The lights dim. The sixtyish-looking woman beside me, a complete stranger until fifteen minutes ago, clutches my arm in excitement. It's the first time she'll see Ray Price in person.
This mature audience in Laughlin, Nevada, seems to appreciate the fact that the living legend on stage, now in his early seventies, is still youthfully handsome, his voice as powerful and melodious as ever.
Near the end of the show, Ray introduces a song written, he tells us, by a "dear friend" who brought him as a young Texas kid to Nashville and got him on the Grand Ole Opry. "I lived with my friend for almost a year before he passed away."
He pauses, his eyes seeming to wander back to that long-ago time. "So, if you-all don't mind, I'd like to sing you one of the late Hank Williams' songs."
The crowd responds with a huge ovation as Ray begins Hank's "Mansion on the Hill."
After the show I'm set to interview Ray Price. I want to learn more about that famed friendship. It's a dramatic story, I feel, one that will say much about how a true friend can ease your path, whether you're on the way up--or the way down.
The year was 1951. Early autumn. There was a slight chill in the air outside on Nashville's streets. Inside Studio C at station WSM, the atmosphere was tense for the dark-haired young singer from Texas.
He had just driven all the way to Nashville, probably breaking a few speed laws on the way. If there were stars in the newcomer's intense blue eyes, he had every reason to be thrilled and enormously impressed.
Ray Price was about to meet Hank Williams, the reigning country music star of the day. Not only that, Ray was going to sing on his show.
Ray had a few minor recordings and some local Texas performances behind him. Twenty-eight-year-old Hank Williams was already a national phenomenon. Songs he'd written were blasting from every radio and juke box across the country.
But ole Hank didn't let that stand between them.
Ray, recalling that first meeting, says. "It was one of those instant friendships. I liked him; he liked me. For some reason we hit it off right away."
They went to Hank's home after the show and talked for hours about their hopes and dreams. Price, a 25-year-old former veterinary student, had a clear, vibrant voice that many felt might be wasted just talking to horses. He had recently signed with Columbia Records.
"All you need," Hank told him, "is a hit record. And I'm going to write one for you."
Quite an offer. At that time Hank's songs were being grabbed up by big-name pop singers like Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford and Rosemary Clooney. Tunes like "Cold, Cold Heart," and "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You" were hitting the tops of the charts in both country and pop markets.
Hank followed up on his promise. The day after they met, he took Ray with him to a singing engagement in Evansville, Indiana. During the miles of rolling countryside between Nashville and Southern Indiana, creative ideas flew back and forth. Hank and Ray ended up writing "Weary Blues from Waiting" together.
Said Ray, "We'd think up a line, each one of us, and then we'd do another. When we got there it was all written. I didn't put my name on it because I couldn't; I was with another company."
Quite a team. Hank, who has been dubbed "The Hillbilly Shakespeare," could capture heartfelt emotion with ease in a few poetic word pictures. By the end of his brief life, he'd written 129 songs, many of them still favorites today.
Ray, a fine songwriter too, had the more powerful impressive voice. But in mid-October 1951, it must have made sense for Ray to record "Weary Blues from Waiting" in Hank's highly popular plaintive style.
Columbia released "Weary Blues" in November and gave it a big advertising/publicity splash because it was, after all, a Hank Williams song. But it didn't turn out to be the big hit hoped for, the hit that would have led to the Grand Ole Opry, the mecca of all country music performers.
Hank didn't let that stop him. A few weeks later, he phoned Ray, who was performing back in Texas, and gave him the big news. If he could be in Nashville by the next day, he had a spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Another frantic trip. Ray burned rubber off four tires getting there.
In January 1952, Ray moved to Nashville and soon became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. A world of possibilities was opening up for him.
But while Ray was moving upward in his climb to fame, Hank began to hurtle into free fall. He'd reached the pinnacle of his brief career, and his meteoric blaze in the sun would soon burn out.
Separation that January from his wife, Audrey, started off the downhill plunge. Severe problems from a recent back operation added fuel to increase the periodic drinking that had long plagued him. Hank began to drink more and more to ease the the pain and heartache.
His career suffered. Although he was still writing and selling songs, he began to miss perfomances or, worse yet, stagger on stage drunk.
Ray was quick to defend Hank on that score. "He was not the type to go out in public drunk. When he drank, he drank a glassful at one time, and then another glassful, until he was totally wiped out. And he would stay in his room. The operators or the promoters would drag him out drunk."
Ray was hired to accompany Hank on his singing engagements. "They used to send me along to sort of look out for him," Ray explained. "They knew Hank liked me, that he'd listen to me."
But Hank's drinking put Ray in a tight spot more than a few times. In a scathing review, a newspaper reporter described one of these performances in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 29, 1952. It told how Ray Price had to come on stage and apologize for Hank, stall the crowd by singing Hank's songs, and then declare a half-hour intermission.
When Hank finally appeared, he was so drunk that fans began to demand their money back. Ray tried to calm everyone down, calling out, "We all love you, Hank, don't we?"
How did it feel filling in for Hank on these tours? Ray's response was fond and overly modest. "There was no way I could fill in for Hank; all I could do was kill time for him." With a reminiscent smile, he added, "He was the top dog."
Ray was not about to let Hank down. After Hank and his wife separated and Hank needed a place to stay, Ray came to his rescue. The two moved into a two-story stone duplex in Nashville. Ray lived upstairs and Hank on the first floor.
Ray did most of the housework and looked after Hank while he recuperated from the back operation he'd undergone a few weeks earlier. At that point, Hank was optimistic he could patch things up with Audrey and go back to his home and family.
But taking care of Hank proved as much of a challenge as touring with him. His alcoholism had advanced to the point where he wouldn't eat while he was drinking. But if Ray could get him to start eating, he'd straighten out.
If the food wouldn't stay down, however, he'd reach for the bottle right away and just sit in his room and keep on drinking.
The last straw was when Hank lost hope that Audrey would reconcile with him. When she filed for divorce Hank was devastated.
According to Ray, who accompanied Hank to the property settlement discussions, Hank was overly generous, giving Audrey much more than was required. He wanted to prove to her how much he still loved her. The divorce went through anyway and plunged Hank into further gloom.
In the brief year Hank and Ray knew each other, there was not much time for light-hearted moments, for the hunting and fishing they might have shared in happier times. "We went and tried to fish, but..." Ray's voice trailed off, seemingly reluctant to explain just why the fishing trip never came off. He shifted the subject. "He liked to shoot a pistol. We'd go out on the target range."
Hank continued to write songs for Ray. One of them was "I Can't Escape From You," which Ray duly recorded. But Hank also offered Ray some of his biggest hits, songs like "Jambalaya," and "Take These Chains From My Heart." Hank would bounce them off Ray and ask "What do you think of it? I wrote it for you."
When Ray predicted they would be hits, Hank would often change his mind and take them back to record himself.
Possibly Hank recognized Ray's ability to spot a hit, an ability proven later when Ray helped "launch" the songwriting careers of such "greats" as Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson and Kris Kristofferson.
During the early months of 1952, living in the same house with Hank as his alcoholism progressed must have been difficult. One evening, Hank is said to have double-dated with singer Faron Young, but Hank preferred Faron's girl to his own. By the end of the evening when Hank was loaded, he called Faron into a bedroom and pointed a gun at him. He wanted to switch girls; he claimed to have fallen for Faron's date. Faron, understandably, agreed.
Whether that story is true or not, Hank did end up marrying the girl, Billie Jean, later that year. But Billie Jean couldn't stop Hank on his downhill plunge.
Hank finally became so far gone in his alcoholism that Ray, along with Don Helms, a member of Hank's band, were afraid he'd drink himself to death. They arranged to have him sedated and committed to the Madison Sanitarium to undergo treatment.
Hank Williams' biographers have written that Hank was so furious that he ordered Ray to move out of the house, then later apologized and begged him not to leave. Ray, who was already loading a truck, is said to have responded. "I've got to."
Ray revealed to me that he moved out of the house at that time, but not out of Hank's life. He moved for personal reasons that had nothing to do with Hank. He continued to be very much involved with Hank's activities.
In August, Hank's drinking problem became too much for the Grand Ole Opry, where he had been a top star. They fired him. After Audrey and the divorce, it was another devastating loss for Hank. He left town to go to work for the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.
Ray remembers the day Hank left Nashville. As he was driving into town, he saw Hank in a service station, standing beside his Cadillac. Hank lifted his hand and motioned for Ray to stop. "Where are you going?" Hank asked as Ray pulled in.
"Where are you going?" Ray wanted to know.
"Back to Shreveport." He kind of laughed when he asked Ray, "You wanta come?"
"I better not," Ray said.
He would only see Hank alive one more time after that.
Ray's career success continued to escalate in Nashville that fall as he became one of the the hottest entertainers in town.
Hank had dreams of straightening out his life and returning to the Grand Ole Opry. It never happened.
The final meeting of the two friends occurred at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas shortly before Christmas 1952.
Hank caught sight of his friend and walked toward him smiling, singing a few lines from Ray's latest hit, "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes." They talked, and Hank suggested to Ray and his mother that he "might just come over and spend Christmas with you." They warmly invited him to do so, but Hank went back to his family in Alabama instead.
Hank and Ray did make plans to get together in Ohio, however. They both had engagements in that state on New Year's Eve--Ray in Cleveland, Hank in Canton, fifty miles away. They arranged to meet in Canton on New Year's Day.
By the end of 1952, the mid-section of the country was in the throes of a fierce winter storm. Hank, who had planned to fly to Canton, hired a chauffeur instead to drive him North in his powder blue Cadillac sedan.
Ray was able to get the last flight out of Nashville.
Hank couldn't sleep the night before that trip. He told his new wife, Billie Jean, that he saw "God comin' down the road."
His health had been deteriorating. The trip was to prove his undoing. He died somewhere in West Virginia in the back seat of his Cadillac. The driver knew Hank had been drinking heavily and thought he had merely passed out. The death wasn't discovered until they pulled into the town of Oak Hill on New Year's day. Officially his demise was attributed to a heart attack.
The meeting in Canton, Ohio, on New Year's Day between the two friends never took place.
Instead, Ray was among a host of fellow performers bidding goodbye to the great Hank Williams at a massive funeral in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 4, 1953. All the stars of the Opry were there. The radio stations had been playing his music night and day. Fans wept. Hank was back in the fold again, a country music legend for all time.
Hank Williams's career was brief, but unforgettable. In 1962, he one of the first performers to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Ray Price is still a star, a living legend, who has helped revolutionize more than a few changes in country music. In 1956, Ray's unique recording of "Crazy Arms" was a top hit for forty-five weeks, knocking even Elvis off the charts. It clearly established Ray Price as a leading light in country music.
But Ray, in 1967, went in a new direction and with his concert-calibre voice, backed by dozens of violins, soared into a beautiful, show-stopping rendition of the classic, "Danny Boy."
Unperturbed by criticism that he had deserted country music, Ray went on to new cross-over heights with his early 1970's hits, "For the Good Times," and "I Won't Mention it Again." Erasing the boundaries between country and pop became a vital issue for Ray Price.
He had long resented the fact that Hank's songs were eagerly gobbled up by the pop world, but the country singer himself found it more difficult to cross over at that time.
Today, however, Hank Williams is a household word, and Ray, still touring throughout the country, pays tribute to his mentor at each concert.
In 1996, Ray Price was inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. In 1999, he celebrates his fiftieth successful year in the music business.
Hank would have been proud of his protege.
(If you are interested in reading the author's expanded version of this article that includes astrological insights about the story, see Rose Murray's Celebrity Astrology News.)