Pioneering country music artist Ray Price — who created hits like "Heartaches by the Number" — died Monday of pancreatic cancer. He was 87 years old. Price was born in Cherokee County, Texas, in 1926. When he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996, he was described by musician Kris Kristofferson as a living link from Hank Williams to the country music of today.
He worked with Hank Williams' band, and helped give several country performers their starts. Early in their careers, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush played in Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys. He recorded albums for decades — and when Terry Gross interviewed Price in 1999, he was about to release another one, Prisoner of Love.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTACHES BY THE NUMBER")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Pioneering country music artist Ray Price died Monday of pancreatic cancer. He was 87 years old. Here's one of his biggest hits, "Heartaches by the Number."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTACHES BY THE NUMBER")
RAY PRICE: (Singing) Heartache number one was when you left me. I never knew that I could hurt this way. And heartache number two was when you come back again. You came back and never meant to stay.
(Singing) Now I've got heartaches by the numbers, troubles by the score. Every day you love me less, each day I love you more. Yes, I've got heartaches by the numbers, a love that I can't win. But the day that I stop counting, that's the day my world will end.
BIANCULLI: Ray Price was born in Cherokee County, Texas in 1926. When Price was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996, he was described by musician Kris Kristofferson as a living link from Hank Williams to the country music of today.
He worked with Hank Williams' band, and helped give several country performers their starts. Early in their careers, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush played in Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys. He recorded albums for decades - and when Terry Gross interviewed Price in 1999, he was about to release another one.
Here's "Ramblin' Rose," a track from his then forthcoming CD, "Prisoner of Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAMBLIN' ROSE")
PRICE: (Singing) Ramblin' rose, ramblin' rose. Why you ramble, no one knows. Wild and wind-blown, that's how you've grown. Who can cling to a ramblin' rose? Ramble on, ramble on. When your ramblin' days are gone, who will love you with a love true? When your ramblin' days are gone?
(Singing) Ramblin' rose...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: That's Ray Price from his new CD "Ray Price." Welcome to FRESH AIR.
I'm really anxious to hear why you decided to record "Ramblin Rose." And I'll preface my question by saying that, you know, I know Nat King Cole's recording. And although I love Nat Cole, that's one recording I never loved. Yet, I really love the way you do the song. So what did you hear in the song?
PRICE: Well, it's just a great song really. It's kind of like a young girl that might be heading in the wrong direction, I think. And that's the way I look at it. I'm trying to make it sound as real as I can.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. One of the people who helped you a lot early in your career was Hank Williams...
GROSS: ...the great country singer.
PRICE: We became real close friends, and he got me on the Grand Ol' Opry. And he and his wife were getting divorced and I lived with them...
GROSS: Hank Williams got you on the Grand Ol' Opry.
PRICE: Mm-hmm. And then we lived together. We had a house there in Nashville, and I would stay - I had the upstairs, he had the lower for about a year and then, of course, he passed away.
GROSS: And you're saying that you started living together after he and his wife separated?
PRICE: Oh, yeah. You know, he had to have somebody. He had a problem with alcohol.
GROSS: What would you do for him?
PRICE: Oh, just whatever needed to be done, like go to the store and things like that.
GROSS: Would you try to keep him from alcohol or keep him comfortable with it or?
PRICE: Well, yeah, but you just don't do - oh, no, I wouldn't give him anything. No way. You know, like any of your friends, if they got into it too far you'd try to help them if they were ill.
GROSS: Now, I read someplace, and you can tell me if this is true, because there are so many legends surrounding famous people, but I read that Hank Williams tried to shoot you a couple of times. That he shot at you a couple of times.
PRICE: No, honey, that is a real big fabrication.
PRICE: Real big. No way.
PRICE: What, I - it had to come from somebody that may have been a little envious back there somewhere.
PRICE: It really didn't happen. The reason why that Hank and I stopped living together right at the last was he was in the hospital so many times and having so much trouble. And one of the times I was ordered by the man Jim Denny, who ran the Artist Service Bureau in Nashville and handled Hank, to take him to the hospital. And Hank got a little ill at me for that, and so I moved. And but we never lost the friendship we had.
GROSS: Did he help you get on the Grand Ol' Opry the first time?
PRICE: Sure did.
GROSS: What did he do to get you on there? Were you performing in his act or opening for him, or?
PRICE: No, it was - one Saturday night Red Foley, who was one of the big stars and the star of the Prince Albert, which was the network show, wife had died and Hank had took the host position on the show, and he wanted me for his guest. And you didn't get on the Grand Ol' Opry back then without a hit record. And I was years away from a hit record. So, but he got me on, and they sent me to take care of him on a trip one time and everything worked out all right so they signed me to a contract.
GROSS: What do you mean they sent you to take care of him on a trip? They knew that he was having problems and he needed kind of like a guardian?
PRICE: Yeah, and he needed somebody to get up there and sing in case he didn't make it.
PRICE: And that was hard to do. That happened to me in Norfolk on New Year's Day, and I didn't know what to do because they come running in and said, well, you're going to have to take Hank's place. And here I was - nobody knew who I was. And I said, well, there's no way I can do that. But anyway, they put me out there with Hank's band and we made it all right. And people kind of liked me because I had made a mistake by naming one of the songs in a higher key than I ought to have been. And...
PRICE: ...I let them know about it, so it turned kind of amusing for a while. And from then on Norfolk was one of the best towns for me.
GROSS: How would you explain it to the audience that Hank Williams couldn't make it?
PRICE: Well, you let the promoter do that. And there were other stars on the show; Johnny Jack, Kitty Wells. And we were all trying to cover up the fact, because it was 10 or 12,000 people there. The promoter went out and I forget what he said, that Hank was ill or something. But some of the times Hank wouldn't even be drinking and the promoters would get him to drink and so they didn't have to pay him.
GROSS: You're kidding.
PRICE: No, I'm not kidding, honey.
GROSS: So this way they'd get all the ticket sales but they wouldn't have to pay him.
PRICE: Well, they wouldn't have to pay him because he breached his contract. He'd come in there, got drunk, didn't do a good show. And they'd put him on the stage while he was inebriated and nobody can get onstage and sing drunk.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. But in the meanwhile, the promoter would have had maybe a full house and made all the money on ticket sales.
PRICE: Well, take $50 or $60,000, put it in his pocket and go home.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Let's pause here for some music and hear one of your early hits. In fact, this was your first number one recording. It's called "Crazy Arms." It was recorded in 1956. Do you want to say anything about the recording before we hear it?
PRICE: Well, it was in 1956 and Bob Martin, a disc jockey in Tampa, Florida, had found a record of "Crazy Arms." I mean, it wasn't a very good record. But he was intrigued by the song and he played it for me, and I was too. And then when I recorded it, it became a monster. It was my first million seller, and it crossed over. And at that time they didn't know what a crossover was. But it was the first big one I had, you're right.
GROSS: Let's hear it. This is my guest Ray Price recorded in 1956.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY ARMS")
PRICE: (Singing) Now blue ain't the word for the way that I feel, and the song's brewing in this part of mine. They're saying that crazy dream, I know that it's real. You're someone else's love now, you're not mine.
(Singing) Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new. While my yearning heart keeps saying you're not mine. My troubled mind knows soon to another you'll be wed. And that's why I'm lonely all the time.
GROSS: That's Ray Price recorded in 1956. What was the impact of having a number one hit?
PRICE: ...I got to eat pretty regular.
GROSS: Were you having trouble doing that before?
PRICE: Oh, yeah. All young ones have trouble. In fact, Lefty Frizzell and I started out together. And we used to split a bowl of stew in Dallas when we were first starting. But everything got better and like it always does. And I don't know, that's about all I can say. It was just - it gave me an opportunity to do things that I hadn't been able to do up to that point.
BIANCULLI: Country artist Ray Price, speaking to Terry gross in 1999. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 1999 interview with country artist Ray Price. He died Monday at the age of 87.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: Now, I believe after Hank Williams died you used his band for a while.
PRICE: I used his band for about two years, and there's two or three of them that's passed on now, but the rest, we're all dear friends. But I got to sounding too much like Hank on records.
PRICE: And it was because the music was so locked in it had to sound like Hank. And we had to break up. We broke up in Grand Junction, Colorado if I remember correctly.
GROSS: Did you feel that your singing style changed when you got your own band?
PRICE: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
GROSS: How did it change?
PRICE: Well, I went back to singing Texas style, not the way Hank and the band played. He had no drums or anything like that. And, of course, I brought a Texas swing band to Nashville to go to work with me. And that's where I earned the title as the number one honky-tonk player. Because that's the only place you could play at that time was in the nightclubs.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned western swing. You did an album - I think it was in the late 1950s - of songs that were first recorded by Bob Wills, the father of western swing. This album features the band that you put together after you used the Hank Williams band, or one of the versions of the band you put together. And Willie Nelson is in this band. You had several really great people in your band. Johnny Bush was in your band for a while, the great singer.
PRICE: Roger Miller was the front man.
GROSS: How did you find these people who became so famous in their own right? How did you end up having them as sidemen in your band?
PRICE: Well, they were all looking for a job, Terry. Everything was tough back there. And I heard Roger; he was working in the fire department in Amarillo, Texas.
PRICE: And I needed a fiddle player, and he came out to play fiddle. And his fiddle playing was terrible. And when he got through he said, how did you like that? I said, well, can you sing and play guitar? And it kind of shook him and he said, yeah. So, I hired him as a front man. And he did real well. He's - Roger and I were real close, just like Willie and I are still close.
GROSS: It sounded like you were determined to hire him whether he was good or not.
PRICE: Well, I had heard him sing.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Yeah. Yeah.
PRICE: You know. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And had you heard Willie Nelson sing before you hired him?
PRICE: Well, Willie worked for my publishing company, Pamford Music.
GROSS: Oh, so you knew his songs.
PRICE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. All of them. And, of course, Willie was having a hard time too. And Johnny Paycheck had gone out on his own, and Willie replaced Johnny Paycheck on bass. And then he would play guitar sometimes.
GROSS: So, let's hear something from this Bob Wills tribute album - the one where Willie Nelson's featured in the band. I just looked at the recording date on this, it was recorded in 1961. And I thought we'd hear "Time Changes Everything." This is Ray Price.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME CHANGES EVERYTHING")
PRICE: (Singing) There was a time when I thought of no other. And we sang our own love's refrain. Our hearts beat as one as we had our fun but time changes everything. When you left me my poor heart was broken. Our romance seemed all in vain. The dark clouds are gone and there's blue skies again. For time changes everything.
GROSS: That's Ray Price from his 1961 album "San Antonio Rose." It's a tribute to Bob Wills and it's been reissued in the past couple of years. Was that Willie Nelson singing harmony, by the way?
PRICE: Could've been. Willie and I recorded a "San Antonio Rose" album in 19-around 1979, I think.
GROSS: Now, that was a big hit on the country charts.
PRICE: It was a big one.
PRICE: Real big.
GROSS: Yeah. Now, in the mid-'60s or so you started using more heavily arranged settings, you know, strings and orchestras, moving away from a more honky tonk kind of sound. What led you in that direction?
PRICE: The honky tonks.
GROSS: What do you mean?
PRICE: Yeah. It wasn't fun playing honky tonks and I was trying to broaden my audience out, you know.
PRICE: Also, I thought that if country music was going to really win approval all over the country they had to do something to kind of fix it where the people that listened to the Tony Bennetts and the Frank Sinatras and those people would like the song or the music. And country music songs are great. I think they're beautiful songs.
And to put the strings with them, that's my idea of how to make one really great song.
GROSS: Now, did that work for you? Did it get you where you wanted to be in venues that other pop singers were singing?
PRICE: Well, it got me into a lot of places. Yeah, sure did. I became one of Johnny Carson's favorite singers which I'm pretty proud of, and I did a lot of things with him in New York before he moved to California and afterwards. But, yeah, it got me to where I wanted to be and I got out of the honky tonks. And I still play dances every now and then for some of my old fans, but I'm not really into that anymore.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I want to get back to your new CD and as I mentioned earlier, some of the songs on here are jazz and pop standards.
GROSS: And I thought I'd play another that fits in that category. This is the song "Prisoner of Love." Tell me why you decided to sing this.
PRICE: Just a great song.
GROSS: It is.
PRICE: I remember back years ago when Perry Como recorded it.
PRICE: It's a great song.
GROSS: Do you like Perry Como?
PRICE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: So I've never heard it with this kind of band, a kind of, like, shuffle beat behind it before.
PRICE: That's the old brass beat, they call that.
PRICE: And we thought it would fit so we put it in there.
GROSS: It works very nicely. So why don't we hear it. And Ray Price, thank you so much for talking with us.
PRICE: Terry, it's been a pleasure. Thank you, dear.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISONER OF LOVE")
PRICE: (Singing) Alone from night to night you'll find me, too weak to break the chains that bind me. I need no shackles to remind me I'm just a prisoner of love. For one command I stand and wait now from one who's master of my fate now. I can't escape for it's too late now. I'm just a prisoner of love.
BIANCULLI: That's country artist Ray Price. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1999. He died Monday of pancreatic cancer at age 87. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Spike Jonze movie "Her." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.