By Vicki Allen
(Reuters) – Country singer Ray Price, a pioneer of Texas honky-tonk music who later applied his rich baritone to lushly arranged ballads for pop crossover hits, died on Monday at his home in Mount Pleasant, Texas, at the age of 87, a family spokesman and a funeral home said.
The announcement of Price’s death came a day after a family member erroneously announced the singer, who had been battling pancreatic cancer, had died.
Price’s career spanned seven decades, during which he helped launch those of Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Bush, Hank Cochran and Johnny Paycheck, who were members of his Cherokee Cowboys band and wrote songs for him that became classics.
Price’s own career was given a boost by the legendary Hank Williams, who helped get him on the Grand Ole Opry. After Williams’ death, Price was his heir apparent to the raw, pared-down, honky-tonk sound.
In the 1950s, Price developed a style that broke country tradition by using drums to back a fairly slow but driving 4/4 bass-line that became known as the “Ray Price Beat.”
That beat fueled his ground-breaking “Crazy Arms,” which was No. 1 for 20 weeks and on the country charts for 45, and other hits that made him a major star and helped country music survive the rockabilly onslaught led by Elvis Presley.
In the 1960s, Price started experimenting with other styles, making a major break from traditional country with his lushly produced 1967 version of “Danny Boy” that showcased his huge voice and emotional range, and tapped into the pop market.
With its full orchestration and slick production, the style that came to be known as “countrypolitan” alienated Price’s hard-core country fans even as it contributed to other tuxedo-clad crooners with a rural twang.
But his melancholy 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” managed to bridge the gulf and it topped the country charts while reaching No. 11 on the pop charts.
Price’s later career saw him navigating among various musical styles, although not with the consistent commercial success he reached in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 2007 he recorded an album with Nelson and Merle Haggard and was still performing in 2013.
Price, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996, was born in Perryville, Texas. He had planned on becoming a veterinarian but interrupted school to join the Marines during World War Two and served in the Pacific.
Upon returning to Texas, he joined the Big D Jamboree radio show in Dallas, which eventually was broadcast nationally and gave him his first big exposure.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Edith Honan and Bob Burgdorfer)