Standard Bearer

Ray Price’s recordings of the classic love songs are as good as Frank Sinatra’s. So why don’t more people know it?

ON THE NIGHT IN DECEMBER 2000 when Ray Price was scheduled to appear at the River Palace, in Johnson City, he was a bit late making his entrance. The crowd was patient, but as soon as the instruments began to be set up, a movement started toward the rim of the stage. By the time Price appeared, we were ringed there, three or four deep. He was 74 then, and we had come, its fair to say, for the valedictory pleasures: to hear “For the Good Times” and “Crazy Arms,” “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” It could almost be said we’d come less to see Ray Price than to remember him.

But though most of us didn’t know it, he was at a turning point in a career that had already seen one or two major ones. Some forty years before, Price had famously lost the affection and support of country purists by adding strings to his act and becoming, in effect, a pop balladeer. He’d tried to make that earlier transition gently. His 1963 album, Night Life, opened with a spoken introduction (“Well, hi, neighbors!”) in which he literally thanked his listeners for accepting the changes they were about to hear. Now he was once again asking us to accept something “a little different.” Price had recently released a new CD, Prisoner of Love, and in between generous helpings of  “Crazy” and “San Antonio Rose,” he was serving up a sample of what was on it. There was no “Hi, neighbors!” to this transition, however. That would be a little like Charon the boatman asking his passengers on the ride across the River Styx to mind the rough waters. For Price, the rough waters had become the whole point.

What he was doing was mining some of the more soulful standards of the thirties and forties—“Prisoner of Love,” “Body and Soul”—as only a mature singer in fine voice can, giving those elegant old songs the undergirding of a life fully lived, singing them with a gut-level honesty that made them moving in a way no younger man, however talented, could ever manage. As I listened I became aware that what Price was delivering up to me was less music than information. I had turned fifty that year, and Price’s late-life transition spoke to me with a certain intimacy: Here’s what it’s going to look like from now on, son. Pay attention. I did. As soon as I got back to Austin I bought Prisoner of Love, and in the subsequent six years, there’s no CD I’ve listened to as often, or as carefully.

It can be astonishing to realize, when you become a serious fan of a singer in middle age, how much a part of your musical landscape that singer has always been. As a nascent rock and roll fan in the fifties, I couldn’t have avoided Ray Price if I’d wanted to. His “Heartaches by the Number” was a number two country hit. It and other lesser-known songs—like “Please Talk to My Heart” and “Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)”—played on the radio stations my father used to listen to on our long drives together. The destination of those drives was usually the rooming house my father owned, where we’d clean up the rooms that had just been deserted by the mostly itinerant construction workers who rented from him. The detritus those guys left behind—empty whiskey bottles, crushed cigarette cartons, old copies of Argosy magazine—spoke to me in the same way those old Ray Price songs did. They were each indicators of a dry, empty man’s world that seemed far from any life I would ever be asked to live.

It’s one of the ironies of life that a singer who once repulsed me is now a singer who draws me in more than almost any other. But that has a lot to do with Price’s movement into the sort of music that has become a virtual requirement of my own middle age. The great standards, when seriously explored by a singer with Price’s range and depth of feeling, have come to act on me like a kind of liniment working its way into the emotional joints. They allow me to absorb, in the easiest way possible, some of the more difficult truths that demand to be reckoned with as old age creeps up.

That’s the effect Price has on me when he sings the title song on Prisoner of Love. Originally written for, and in part by, Russ Columbo, a big-deal crooner in the early thirties, it was a popular make-out song for teenagers. The lyrics are the conventional sentiments of jealousy and love enslavement (“For one command I stand and wait now/From one who’s master of my fate now”). Price manages to drain the song of all that is young and hormonal, while still allowing it to swing. To listen to his rendition is to be told, straight up, that age does nothing to temper longing. It doesn’t get neater out here on the outer gray-haired limits of love and sexuality. In fact, old love can be downright shaggy.

And yet Price’s personal elegance and clipped diction (like Tony Bennett, he’s a great enunciator) offer a guide to making it through these ravages with grace. The carefully tailored suits he wears in concert, the impeccably combed hair (his 2002 release, Time, has a credit for “Grooming/Styling”)—in all this lies a distinct and salutary attitude. “Go to the Cleaners” might be the perfect title for a late Ray Price song. Or “Don’t Neglect Your Nails.”

The trick of combining elegance

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