Ray Price – Burning Memories
“Jealous Lies” is a bad record. Price croons the unremarkable song in a style obviously inspired by pop-country singer George Morgan’s smash hit of the previous year, “Candy Kisses”, but his voice is high and thin and, at this early date, too far beyond his control for such a subtle approach. To employ vibrato, for instance, you must not only be able to hit a note but sustain it, and the 24-year-old Price could not.
But viewing this first single, in conjunction with the young singer’s attraction to mid-century pop music in general, as the literal and aesthetic starting points of the Ray Price story provides a new shape to that story. It’s a different perspective than beginning a couple of years later with Price as a Hank Williams wannabe, as most accounts of his history have done. Seen through a pop lens, evolutions in the Price sound can be heard not as betrayals but as fulfillments; seeming innovations can also be understood as savvy compromises; once-clear distinctions begin to blur. The details of the story remain the same, but they build to different crescendos.
“Jealous Lies” was released on Bullet Records. The label’s greatest success was “Near You”, a swingy, piano-driven number by Francis Craig & His Orchestra that had been the nation’s biggest pop hit in 1947. (Thirty years later, George Jones and Tammy Wynette would top the country charts with the song.) Price’s debut single, delivered in an unimpressive, pop-derived croon, went nowhere, but that didn’t stop him from sticking with the style. Price signed to Columbia Records in 1951, and of the first three singles he released that year, all six sides could fairly be said to continue this crooning pop style.
Then Price received “Weary Blues” from his new friend Hank Williams. Soon he was also borrowing Williams’ band in the studio. Over the next two years, virtually everything Price released — some 20 sides — closely followed the Hank blueprint. “I don’t care if Bing Crosby was singing in front of that band, he’d sound like Hank Williams,” Price says today, and while this is certainly overstatement, his choice of example is telling.
At any rate, sounding like ol’ Hank didn’t generate much more chart success than had his original country-pop approach. One of the few diversions from the Hank form was Price’s second charting single, “Don’t’ Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes”, which featured a rousing saloon-styled piano. A few months later, Perry Como topped the pop charts with a big, brassy version of the song.
In fact, country songs on the pop charts were a significant trend at the dawn of Price’s career. Former Oklahoma country singer Patti Page had scored 1951’s biggest pop hit with a cover of Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz”. Tony Bennett hit with a soaring-strings rendition of Hank’s own “Cold, Cold Heart”. And so on. “I noticed years ago the pop people would come in and get the great country songs and sell millions of them, as pop songs,” Price remembers. “So there’s no difference in my opinion. It’s the way they’re, you might say, portrayed.”
“Release Me”, hitting the country charts in the spring of 1954, began the process of returning Price to the pop crooning that was his first love. His voice had deepened since “Jealous Lies”, and it would now do what he wanted. There’s still a good deal of Hank in his delivery, but there are also moments in the phrasing and inflection where the singer sounds more like a twangy Bing Crosby — that is, like Tommy Duncan — than Hank Williams. Musically, the arrangement also leans toward western swing, itself a country form with more than a little connection to big-band jazz.
As time passed, Price refined his new pop-influenced delivery. In 1955, he cut for the first time a song called “Let Me Talk To You”, which he sang in a big, nearly bel canto style; his vibrato here and elsewhere hints at the way Tony Bennett sang Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” or, in 1953, “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight”. By the time Price recorded his signature number, “Crazy Arms”, in 1956, his Crosby-and-Bennett by way of Williams-and-Duncan vocal style was nearing perfection.
Rock ‘n’ roll had invaded country by then, too. So in a canny maneuver, Price borrowed the 4/4 time already associated on country radio with the rockin’ pop attack of Presley, Perkins and Johnny Cash. “Crazy Arms” topped the country charts all summer, climbing to #27 on the Honor Roll Of Hits pop chart and leading Jerry Lee Lewis to release the song as his first single. It was finally knocked out of the top country spot by a big, swooning love ballad, Elvis Presley’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”.
Over the next decade, Price released hit after hit with his new brand of post-Elvis, pop-influenced honky-tonk. However, with rock ‘n’ roll pressing in on the left, and the Nashville Sound pushing back on the right, Price’s modern, pop-influenced sound was received by many country fans not as pop at all, or even very modern, but as downright traditional.
Still, Price’s country recordings, fiddles and all, somehow managed to break into the lower reaches of the pop charts: “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You” made it to #63 in 1957, and “City Lights” went nearly as high the following year.
Occasionally, pop performers would release versions of these singles — Debbie Reynolds had a minor hit with “City Lights” in 1960, for instance — that climbed not much higher on the pop charts than Price’s had, despite all their violins. In 1959, Guy Mitchell scored a #1 pop hit with an insipid cover of “Heartaches By The Number”, then just missed the Top 40 the following year with versions of “The Same Old Me” and “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You”.
Almost as soon as he had achieved consistent success on the country charts, Price began experimenting with poppier sounds. On various 1957 recordings, Price was a Nashville Sound star, a singing cowboy, a jazz singer. On a second try at “Let Me Talk To You”, he employed fiddle work that sounded suspiciously like a violin, and was more indebted to the early dramatic style of Tony Bennett than ever. “Tony Bennett is a great, great singer,” Price says. “I’ve loved him for years and years.”