Harper. In late 1947, the show was broadcast over WFAA and rechristened The Lone Star Jamboree. When the show switched to KRLD in the fall of 1948, it was renamed the Big D Jamboree. Johnny Hicks of KRLK was the original host and coproduced the show. The Light Crust Doughboys, the group originally formed by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel whose original members included Milton Brown and Bob Wills, served as the house band for a number of years. The Doughboys were billed as the Country Gentlemen when they were the house band.
The studio where Ray Price first recorded was located at 1101 Ross Avenue in Dallas. It was owned by Jim Beck, who was born in Marshall, Texas, on August 11, 1916, and had apparently learned electronics on his own. Don Law, who signed Ray Price and produced him for about twenty-five years, used Beck’s studio in the early 1950s, recording more sessions there than in Nashville and New York.
During World War II, Beck served in the army and gained experience with broadcasting and recording techniques. After he returned to Dallas in 1945, he built his first recording studio, which did contract work for the army. Beck joined KRLD as an announcer and through their connection with the Big D Jamboree he began to appreciate country music.
Beck borrowed money to open his studio on Ross Avenue, where Lefty Frizzell made his first demo recordings. Frizzell recorded his early hits at Beck’s studio, which brought Beck and the studio to the attention of Don Law, head of A&R for Columbia. Beck had an excellent studio and recorded sessions for Bullet, King, Imperial and Decca as well as Columbia. In addition to Lefty Frizzell, Fats Domino recorded there. Because of the quality of the studio and Beck’s expertise, it seemed likely that Dallas might become the center for recording country music in the early 1950s.
Troy Martin worked for the publisher Peer International, whose catalogue included all the Jimmie Rogers songs as well as the songs from the Carter Family, like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Troy heard Ray on the Big D Jamboree, was impressed with his talent and lobbied Don Law, head of A&R for Columbia Records, to sign him. Law resisted, according to Ray, about 21 times before Troy made his final pitch.
“Don, I want to talk to you about Ray Price,” said Martin, and Law replied, “Troy, if you don’t stop pitching that man to me I’m going to throw you out of this damned hotel room.” Troy asked, “You sure?” and Don replied, “Yeah.” Then Troy said:
Well I just want you to know because Paul Cohen is coming to Dallas tomorrow to sign Ray to a record deal with Decca.” [With that statement, Law] picked his head up a little bit, and the next day he was in Dallas and they called me in and said, “we’re going to do a session” and signed me to a contract. At the session the next day I was setting in the studio playing the guitar—I never was very good at it—but I was playing the guitar and singing a song and this nice fellow walked in and never said a word, just asked, “You’re Ray Price, aren’t you?” and I said, “Yes, sir” and he said “I’m Paul Cohen and I’m with Decca Records and I’ve come to sign you to a contract.” I said, “Gee, Paul, I don’t know what to tell you—but I’ve just recorded for Columbia Records.” And he went through the ceiling. Then he went out and signed 17 acts, if I remember right, so Don couldn’t get any more of them because he didn’t want to lose any more acts to Columbia.
Ray Price recorded his first songs for Columbia, produced by Don Law at the Jim Beck Studio in Dallas on March 15, 1951. On that date he recorded four songs: “If You’re Ever Lonely Darling,” written by Lefty Frizzell; “I Saw My Castles Fall Today,” written by Rex Griffin; “You’ve Got My Troubles Now,” written by Ray; and “I Get the Short End Every Time,” written by Elsie Johnson. The last song was never released by Columbia.
In May, Price was back in the Beck studio and recorded one song, “Hey La La,” written by Leonard McBride; McBride’s wife sang harmony on the songs. That was actually a thrown together “fooling around” session that was recorded, even though no session had been planned at that time. On August 6, Price went into the Dallas studio and recorded two Rex Griffin songs, “The Answer to ‘The Last Letter’” and “Beyond the Last Mile,” a song written by Stu Davis, “Until Death Do Us Part” and “Heart Aching Blues,” credited to Price, Jimmy Fields and Ray Pulley.
In fall 1951, Troy Martin brought Ray to Nashville to appear on the Friday Night Frolics, which were held in WSM’s Studio C. The show was sponsored by Duckhead Overalls and starred Hank Williams that evening. Ray walked into the radio studio, was introduced to Hank and, as they shook hands, “It was an instant liking of each other,” according to Ray. Hank insisted Ray go with him the next day to Evansville, Indiana, where Hank had a show.
The next day, Hank brought Ray over to his house to meet his wife, Audrey, “and of course he and his wife were fussing and that embarrassed him” but then they set out driving to Evansville. On the drive up Hank told Ray that he needed a hit song and he would write him one. The two bounced ideas back and forth as they drove but nothing clicked until Ray suggested the title “Weary Blues.” That lit a spark and Ray and Hank wrote that song in the car, although only Hank’s name appears as a writer “because of publishing complications,” said Ray. When they got to Evansville, Hank called Ray up onstage to sing “Weary Blues.” “I didn’t even remember the words,” said Ray. “He made me start it about five times—I’d stop it and then start it—we was just having a ball.”
When they got back to Nashville, Ray had to return to Texas where he was appearing at a club in Kilgore. Back in Dallas, Ray entered the Beck studio on October 16 and recorded “Weary Blues (From Waiting)” and three other songs: “I Made a Mistake and I’m Sorry,” “We Crossed Our Heart” and a song written by Carl Smith, “Your Heart Is Too Crowded.”
Red Foley was the host of the “Prince Albert” segment of the Grand Ole Opry, which was broadcast over the NBC network. Foley’s wife died in November 1951, and Hank Williams was scheduled to host the show in Foley’s absence. Hank called Ray in Texas and reached him on a Thursday; the show was scheduled for Saturday night but there was a rehearsal on Saturday morning. Hank wanted Ray to be his guest on the show, but Ray had to play that night in Kilgore and then had only one day to get to Nashville for the rehearsal. “I didn’t have a hit, I only had one record out,” said Ray. “So the idea of being on a network show scared me. But I went up there and broke every traffic law to get there. I threw the rubber off four tires getting to Nashville and I don’t mean that figuratively.”
The Grand Ole Opry was the biggest and best country music show on radio in the early 1950s; it was a star- maker where new acts played and became nationally known. Ray Price still has the tape of Hank Williams introducing him on the Grand Ole Opry. Ray’s success on the Opry that night in November 1951 and his connection with Hank Williams convinced him to move to Nashville in January 1952.
Ray and his wife moved into a house on Natchez Trace in Nashville. They lived upstairs and Hank, who was going through his divorce with Audrey, lived downstairs. Ray remembers that Nashville “was heated by coal then.” The city sits in an area surrounded by hills, like a bowl, and “if you came in to town from the hills you couldn’t even see the town—smoke was all you could see.” In Texas, the heat came from natural gas, so Nashville looked “kinda spooky” in the winter when Ray arrived.
About a month after he moved to Nashville—on February 8, 1952—Ray Price recorded his first Nashville session at the Castle Studio in the Tulane Hotel. Castle was Nashville’s first major recording studio. It was started by three engineers from WSM—Aaron Shelton, Carl Jenkins and George Reynolds—in 1946. The studio, named from WSM’s logo, “Air Castle of the South,” was a key to the growth of Nashville as a recording center. The engineers first began recording sessions at a studio at WSM, whose offices were located at Seventh Avenue North and Union Street in the old National Life Building. The increase in demand for the studio’s services led the engineers to move to the Tulane Hotel on Church Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue North where the engineers set up in a dining room.
Before Ray Price recorded there, the studio had recorded “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy,” a hit for Red Foley in 1950, and “You Win Again,” a hit by Hank Williams in 1952. On the Ray Price session, which featured Hank’s Drifting Cowboys members Don Helms on steel, Howard “Cedric Rainwater” Watts on bass, Jerry Rivers on fiddle, along with Sammy Pruett and Chet Atkins on guitars, and Ray Price, who played the guitar while he sang. The four songs they recorded were “Talk to Your Heart,” “I Know I’ll Never Win Your Love Again,” “I Lost the Only Love I Knew,” and “The Road of No Return.”
“Talk to Your Heart” was written by Ray and C.M. Bradley, but because of “publishing complications” the cowriter with Bradley was listed as Louise Ulrich, which was Price’s mother. He recorded another Hank Williams song, “I Lost the Only Love I Knew” (cowritten with Don Helms) and a song he cowrote with Helms, “I Know I’ll Never Win Your Love Again.” “The Road of No Return” was credited to C.M. Bradley alone.
Six days later, on Valentine’s Day, Price was in the Castle Studio again with the same lineup except that Owen Bradley on piano replaced guitarist Chet Atkins. Three of the songs, “Talk to Your Heart,” “I Know I’ll Never Win Your Love Again” and “The Road of No Return” were repeats from the previous session, indicating the label was not satisfied with the takes. The fourth song, credited to C.M. Bradley and Louise Ulrich, was “I’ve Got to Hurry, Hurry, Hurry.”
Ray Price and Hank Williams lived in the Natchez Trace house for about six months before Ray moved out. Williams’ divorce was “tearing him up” and Hank, who was not drinking when Ray and his wife moved in, was soon drinking heavily. “I couldn’t take it any more,” said Ray. The last time Ray saw Hank was when Ray was driving into Nashville and saw Hank at a service station “standing out there beside his Cadillac,” Ray remembered: “He threw up his hand and I pulled in. He asked me where I was going and then I asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Back to Shreveport,’ he said and he kinda laughed when he said it. ‘You wanna come?’ And I said, ‘Naw, I better not.’”
In July, Ray Price was in the Castle Studio and recorded four songs, “You’re Under Arrest (For Stealing My Heart),” “Move On in and Stay,” “Won’t You Please Be Mine ( Just for Today,” which was written by Buddy Killen, and a Hank Williams song, “I Can’t Escape from You.” On September 16, Ray recorded the Slim Willett song, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” and “My Old Scrapbook” at the Castle Studio.
Just before Christmas, Hank Williams called Ray and asked about his plans for Christmas. Ray told him he was going to spend that time with his mother in Dallas and invited Hank to come. Hank agreed, but later decided to spend Christmas with his mother in Alabama. During that conversation, the two singers discovered they would both be performing in Ohio on New Year’s Day, about 50 miles apart, and they agreed to meet for lunch. That lunch never happened. Sometime between about 10 o’clock on New Year’s Eve and the morning of January 1 and somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Oak Hill, West Virginia, Hank Williams died in the back of his Cadillac while his driver drove towards Akron, Ohio.
After Hank died, Ray spent almost two years touring with Hank’s old band, the Drifting Cowboys, as his backup group. And then one night in Grand Junction, Colorado, Ray said, “This fellow came up to me and he was very complimentary. He said ‘Ray, I want you to know that you sound more like Hank every day.’” That compliment struck a disturbing chord deep inside Ray Price: “When you play with Hank’s band, that’s how you are going to sound.” On the drive back to Nashville, Ray told steel guitarist Don Helms and fiddler Jerry Rivers, “Boys, I love all of you but I can’t do this. It isn’t any good sounding like Hank because I want to sound like me.” The band members “all agreed and we split friends,” said Ray. But then he had to find another band.
Ray had worked a couple of dates with a group in Houston, the Western Cherokees, who played western swing. Ray brought them to Nashville to be his backup group. The group got its name, The Cherokee Cowboys, when Ray brought them to the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. George D. Hay, known as the “Solemn Old Judge,” was the founder and announcer of the Opry. As he and Ray stood in the wings, with Hay ready to introduce the group, he asked Ray their name. Ray replied they didn’t have one and Hay countered that they needed one and “you’d better hurry—you’ve got five minutes” before the introduction. “So I combined the last two names—the Drifting Cowboys and the Western Cherokees and came up with Cherokee Cowboys,” said Ray. “And it stuck.”
In August 1954 there was an announcement in the Pickin’ and Singin’ News that Ray Price’s new band, the Cherokee Cowboys, comprised Bernie Annett, piano; Bob Heppler, fiddle; Jimmy Bigger, steel guitar; Jimmy Dennis, drums; Pete Wade, guitar, and Tommy Hill, rhythm guitar, front man and master of ceremonies. A picture of the new group in an issue two weeks later showed the band dressed as Indians with full headdress; Ray was dressed in a western outfit—the shirt had fringe—and wore a cowboy hat.
Tommy Hill soon left the Cherokee Cowboys and Blackie Crawford replaced him, then in the fall of 1954, Blackie Crawford left and Price hired Van Howard (real name Howard Vandevender) to sing tenor harmony and play guitar. Howard, born March 1, 1929, in Grady, New Mexico, began singing on KICA in Clovis, New Mexico, when he was a teenager. In 1951 he went to Jim Beck’s studio and met Beck and Tillman Franks, who got him a spot on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, playing guitar and singing harmony. Howard also worked for the First National Bank in Shreveport (back in New Mexico he had worked as a bank teller). Howard recorded some sides for Imperial Records, a result of his success as a harmony singer on Slim Whitman’s records for that label, but none hit.
In the fall of 1954, Lefty Frizzell was looking for a road band when he appeared on the Louisiana Hayride. Howard and some of the Hayride musicians—pianist Floyd Cramer, steel guitarist Jimmy Day, drummer D.J. Fontana, fiddler Bill Peters and bassist Chuck Wiginton—joined Frizzell on a tour of the West Coast. As soon as Frizzell’s tour ended, Lefty’s manager, Al Flores, left and went to work for Price. Van Howard was booked for two weeks in Tucson, Arizona, and during that booking Flores called Van Howard and told the singer that Blackie Crawford, who fronted Ray’s shows, had left and asked if Howard wanted to join the Cherokee Cowboys, starting with a job in San Antonio.
Van Howard joined Price’s group and fronted the show as well as emceed. The harmony vocals came around after Price and Howard sang together in impromptu sessions. Howard was a great harmony singer, his tenor ringing out on the choruses of Ray’s songs, which led to the first recording session when Van Howard sang harmony with Ray Price for the first time. The session, held at Jim Beck’s Studio in Dallas on April 27, 1955, and produced by Don Law, produced five songs: “Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes,” “The Way She Got Away,” “Let Me Talk to You,” “Call the Lord and He’ll Be There,” which was written by Van Howard, and “A Man Called Peter.” The last two songs, both gospel numbers, were recorded because Ray felt he needed some gospel songs for his audiences when he played in the South.
In 1956, there was a great deal of turmoil in the country music industry. In August 1955, a directive had come from Jack DeWitt, president of WSM, that WSM employees who had outside business had to either relinquish their business in order to stay with WSM or leave WSM for their outside business. The three WSM engineers who owned Castle Studio decided to give up their studio and stick with WSM. The Tulane Hotel, where the studio was housed, was razed and Owen Bradley built a studio in a house on 16th Avenue South—which later became known as “Music Row”—and constructed a Quonset hut in the rear, where the bulk of the country recording was done for Decca, Columbia and Mercury in the coming years. Bradley’s business was helped by the fact that Jim Beck died on May 3, 1956, which meant that Dallas no longer competed for country recording business after that time.
In January, Elvis Presley, a new artist just signed to RCA, went into a Nashville studio and recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” and several other numbers. “Heartbreak Hotel” would be number one on the pop charts for eight straight weeks. During that year Elvis became a musical as well as cultural phenomenon; he sold ten million records, appeared on the TV shows of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan, toured constantly and starred in his first movie, Love Me Tender.
In Nashville on Thursday, March 1, Ray Price went into the Bradley Recording Studio and recorded three songs: “Crazy Arms,” “You Done Me Wrong,” and “Wild and Wicked World.” The first song on that session, “Crazy Arms,” written by steel guitar great Ralph Mooney in 1949, would be a life and career changer for Ray Price. According to Price, Bob Martin, a disc jockey in Tampa, Florida, gave him a record of “Crazy Arms” by a female singer and told him he thought the song would be good for him. Ray took the song into the studio and recorded it with a “shuffle beat,” the beginning of the “Ray Price sound.”
Although Don Law is listed as producer on that session, Price notes “Don was in England and Troy Martin of Peer International Music and I did the album.” Martin served as Price’s manager at that time. On guitars were Jack Pruett, Pete Wade, Van Howard and Price. Jimmy Day was on steel guitar, Buddy Killen played bass, Tommy Jackson was on fiddle and Floyd Cramer played piano. Putting a 4/4 beat to the record was “absolutely, my idea,” said Price, who added he was “playing a lot of dances and the 4/4 beat was perfect for that; that’s why I did it.” The “sound” of that record defined the Ray Price sound for a number of years. “All I was trying to do was find my own sound,” said Price. “And I found it on that cut.” “Crazy Arms” entered the Billboard country chart on May 26, 1956, and landed in the number one spot on June 23, bumping Elvis out of the top spot. The song stayed number one for 20 consecutive weeks and on the charts for an amazing 45 weeks.
The year 1956 marked the start of a series of years when country music suffered at the hands of rock ’n’ roll. Radio stations axed their Saturday night barn dances, and disc jockeys increasingly played rock ’n’ roll records; so country music had trouble getting on radio. Lack of exposure on radio meant a decline in demand for live appearances for country acts, who saw their incomes go down as fewer people wanted to see their shows.
But the rock ’n’ roll juggernut never really affected Ray Price like it did other country acts. First, his bookings were primarily for Texas dances and the Texans kept dancing during the rock ’n’ roll craze. “I had been playing dances in Texas all along,” said Ray. “And I knew I could work and that’s what we did—we played dances. At that time, that was most of our bookings.” Ray kept getting played on jukeboxes and had hits with “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” (number one for four weeks), “City Lights” (number one for 13 weeks) and “The Same Old Me” in the 1950s.
For the next seven years—until around 1963—Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys was one of the best, most consistent acts in country music. The musicians were all top- notch, the band was tight, and they had a cocky self-confidence knowing they were the best in the business. Their shuffle sound was perfect for the Texas dance halls, and that’s where they primarily played. If they played in the East, the audience generally sat and watched, but out west, they cut loose with dance music, playing song after song after song, varying between Texas two- step numbers and waltzes.
The Cherokee Cowboys attracted some of the best musicians in country music, although simple companionship and the ability to put up with the crazies of life on the road seemed to be part of their hiring criteria as well. Van Howard, who was Price’s harmony singer, left in 1958. According to Ray Price, “Van married the niece of Webb Pierce and when we did ‘Crazy Arms’ Van sang tenor and his wife said, ‘Honey, you’re the one that made that record.’ So Van came to me and he wanted half credit on my records. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you want half of the credit, then you find the song, you pay the musicians, and you tell me for sure it’s gonna be a hit, then I’ll give you half.’ He said, ‘I can’t do that’ and I said, ‘Well, don’t let the door knob hit you in the butt.’ And so he left. And I did all the tenor singing after that.”
The departure of Van Howard meant there was an opening in Price’s band for a guitar player and harmony singer who sang tenor. And that led Price to meet a young fireman in Amarillo, Texas, named Roger Miller and audition him for the job. Ray remembers: “Somebody said ‘there’s a guy who plays fiddle and sings at the Fire Department.’ So we got hold of him and he came out to audition and I liked him right away. But he made a mistake—he wanted to play fiddle right off the bat and when he got through he said, ‘How’d I sound to you?’ and I was trying to keep from laughing—he wasn’t a great fiddle player—so I said, ‘Can you sing and play guitar?’” Roger made light of the situation—”Well, I messed that up” or something along those lines—and then played the guitar and sang for Price, who hired him. Price recorded Roger’s song, “Invitation to the Blues,” which was a top three country hit in 1958.
When Johnny Paycheck decided to leave the group to pursue a solo career, Price asked Willie Nelson, who was writing for his publishing company, if he could play bass. Nelson replied that he did, remembered Price, “and somehow or other he got into Paycheck’s uniform—it was a little tight—but he did it. We went out for 10 or 12 days and when we came back Willie said, ‘I bet you didn’t know that I couldn’t play bass’ and I answered, ‘The first night!’ But then we became friends and he worked for me a long time.”
“Crazy Arms” was not only a professional shot in the arm for the career of Ray Price— a career- defining recording—but it also led him into a successful business venture with music publishing. The song was published by Pamper, a small company in California that was owned by Claude Caviness, whose wife was the first to record “Crazy Arms.” After Price recorded the song, Caviness “came to Nashville and wanted to know if [Price would] be interested in going in with him in a publishing company.” Price countered that if Caviness allowed Ray to pick someone to run the company, and give him a third, then he would become a partner.
The man Ray had in mind was Hal Smith, who played fiddle in Carl Smith’s band. Hal’s wife, Velma, was an excellent guitar player who did recording sessions in Nashville. “I saw potential in him as a manager of a business,” said Ray, “and I thought I could be partners with him. Claude Caviness lived in California and I thought California was too far away for a partner so I went to Hal and said, ‘If you’ll come with me, I’ll give you a third of the publishing company.’ He thought about it, agreed and we started with ‘Crazy Arms.’”
For eight years, Pamper was the Cinderella company among Nashville publishers. Its office was in Goodlettsville, about 20 miles from Music Row, which Price considered “an advantage because you didn’t have all the street traffic. It was a little too far out and hard to find. If you want to do business, then they’re going to come to you and they’re serious.” It was also close to Price’s home in Hendersonville near Lake Hickory.
The company hired Hank Cochran to write and pitch songs. Cochran found a young Texas songwriter named Willie Nelson and signed him to the company. Harlan Howard brought songs to the company too and Pamper became known for their stable of hit songwriters. After eight years, Price was forced to sell the publishing company because “we kinda had a misunderstanding. I was president of the company and they got mad at me because I did one of Paycheck’s songs and I told ’em when we formed the publishing company ‘I’m not going to do songs just because they’re in our publishing company if they’re not worth a damn.’ So they agreed to that. Well, when I did Paycheck’s song, things got crossways and it was just a misunderstanding.”
The end result was that Pamper was sold to Tree Publishing, which was a huge break for that company. Tree had published “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Green Green Grass of Home,” by Curly Putman, and Roger Miller was signed to them. Miller hit with “Dang Me,” “King of the Road” and a batch of hits in 1964 and 1965. But Pamper Music was the first major acquisition of a rival publishing company
In 1960, Price recorded an album of western swing as a tribute to Bob Wills. The following year he recorded the Night Life sessions, which featured Willie Nelson’s song. “Night Life,” a jazzy blues piece on an album that leaned more towards the audience that frequented an uptown dinner club rather than a Texas honky- tonk.
Ray Price had always loved the lush sound of an orchestra and used a 17-piece string section on his Faith album, a collection of gospel songs released in 1957. “That got me on a track that people liked strings,” said Price. “So I began adding strings down through the years to certain songs. I was experimenting until I did ‘Danny Boy.’ That’s when I went all out, and that’s when it all hit the fan.” Actually, he had recorded another lush ballad, “Make the World Go Away,” which was a hit on the country charts in 1963. The song, written by Hank Cochran, came out before “Night Life” later that year. In 1965 Eddy Arnold—who said he’d never heard Ray Price’s version—recorded “Make the World Go Away” and it was an international hit.
This was the era of the “Nashville Sound,” where violins replaced fiddles, the piano replaced the steel guitar, and the country music establishment sought respect by appealing to the American middle class. Country music was the counter to the counterculture in the 1960s and yearned for respectability as a music that could be enjoyed by the country club set. Country artists got rid of their rhinestone outfits and wore sports coats, suits or tuxedos.
In 1965 the FCC issued an edict that required radio station owners who owned both an AM and an FM station to program each outlet differently; prior to this time, station owners would simulcast on both stations. Radio was dominated by AM programming, which increasingly meant that pop/rock was broadcast. There were few FM radios and FM stations had long been ignored. However, with demands from entrepreneurs to open up new stations, the government elected to open up the FM spectrum.
In the late 1950s and into most of the 1960s, country music had to depend on “crossovers” to achieve big success and big sales. That meant that a record had to get played on pop/rock radio in order to be successful. However, as pop/rock increasingly moved over to FM, the AM stations programmed country as an alternative. As the number of radio stations that played country music grew, it became easier for a country record to remain in the country format in order to become a major hit. But that was not the case back in the mid–1960s. Country performers often felt like second- class citizens during the 1960s. They were not considered “cultured” or “sophisticated” to the country club set and weren’t “hip” to the youngsters who loved rock ’n’ roll. Many Americans looked down their noses at country music and country performers. The music was considered “white trash” and the performers themselves were seen as hicks, rubes and hillbillies. It is no wonder that so many country performers fought back by putting on a tuxedo and singing with an orchestra; they had to prove they were as talented as pop artists and as worthy of respect as any other artist in any other genre. I hated how they used to talk about us,” Ray said. “How they said we all sang through our noses and that kind of bullshit.”
Ray Price had a series of great steel guitar players in his band. Don Helms came from the Drifting Cowboys, then Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons joined. Emmons remembers that “Danny Boy” was a favorite song for steel guitar players to perform and that he had played it a number of times during the opening segment before Ray Price took the stage.
Price remembers that each year at the Disc Jockey Convention, held in October in Nashville when the record labels put on a big bash for radio DJs and booking agents, he used to close the Columbia Records show. He did “San Antonio Rose” for several years, then one year he decided to close with “Danny Boy” “and they went wild.” “For three years I did that,” said Price, “and everyone was telling me ‘you’ve got to record Danny Boy.’ So I took ’em at their word.” He first recorded “Danny Boy” on February 22, 1966, at the Columbia studios with his basic rhythm section but was dissatisfied with the result, so that session was shelved. On April 14 he recorded it again—again as the last song on the session—but that version, was not released either.
Price recorded five more sessions before he tackled “Danny Boy” again, this time on November 8. Just prior to that session, Price met with Clive Davis, president of the label, who was down from New York for the DJ convention, and spoke to him about “Danny Boy,” saying, “‘If you let me record it the way I want to record it, I promise you a number one song.’” And he looked at me like I was crazy but I was so successful he could hardly deny me. So he said, ‘Go ahead and do it.’” “I talked to Grady Martin and Don Law and I told Don, ‘I want to use a lot of strings,’ said Price. “I’d done it on a Faith album years before with Anita Kerr and it seemed to have worked well so Don said, ‘Anything you want to do.’ That was the great thing about him. So I talked to Grady Martin, who I always had as leader for my sessions because he was really fantastic and I said, ‘Do you know anybody who can write charts?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a young fellow who just wrote something for Brenda Lee that I think you’ll like.’ He said ‘I’ll bring him up to the office tomorrow and so you can meet him,’ and that’s how I met Cam Mullins.”
Price gave Mullins free rein to “write charts like [he] always wanted to write them but wasn’t allowed to,” although Price admits he wondered why Mullins said that. Mullins came back with a full orchestration for “Danny Boy” and the musicians filled Columbia’s Studio A for that session, which was cut “live,” the strings playing along with the rhythm section as Ray Price sang the song. On March 25, 1967, “Danny Boy” by Ray Price entered the country chart and climbed to number nine; it entered the pop chart the same time and rose to number 60. It was a groundbreaking song that broke Ray Price’s heart and almost broke his career. He was accused of selling out by the country fans, and Texas audiences hissed and booed when he played that song.
“They really raked me over the coals,” said Ray. “I’ll never really understand it because nobody reacted that way when Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins and Glen Campbell went outside the country sphere. But they landed on ole Ray. I was convinced then that the music had reached a point where it had to go off in a new direction. Thank goodness it finally went the way it did. Now, you can play country music in Las Vegas, New York, or Hollywood and nobody thinks anything about it. But it wasn’t that way back then. And I’m convinced they never would have been able to do that with the old sound.”
In 1968, Price left Nashville and moved back to Texas. He was going through a divorce, his father was gravely ill, he was sick of the criticism and controversy over “Danny Boy” and “all my work was out west,” he said. He had a bitter taste about how he had been treated as a member of the Grand Ole Opry as well. That bitterness went back to 1956, when Jim Denny, manager of the Opry, was fired for having an outside company (Cedarwood Publishing). However, Denny had booked a major tour of Opry acts with the folks who were marketing Marlboro cigarettes and the Marlboro executives elected to remain with Denny after he had been fired. This caused the Opry to have a showdown with the acts scheduled to perform on that tour: stick with the Opry or get fired.
The Opry told Price that if an act went with Denny on his Marlboro tour, they’d never be with the Opry again. Price believed them and gave up the tour—and a substantial amount of money. But a year or so later, some of those acts returned to the Opry lineup. Price felt that he had been betrayed. “That’s when I discovered what WSM meant,” said Price. “Wrong Side of the Mississippi!”
Ray Price sold his house in Nashville and bought a ranch in Perryville, about 100 miles east of Dallas and about 25 miles from his Dad. He raised thoroughbreds, fighting cocks, and racing pigeons and he invested in some real estate. He continued to record an album a year for Columbia but stayed off the road for about seven years. He said of Texas, “It’s my home and I always wanted to come home. It cost me money to do it and it almost ruined my health, not to mention my career. But I woke up one day and said, ‘I just don’t have to live in Nashville…. I’m going home and that’s the way it’s going to be.’ I got tired of letting other people run my life.”
In 1973 he established his own management and booking agency in Dallas; his wife, Janie Mae, ran the organization. As the years rolled by, he realized how much he missed performing, the applause, hanging out with musicians, playing music and singing for crowds. And so he went back out on the road, but this time he wore a pinstripe suit and toured with a 16-piece orchestra. He remembered that Tony Bennett had made pop hits out of Hank Williams songs and reflected that country music “was shutting out a lot of people. I thought country music was good enough for anybody and I wanted to go after a much broader base of people.” He felt that way back in the 1960s when he recorded “Danny Boy” and he still felt that way. And he also had some big hits under his belt by this time to prove his point.
It was probably in late 1969 and Ray was working a gig at the Starlit Club in Odessa, Texas, when he received a tape of a song Fred Foster sent him. Foster owned Monument Records and Combine Publishing and produced the big hits of Roy Orbison. The tape was given to a musician who handed it to Ray. Between sets, Ray listened to the song on an old Wollensack reel- to- reel tape player and invited his band to listen to it after they finished their second set. The song was “For the Good Times” and it was written by Kris Kristofferson, a struggling songwriter in Nashville. Price reportedly told the band after playing the song for them, “This is the best song I’ll ever record and the biggest one I’ll ever do. And they listened to it real polite like, but musicians are funny. They didn’t know whether they liked it or not.”
The song had originally been recorded by Bill Nash for Mercury Records. Jerry Kennedy had produced the record and Cam Mullins had written the orchestration. When he found out that Price was going to record the song, Mullins asked Kennedy if he could use the same arrangements for Price that he used for the Nash session. Kennedy agreed because the Nash song was stuck in the can and it didn’t look like Mercury was going to release it.
“The strangest thing about that record was that I had the biggest fight because Columbia was promoting the other side of the record,” remembered Price. “They were pushing ‘Grazing in Greener Pastures’ while that great song was laying on the back of it. It took me six months to get them to turn it around. And then somebody helped me—some cat put on the back page of Billboard magazine ‘Wayne Newton has the pop hit on “For the Good Times.” Ask anybody at Columbia and, when he saw that, Clive Davis went through the roof, told ’em to turn the record over and bring it home.” “For the Good Times” by Ray Price entered the Billboard country chart on June 27, 1970, and reached number one; it entered the Billboard pop chart about two months later—on August 29—and reached number 11.
Ray Price had apparently met Kris Kristofferson when the songwriter worked as a janitor at Columbia Studio, where Ray recorded, but Ray did not remember him. But he certainly remembered “For the Good Times” and he wanted to hear more Kristofferson songs. That led him to record a complete album of Kristofferson songs. On that album was “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” which Price wanted as his next single; however, he had to wait until “For the Good Times” ran its course and that song stayed on the country chart for six months. During that time, Sammi Smith released “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” which became a huge hit for her.
Price released “I Won’t Mention It Again,” written by Cam Mullins (which was number one for three weeks on the country chart), before he released Kristofferson’s “I’d Rather Be Sorry,” which reached number two on the country chart. He continued to record smooth, urban countrypolitan music after that; “She’s Got to Be a Saint’ and “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” were number one songs in 1972 and 1973, respectively.
Ray Price continued to record and tour. In July 2009 he had an operation to remove a large part of his intestine because of colon cancer. But he went back on the road several months later and, although he was frail and a bit weak physically, his voice was still strong. In concerts he performs with a Cherokee Cowboy lineup supplemented by a seven- piece string section. Today he walks slowly to the middle of the stage and stands there and sings; he doesn’t move much physically but his vocals move the audience
He has few regrets, although he still carries a few memories from back in the days when things weren’t so good. He still looks for songs that “fall on the real side. That’s the side where there’s something there, it’s a real story, well put together and not something that’s just put up there to flash but instead is something that makes me think of something in my life. And if I like it, I do it. I’ve been lucky, finding ’em. So I keep trying. It’s just hard now with current talent like it is. I think it’s the worst case of age discrimination from radio; they won’t play the older artists.” Great songs and great performers are timeless but radio is for the here and now. Fortunately, people don’t need a radio to hear Ray Price. All they have to do is find a CD, a download or go to one of his concerts. For 50 years, the voice and music of Ray Price have been an American treasure that is timeless. There is no doubt that as the ages roll by the legacy of Ray Price will endure.
SOURCES: Ayres, Tom. “Ray Price Remembers Hank Williams, or, How Old Hungry Gave Ray Price His Start.” Country Music. 5, no. 12 (September 1977): 41–44, 56. Copper, Daniel. “Being Ray Price Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry. Journal of Country Music. 14, no. 3 (1992) 22–31. Hickey, Dave. “Hillbilly Heaven: The Solution According to Ray Price.” Country Music. 5, no. 6 (March, 1976): 40–43, 61–64. McCall, Michael. “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes: Ray Price’s Singular, Six- Decade Journey Forsakes Shine for Substance. “Journal of Country Music 25, no. 2, 30–43. Morthland, John. “Ray Price: Back on the Road.” Country Music. 8, no. 7 (April 1980): 44–46. Price, Deborah Evans. “Ray Price Remembers Good Times with Hank Williams.” Close Up, August/September 2009, 38–39. Price, Ray. Personal Interview with the author, October 2, 2009, in Nashville, Tennessee. “Ray Price Signs Up ‘Cherokee Cowboys’ of Houston, Texas.” Pickin’ and Singin’ News, August 14, 1954, p. 1. “Ray Price’s New Band, Picture of Cherokee Cowboys.” Pickin’ and Singin’ News, August 31, 1954, p. 1.