An apprehensive Janie Price was meeting with a journalist at a Midtown Manhattan hotel the day before her Oct. 25 appearance on Huckabee and asked him if he had any tips on how to handle it.
But he did wonder why the loquacious and devoted widow of the great country star Ray Price would be nervous.
“I lined up a thousand interviews for my husband, but never did them myself,” she explained. She’s only doing them now, she said, “because they made me.”
She meant record company executives–but so did her husband, who died last December 16 after an unusually long fight with pancreatic cancer.
“When Ray’s tumor came back and he wasn’t able to take any more treatments, he told me, ‘You have to help promote the record.’ He had every intention of doing it himself.”
The record, Beauty Is…The Final Sessions, was released in April. It was recorded during Price’s final months, and unbeknownst to his wife, was meant to be a final declaration of his love for her.
“I said, ‘My God, honey. I’ve never done anything like this before!’” she continued. “He said, ‘But you’re going to be the closest thing people will have to reach out and touch, and you’ve got to make yourself available to do anything to help promote this record.’ Of course I promised him I would.”
But what exactly could she do? she wondered.
“`One thing you can do is talk!’ Ray said. ‘But what will I talk about?’ I asked–a wife asking her husband. And he said, ‘I’ve chosen the best people to take this project and run with it after I’m gone. These people know what they’re doing and I have faith and trust in them, so whatever they say, just do it.”
Specifically, “he said, ‘You just talk. When they ask you something, just talk—and don’t tell me you can’t talk. You’ve talked my ears off for 43 and a-half years! So don’t tell me you can’t talk.”
She concedes that while “Ray wasn’t a talker, I am.”
“He’d be trying to watch Gunsmoke and I’d be trying to tell him what I did that day, and he’d just go, ‘Uh-huh.’”
Ray Price, who had suffered major illnesses over the preceding decade, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on August 19, 2011. Like everything in her life with him, Price remembers everything to the exact date.
“He had medical problems we didn’t’ talk about,” she said, “because in those days an entertainer was scared to let anything out for fear of losing contracts. But we were lucky to catch the cancer in the early stages: What happens with most people, the survival rate is 30 to 120 days. Six months is a great thing, but Ray Price lived 25 months! We caught it in time and he went into remission—which is where the album came from.”
Remarkably, Price, who first came to fame in the 1950s for a honky-tonk sound famously known as “the Ray Price Shuffle” on hits like “Crazy Arms,” then changed direction in the ‘60s with lush “Nashville sound” ballad hits including “Danny Boy” and “For the Good Times,” somehow found the stamina to give it one last go—with help from his old friend, legendary Nashville producer/entrepreneur Fred Foster.
“He called Fred Foster and said, ‘Is there any chance an old fellow like me could be able to possibly have any type of hit record at my age?’ and Fred told him, ‘Ray, the business has changed so drastically. It’s not anything like it was when you and I were young men and at the peaks of our careers.’ And he thought a long time and said, ‘But you know what? If anybody can do it, Ray Price can! I’m willing to give it a try if you want to.’”
Foster gathered the repertoire.
“I can’t tell you how many boxes and boxes of songs were shipping in from UPS,” said Price. “Ray would then get into the pickup or car and go for a ride and listen to each one. He had the ability to listen to a song, where he only had to listen to five bars–or not even finish an entire sentence of a demo–and off it came—unless he heard one and turned it up. Then I knew right then that he had one he was interested in. That’s how he chose all those wonderful songs he had on this album.”
Each of the 12 songs, she noted, “represented a time in history for people to go back and connect with–to show people that love is timeless.”
“Like ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ goes back to the 1800s. He wanted people to understand that love is timelsess, and ‘hear the sound I’ve spent every cent I ever earned and risked my entire career to bring to them,’ he said. ‘It’s the culmination of a dream of mine—these love songs—and I leave them for you to know how much I truly loved you, and if you want to share them with the world, it’s entirely up to you.’ But I didn’t know this at the time. Not until Fred said, ‘Janie. How does it feel to be the most loved woman in the world?’ and I didn’t know what he was talking about. And then Ray said, ‘Yes, I recorded the album for you. You can put it in shoebox or share it with the world. It’s entirely up to you.’ No way I could not share this, and went forward with plans to release it, and amazingly I believe his last dream is coming true.”
“If God’s hand is not in this project, there isn’t a god,” said Price. “How could it be that his last big hit was in 1974 [‘Roses and Love Songs’] and he then lost his major label contract, but kept making albums on small independent labels year after year, album after album, never having a big push behind them but selling them successfully entirely to his fan base at concerts—because his fans continued to request that he keep going to the studio and recording? Fast-forward to 2013 when he was 87 and diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and said, ‘I want to do one last album for my fans’ and Fred said, ‘If anyone can do it you can,’ and they put together all those songs and Vince Gill and Martina McBride wanted to have the honor of being on those last sessions.”
Indeed, Gill is on two Beauty Is… tracks–“Beauty Lies in the Eyes of the Beholder” and “Until Then.” McBride is on “An Affair to Remember.” Price said that the album has been cited in 12 categories in the first round of Grammy Awards voting.
“How else could this project come this far, with a man who’s no longer alive pulling in his wife who hasn’t done anything like this before, and get this kind of success?” wondered Price.
Price, incidentally, gave up modeling and dreams of an acting career to become the second Mrs. Ray Price.
“I’d also worked for the district attorney and managed retail stores, and he asked me if I’d be willing to quit my career and take over his business,” she recalled. “He was 20 years my senior, and I looked into his blue eyes and never looked back! He was a quiet man, yet had this presence about him that was totally consuming and magnetic and just drew you in. He’d just left Nashville and moved back home to Texas to start over where his roots were, and we accidentally met and married after his divorce was final—June 11, 1970. He said, ‘The one who sings best needs to sing, and the one who does accounting best needs to do accounting.’ Thank God I had the experience of working as a legal secretary, and put together a new business team for him to re-establish his career. Looking back now, I see that this man saved me from an unknown future, which could have been disastrous: The wolves in Hollywood would have eaten me up!”
Her husband, however, was “one of those ultimate professionals: He, lived his life just as the image people have of him. He never did anything compromising to his character, and taught me to fall in line and act the part–and I actually became the part!”
Mike Huckabee, she said, was taping his show with her; not wanting it to get “lost in the shuffle of the Ebola scare and elections,” he’s saving it to air close to the first-year anniversary of his passing.
“Forty-three years, six months and eight days,” she said, reciting the duration of their marriage. “Not nearly long enough.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” the journalist said.
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