Price was the son of Walter Clifton Price and Clara Mae Bradley Cimini. His grandfather James M. M. Price was an early settler of the area. Price was three years old when his parents divorced and his mother moved to Dallas, Texas. For the rest of his childhood he split time between Dallas and on the family farm, where his father had remained, and was introduced to farming, ranching, and animal husbandry while still a boy. He began singing and playing guitar as a teenager.
Price’s mother and step-father were successful fashion designers and wanted him to take up that line of work but it had little appeal to him. He chose to study veterinary science at North Texas Agricultural College in Abilene before his education was interrupted by World War II. He was drafted in 1944 and served in the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater. He returned to Abilene in 1946. After the war and college, Price rethought his decision to continue schooling to be a veterinarian; he was considered too small to work with large cattle and horses, the backbone of a Texas veterinarian’s practice. Ranching would remain of vital interest to him throughout his life. While helping around his father’s ranch he also began singing at various functions around the Abilene, Texas, area.Many years later in 1972, he was honored as a distinguished alumnus.
By 1947 Price was playing guitar and singing with various bands at sundry social functions. In 1948 he suspended his schooling to perform regularly on radio station KRBC’s “Hillbilly Circus” in Abilene. Though still intent on ranching someday, in 1949 Price joined the prestigious Big D Jamboree in Dallas, sponsored by radio station KRLD (AM). The program was eventually broadcast nationally by CBS, giving Price his initial mass exposure.
With the Nashville scene still in its infancy, Texas was the informal center of country music. One of the hot spots was Jim Beck’s recording studio in Dallas, a facility visited consistently by stars such as Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman. Price began hanging around at Beck’s and soon became friendly with Frizzell; he hastily contributed a song titled “Give Me More, More, More of Your Kisses” to one of Frizzell’s 1950 sessions. After recording some undistinguished sides at Beck’s (Price was still hard to separate from his heroes Hank Williams and Moon Mullican) he signed his first recording contract. A few demos recorded by Price at Beck’s had caught the attention of Bullet Records in Nashville, Tennessee. His first record, “Jealous Lies,” went nowhere.
Price relocated to Nashville in the early 1950s, rooming for a brief time with Hank Williams. When Williams died, Price managed his band, the Drifting Cowboys, and had minor success. He was the first artist to have a success with the song “Release Me” (1954), a top five popular music hit for Engelbert Humperdinck in 1967.
In 1953, Price formed his band, the Cherokee Cowboys. Among its members during the late 1950s and early 1960s were; Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Darrell McCall, Van Howard, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Buddy Emmons, Pete Wade, Jan Kurtis, Shorty Lavender and Buddy Spicher. Miller wrote one of Ray Price’s classics in 1958, “Invitation to the Blues”, and sang harmony on the recording. Additionally, Nelson composed the Ray Price song “Night Life”.
Price became one of the stalwarts of 1950s honky tonk music, with hit songs such as “Talk To Your Heart” (1952) and “Release Me.” He later developed the famous “Ray Price Shuffle,” a 4/4 arrangement of honky tonk music with a walking bassline, which can be heard on the song that gave Price his own solid musical presence came in 1956. Sweeping in on a wave of fiddle and tears, “Crazy Arms” shot to #1 (Price’s first of eight visits to the top) and stayed there for 20 weeks. The next year, “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” crossed over to the pop charts. He would have nine more pop crossovers.
During the 1960s, Ray experimented increasingly with the so-called Nashville sound, singing slow ballads and utilizing lush arrangements of strings and backing singers. Examples include his 1967 rendition of “Danny Boy”, and “For the Good Times” in 1970 which was Price’s first country music chart #1 hit since “The Same Old Me” in 1959. Written by Kris Kristofferson, the song also scored #11 on the popular music chart and featured a mellower Price backed by sophisticated musical sounds, quite in contrast to the honky tonk sounds Price had pioneered two decades before.
“For the Good Times” re-energized Price’s career. Besides its crossover success, it earned him a Grammy for best country vocal performance and set him up for three more #1 singles: “I Won’t Mention It Again” (1971), “She’s Got to Be a Saint” (1972) and “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (1973), the last of which was a pop hit in Canada, and would gain greater fame a year later when Gladys Knight & the Pips covered it. His final top ten hit was “Diamonds In The Stars” in early 1982. His last of 109 charted country singles came in 1989 with “Love Me Down to Size.” Later, he sang gospel music and recorded such songs as “Amazing Grace,” “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” “Farther Along” and “Rock of Ages.”
Price was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996 at the age of 70. Still elegant and in superb voice, he greeted the millennial year of 2000 with the primarily pop album, “Prisoner of Love.” “Run That by Me One More Time,” a duets album with Nelson, was released in 2003.
After leaving Nashville, Price lived his time off the road on his east Texas ranch near Mount Pleasant, continuing to dabble in gamefowl, cattle and horses. He briefly made national news again in 1999 when he was arrested for possession of marijuana. According to Price in a 2008 interview, old friend Willie Nelson (no stranger to marijuana arrests) phoned and told him he’d just earned $5 million in free publicity with the drug bust.
In 2009, Price made two performances for the Fox News show “Huckabee.” The first was with the Cherokee Cowboys and host Mike Huckabee, and he performed “Crazy Arms” and “Heartaches By The Number.” Weeks later he performed with the Cherokee Cowboys and Willie Nelson (again with Huckabee playing bass guitar). This time they performed duets of “Faded Love” and “Crazy.”
Price worked on his last but one album, “Last of the Breed,” with fellow country music singers Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. This album was released on March 20, 2007, by the company Lost Highway Records. The two-disc set features 20 country classics as well as a pair of new compositions. The trio toured the US from March 9-25 starting in Arizona and finishing in Illinois. This was Price’s third album with Nelson and first album with Haggard. After the tour, Haggard remarked, “I told Willie when it was over, ‘That old man gave us a god**** singing lesson.’ He really did. He just sang so good. He sat there with the mic against his chest. And me and Willie are all over the microphone trying to find it, and he found it.”
On November 6, 2012, Ray Price confirmed that he was fighting pancreatic cancer. He told the San Antonio Express-News that he had been receiving chemotherapy for the past six months. An alternative to the chemo would have been surgery that involved removing the pancreas along with portions of the stomach and liver, which would have meant a long recovery and stay in a nursing home. Said Price, “That’s not very much an option for me. God knows I want to live as long as I can but I don’t want to live like that.” The 87-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer also told the newspaper, “The doctor said that every man will get cancer if he lives to be old enough. I don’t know why I got it – I ain’t old!” Price retained a positive outlook and hoped to play as many as a hundred concert dates in 2013.
Although in February 2013 the cancer appeared to be in remission, Price was hospitalized in May 2013 with severe dehydration. Price entered a Tyler, Texas hospital in the final stages of pancreatic cancer on December 2, 2013, according to his son, then left on December 12th for home hospice care.READ MORE: