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?

April 2007By Comments

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 with emotional nakedness may be one Price picked up from Frank Sinatra, a singer he talks about with a certain reverence. There’s a way, though, in which Price is willing to go even further than Ol’ Blue Eyes. Perhaps it’s a function of keeping his voice limber longer than Sinatra did. On “Fly Me to the Moon” he sounds appealingly tired, emotionally exhausted but willing to try again, undaunted by previous failures. Sinatra made the song sound “cocksure,” as Bono once described it. In Price’s hands, it sounds, at best, “cock-hopeful,” which on the far side of fifty seems like plenty.

Prisoner of Love didn’t, alas, usher in the entirely new phase in Price’s career that I was greedily looking forward to. I wanted to see what he would do with songs like “These Foolish Things” and “Some Other Time,” classics of romantic regret that seem to cry out for Price’s brand of plangency. But Prisoner was not quite popular enough, or widely hailed enough, to allow him to set out fully in this new direction. He followed with Time, an impeccably arranged, beautifully sung record that feels like a throwback to an earlier Ray Price. The songs seem to constrict his emotional range. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a lyric like “If it’s all the same to you/I’ll be leaving in the morning,” but to hear Price’s utterly competent reading of it alongside his magisterial take on the opening lyrics of “Body and Soul” (“My heart is sad and lonely/For you I sigh, for you dear only”) is to become aware of the larger space the standards inhabit. It’s almost as if those songs achieve their greatness by being as unspecific as possible, leaving all the important details to the gentleman who happens to be singing them.

So I called on Price one afternoon at his ranch up near Mount Pleasant, wanting, selfishly, to find out if he had further plans to record the kinds of songs I seem to need, these days, to hear him sing.

I managed to get lost on the way, though, and had to wait by the side of the road until he showed up in his pickup to guide me in. My first sight of him was a shock: Behind the steering wheel, the avatar of courtly neatness, of tailored suits and clean nails, was sporting a couple days’ worth of facial hair. He took me to his tour bus and proceeded to bring out his electric shaver and begin shaving.

I had to shout a little to be heard over the shaver, not the best way to ask delicate questions about music. There must be a little bit of King Lear in every old man (Price turned 81 this year), because the first thing he offered me was a fine sampling of rage, primarily against radio stations that don’t play his new stuff.

“Are you going to do more of what you did on Prisoner of Love?” I asked. “More of the standards?”

“They’re great love songs, that’s all,” he said. “I don’t care how old they are. Music passed its best years ago. All the great writers . . . ” He stopped and stared out the window at his nineteen thoroughbreds (“Nineteen too many”). When he turned back, it was to tell me, with some sadness, that his initial attempts to sing such songs were made at the urging of his longtime pianist and conductor Moises “Blondie” Calderon, who died in 2000. Moises, he said, goaded him into trying “Body and Soul,” to show “the sons of bitches” that he could sing it.

Who, I wanted to know, were the sons of bitches? Price is, after all, enjoying something of a renaissance. He continues to tour. He recently headed out with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard on a series of concerts to promote their new CD, Last of the Breed. He’s in relatively good health, and he plans this year to sit down and write his memoirs, which he told me he’d call For the Good Times—My Ass! But in that trailer we were never far from King Lear’s heath. Talking about the sons of bitches, the words “the North” started to creep into our conversation, representing a sort of cafe society that zealously guards the old songs and in so doing keeps Ray Price from fulfilling his potential as a singer. To demonstrate that potential, he put on a CD of his called Portrait of a Singer.

I hadn’t known of Portrait of a Singer. Originally recorded on a small label in 1985, it’s composed entirely of standards, sung over Nelson Riddle—style arrangements, with occasionally, as Price pointed out proudly, a steel guitar bridge. It’s all lush and gorgeous, but when he gave me the CD and I opened the case to read the liner notes, I found none, just a cheap piece of paper listing the songs. The record is Price’s biggest foray into this kind of music (even Prisoner of Love contained a couple of honky-tonk songs to keep the old customers satisfied), but it looks and feels like a garage band’s first self-produced effort. Holding it, what became clear to me was that nobody, least of all the money folks up north, was willing to put up the dough to support his doing this kind of thing; when he’s doing it, he’s doing it for love.

As we listened to the album, the song “You’ll Never Know” came on. The lyrics are about unspeakable longing (“You’ll never know/Just how much I love you”), and, as if moved by it anew, Price started singing along. I couldn’t quite believe my good fortune: a private concert.

It turned out that within a week I was listening to the song again, sung in New York at a memorial service for an old friend, the actor Barnard Hughes. The singer in that instance was Christine Ebersole, the toast of Broadway in Grey Gardens, the sons of bitches’ favorite singer of the moment. To be fair, she’s got a terrific voice, but it’s not a voice that carries much weight. In New York, we all listened to the song, briefly moved, then it was on to Sardi’s.

That wasn’t the case in Ray Price’s bus in Mount Pleasant. Listening to him sing the song was like listening to an old man in a bar tell a story in the late afternoon, the light outside falling, a first hint of snow coming down. In the hands of a great singer, even words of bleakness and loss can make you not want to leave the room.

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