Ray Price, the legendary country crooner who died Monday at his home in Mount Pleasant, was a familiar face in Fort Worth over his six-decade career.
From performances at the rowdy Panther Hall in the 1960s to concerts at Bass Performance Hall in the 21st century, Price and his Cherokee Cowboys band were always at home and among friends in Cowtown.
Price was instrumental in giving many distinguished musicians their start. They included Johnny Bush, Johnny Paycheck, Roger Miller, Roy Clark, Darrell McCall and steel guitar wizard Buddy Emmons. Perhaps his most well-known protege, however, was his best friend, Willie Nelson.
“In Fort Worth, he was a part of us,” said radio personality Bill Mack, a longtime friend of them both. “There was a strong friendship, especially between all the guys from Texas. Willie loved Ray and Ray loved him.”
Funeral services for Price, 87, are scheduled for Dec. 28 in Dallas at Restland Funeral Home, according to Mack, who is serving as the family spokesman. A memorial service will be held Saturday in Mount Pleasant at First Baptist Church.
A tribute concert will be planned later in Nashville.
Though Price often had to cancel concerts because of failing health during the past several years, everyone knew something was wrong when the Cherokee Cowboy was unable to attend Nelson’s annual 4th of July Picnic in the Stockyards.
“Ray was scheduled at the picnic, but was too ill to perform,” recalled Pam Minick, a Billy Bob’s Texas owner. “It was the first picnic he’d missed in four years. Up to the day of, Willie kept thinking he’d make it.”
Price had made it to the 2012 Picnic, though by then he was already under treatment for pancreatic cancer.
“I remember thinking that his voice was as rich and as pure as ever,” Minick said. “I don’t think anybody knew how ill or how bad the treatments were.”
Price played Bass Hall on Oct. 11, 2012, with Don Williams, and with Roy Clark in 2009.
He also performed during the reopening of the Arlington Music Hall on Nov.13, 2010.
“It was a sold-out show,” said Miriam Nava, who works in the vintage venue’s office. “It was the talk of the Music Hall around here.”
Price’s friends often use two words to explain the singer’s longevity in a cut-throat music business: That Voice.
“Ray, like Tony Bennett, as he got older his voice got better,” Mack said. “Ray was one of those people who had the talent to hold the audience in his hand.”
He could quiet a rowdy July 4th crowd with a smoky ballad like For The Good Times and get them revved up again with Heartaches By the Number.
“He never had the flashing lights,” Mack said. “He just wanted a microphone and a spotlight. He wanted to just get up and sing.”
Price was known to say that his all-time favorite concert of the thousands he played was, “wherever they like my music.”
His humor was of the deadpan variety.
“There would be a spark of a little smile, but he kept that same expression all the way through,” Mack recalled.
Price held a grudge against Nelson for the better part of a year after Nelson’s wife killed Price’s prize-fighting rooster after it wreaked havoc in the Nelsons’ hen house. He refused to record any of Nelson’s music.
“Ray called and said, ‘Where’s my rooster,’ ” said Mack, “and Willie said, ‘It’s right here. We’re having dinner.’ ”
Both men repeated the story many times through the years.
“I broke the news about Ray to Willie last night” Mack said on Tuesday. “Willie just said, ‘Well, he’s better off,’ but I could tell he took it hard.”
Friends say Price left fresh work on the turntable and bookings on the calendar.
He had completed a new album early this year and hoped to be alive to celebrate its release. He toured through the spring and had concert dates booked into 2014.
As it happened, Price’s last appearance in the Fort Worth area was not a concert hall or a big honkytonk. It was a benefit show at a rodeo arena outside Alvarado on April 2, a money-raiser for a friend with cancer.
Others on the bill were Robyn Young (Faron Young’s son), Kelly Spinks and Randy Travis. A disabling stroke nearly ended Travis' life a few weeks later.
Price and Travis sang Night Life together, said A.J. Luckett, who works at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
“It was a great show, and I sat and talked to Ray for about 30 minutes on the bus,” said Lockett. “He was in great spirits, he looked pretty good and was dressed nice. We talked about Ernest Tubb, and he laughed and talked about what a good ol’ boy Johnny Bush was.”
After the news of his death, fans visited the Tubb Record Shop in the Stockyards in a steady stream, poring over his many albums and adding them to their vintage music collections.
“For sure, we’re ordering special orders of his material,” said Jerry Weeks, owner of Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, Texas. “We have a great 20 Greatest Hits CD that people are coming in to buy today. Everybody’s remembering him today.
“He’s one of the most popular artists that we have; he’s the one everybody copies,” Weeks said. “You go to a Texas honkytonk, you can’t be there without hearing a Ray Price song.”