That line from the lover’s lament, “For The Good Times,” which Ray Price took to No. 1 on the country charts and No. 11 on the pop charts in 1970, is appropriate after the 87-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member – regarded by many as country’s greatest voice – died Monday.
Kris Kristofferson, the man who penned that song – one of the masterworks of his catalogue of mostly melancholy classics – took some time out Tuesday at his home in Hawaii to reflect on the man who changed his life and influenced so many others.
“If there is a Country Music Mount Rushmore, Ray Price is up there with Hank Williams,” says Kristofferson, who had just gotten home from Florida – where he has been filming A Dolphin Tale 2 – when he was reached for comment.
Price, who had been fighting pancreatic cancer in a Tyler, Texas, hospital, left the hospital last Thursday (Dec. 12) and went home to live his final days under hospice care at his ranch near Mount Pleasant, Texas.
He had been in a long and mortal struggle with pancreatic cancer, and, according to reports, it had spread to his lungs, intestines and liver.
Price built his career more on a shuffling sort of honky-tonk beat before evolving into a crooner, with string accompaniment and taking such songs as “For The Good Times,” written by a then-young Kristofferson, to the top.
“He was as great a person as he was a singer, and I will never forget the Columbia Studio A filled with an orchestra with sheet music – unheard of in country music at the time – to record ‘For the Good Times,’ changing our lives and country music forever,” says Kristofferson, who had asked for some time to carefully ponder and then to write out his comments about his old friend and, in a very real way, mentor and champion.
That song marked a huge change in his career and in country music, in that Price made use of strings, which he cherished. Not all of his early fans were immediately won over by his use of strings on recordings and on the stage. But he persisted, helping establish a new flavor for the music he loved.
Of course, the strings were a far cry from Price’s early recordings.
Influenced by the Texas swing of his home state but also by his mentor, pal and roommate, Hank Williams – the other member of Kristofferson’s figurative Mount Rushmore – those songs included “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms,” “City Lights,” “Heartaches by the Number” “You’re the Best Thing That Happened to Me” and “Night Life.”
Price’s first big break in country music came when he moved to Nashville in the early 1950s after breaking in as a regional performer on the air and in nightclubs in his home state of Texas.
After arriving in Music City, Price roomed for a time with the man most regard as country’s poet laureate, Williams.
And when Williams fell victim to generally poor health and excesses in his lifestyle, Price took over for a time as manager and leader of his dead friend’s Drifting Cowboys band.
But he wasn’t content being so narrowly viewed as a spinoff from Williams.
With his own band, The Cherokee Cowboys, Price cut a mightily broad swath across the hybrid of Appalachian sounds and Texas swing that has become known as “country music.”
In 1953, Price formed that band. Members in the 1950s and early 1960s included a host of country legends and A-team pickers. Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Buddy Spicher and Johnny Bush were among the early members of The Cherokee Cowboys.
The players not only accompanied the boss, they also provided him some of his best music. Miller wrote “Invitation to the Blues” in 1958 and Nelson wrote “Night Life,” which became Price’s signature tune.
There likely was never a Ray Price concert in the last several decades that did not include “For The Good Times” and “Night Life.”
After establishing himself as “the voice of honky-tonk music” early in his career, Price – who long ago moved back to his beloved Texas – adapted, turning to a mellower crooner with an almost unprecedented range.
Revealing late in 2012 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Price, ever the showman, continued performing, taking the stage for the final time on May 4 at The Legend Club in Salado, Texas.
In his final months, he worked on an album, “Beauty Is,” which is expected to be released in the new year.
That “farewell” album reportedly includes such reflective songs as “I Wish I Was 18 Again,” a tune which indicates how much he cherished his life and career.
December 12, when he was released from the Tyler, Texas, hospital, he was at peace, according to his wife of 45 years, Janie Price.
She delivered her husband’s farewell to his legion of fans:
“I love my fans and have devoted my life to reaching out to them. I appreciate their support all these years, and I hope I haven’t let them down,” Price said.
“I am at peace. I love Jesus. I’m going to be just fine. Don’t worry about me. I’ll see you again one day.”
*Photos by Ray Price (including one of [L to R] Lisa Meyers Kristofferson, Ray Price and Kris Kristofferson) courtesy Price’s Facebook page, except for vintage photograph by Michael Ochs Archives courtesy Getty Images.