Ray Price, 1972

Ray Price, 1972
 
by Hal Bynum (July 2006)
 
 
    A few days before the Ray Price session, Ray Pennington had called Hal and told him Price had never sent a tape to Cam Mullins. “Cam cain’t do the arrangements till he gets that tape. You better take a copy of it out to his house. That’s the song he’s goin’ in to get. He says it’s a monster.”
    Pennington told him how to get to Cam’s house and he was driving slowly along the curved street when he saw Cam’s wife squatting in the yard, trimming the grass from the sidewalk.
    “Cam’s in the back of the house working. Just keep banging till he hears you.”
    Hal rapped on the wood part of the screen door and then turned and watched the woman as she moved in the skin-tight shorts.
    The music coming from somewhere inside the house stopped abruptly and in a few moments Cam appeared in the doorway, squinting out into the bright light, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He came out to take the tape and they stood talking, Cam on the little concrete porch and Hal on the sidewalk. They chatted about the heat and what it was doing to the climber roses, Hal careful not to look at Cam’s wife.
     “When I do yours, I’ll have ‘em all.   I’m just finishing a Gallico song and I already did ‘Oh Lonesome Me.’”
    “Gallico song?” Hal felt his stomach muscles suddenly tighten. “Has Gallico finally got to Price?”
     Cam flicked the cigarette in an arc that ended in the grass, “Well, you know, it’s contract time and things get kind of hairy.” He studied Hal’s face and then said, “I wouldn’t worry about it though, it’s a piece of shit. ‘She’s Got to be a Saint, but I Ain’t.’ It’s a piece of shit. Some New York writers tryin’ to write hillbilly. Your tune’s the one they’re going in to get.”
     Hal had left the motor running and the air conditioner going. When he leaned back in the seat and put the car in gear, the refrigerated air chilled his sweat‑soaked shirt and a shiver went over him.
    “Goddamn Gallico!” he thought, feeling the New York publisher’s tentacles beginning to wrap themselves around him again. “Even on a Price session there’s no way to get a song around the son of a bitch.”
    He pulled into a driveway across the street and turned back the way he had come, so he wouldn’t get lost.
 
                                        *        *      *
 
     The night of the session, Hal entered the back door of Columbia Records and walked toward Studio A. Brenton Banks was standing in the hall talking to another string player and he turned to shake hands with Hal, switching a styrofoam cup of coffee to his left hand. “Howzit goin’ man? Your tune sounds great.”              
     While he was talking, Hal was reaching around to shake hands with another string player, mumbling greetings and then turning back to Brenton he asked, “He already did it?” wondering about the lyrics.
     “Yeah man, it’s fine. It’s a fine tune.”
    Brenton was smiling his loving Guru smile, the fringe of hair and the Van Dyke beard white against the indigo skin. He looked straight, and Hal guessed that he hadn’t had a chance to go out to the parking lot and smoke pot during the session.
    Cynthia came out of the studio, her belly huge under the summer dress. When she saw him, she smiled the happy smile and that was always a little tentative, ready to be changed into a wry grin if she was not well received. He saw a quick picture of her as a little girl, mistreated by the grim and embittered mother. The big double violin case she carried dwarfed her and there was something brave and defiant about the tiny pregnant woman that warmed and eased the cold knot in his stomach.
     “Where have you been? Have you heard your song? It’s great! It came off beautiful! They’re going to overdub the Gallico song. It is a piece of shit.” She laughed, glancing down the hall to see who was listening.
     “Did Price know the song?”     
     “Did he ever! I’m telling you, it’s great. It’s a hit.” She suddenly became embarrassed at being so exuberant in the presence of the other string players. They were emerging from the studio and hurrying down the hall, clutching their cases and fleeing from the debasement and shame of having been involved with the country music they loathed and mocked, and yet were so dependent on.
     Hal wished they all had to go up to Price and thank him for the money that bought the Mercedes Benz’s and the little vases and paintings that symbolized culture and affluence. They walked toward the control room, Hal not offering to carry the heavy case, as she told him about the session.
     “They got ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ down right away and then worked on your song for over two hours. Price seemed to be stalling to keep from doing the Gallico song.   When they finally finished ‘Everything That’s Beautiful,’ Don Law came out into the studio and talked with Price a minute and then thanked the musicians and told us we could go, but a man in the control room got on the talk back and said, ‘The session’s not over, we’re going to get the last song.’ They got it the first take.” 
     “What man are you talkin’ about?” Hal paused with his hand on the control room door and turned toward her. “Was it Sherrill?”
     “No dummy! Don’t you think I know Billy Sherrill?”
     “If it wasn’t Sherrill, I don’t know who it was.” He began to feel the knot in his stomach again.
    He pushed the door open and let her go past him, the heavy case bumping against his bad knee.
    They walked past the little alcove where the sixteen track sat, and he shook hands with Charlie Bradley, the back‑up engineer, as the wide tape rewound at high speed. 
     They continued moving toward the far wall of the control room, past the big black leather couch along the back. There was a love seat and two easy chairs along the side wall where Price’s wife and Irene Stanton sat side by side. Hal sat down at the far end of the love seat, in the corner of the room. Cynthia carefully placed the violin case against the seat and then sat down by him, her legs and feet protecting the instruments.
     Janie, Price’s wife, leaned forward and called past Irene and Cynthia, “Have you heard your song yet?” She was a beautiful brunette, about half Price’s age.
     Hal leaned forward, “No, we just got here. How’d it come off?”
    She clasped her hands in front of her in a gesture of gratitude and said reverently, “It’s an absolute monster!”
     The knot in Hal’s stomach immediately dissolved into warmth and he said, “Great!” and then added with more restraint, “I can’t wait to hear it.” He hadn’t figured her out yet.
     Janie introduced Hal and Cynthia to Irene Stanton and told her he had written the ballad.
     Irene shook hands with them and said, “Yes, I remember Hal from talking to him on the phone. ‘Everything That’s Beautiful Reminds Me of You,’ what a lovely song!”
     “Well thank you, that means a lot coming from a fine songwriter like yourself.” He hoped it didn’t sound too phony. Irene had used her position as Don Law’s secretary‑mistress‑nurse to become half writer on a lot of songs she had never written any part of. ‘Access, my God. In this business it’s all access,’ he thought, feeling a rush of rebellion again.
     Apparently she didn’t find anything wrong with his compliment. She gave him a warm smile and said, “I always enjoy your songs.” Hal looked around the room. Lou Bradley, Columbia’s best engineer was at the board, adjusting the myriad knobs, buttons and switches.  He was Charlie and Owen Bradley’s cousin. Beyond the console, Price and Cam were standing close together, engrossed in conversation.
     Inside the isolation room, Don Law was chatting with Grady Martin, the hulking, morose and aging guitar player, as the other musicians packed their instruments amid the maze of metal chairs, baffle walls and jumbled electric wiring. At the other end of the console stood Cynthia’s mystery man, Ron Bledsoe, taut, alert and purposeful. 
    Bledsoe had big basset hound eyes, but they were hooded and cold, like a pawnbroker’s, and he was all business. He was Clive Davis’ fair-haired boy sent to Nashville to wrest control from the un-business‑like hillbillies and teach them “The Gospel of the Bottom Line.” 
     He made no effort to hide the disdain he felt for the uneducated and disorganized rabble who made the music. To him they were a necessary evil in the otherwise orderly process of getting worthless plastic discs into homes and extracting money to be deposited in New York banks.
    He had a Beatle haircut and wore perfectly fitting mod clothes with a medallion hung around his neck on a gold chain, but they were props.   Hal had seen him driving his Rolls Royce and thought, ‘What a strange sight, a machine driving a machine.’  
    Clive Davis was the president of Columbia Records and he obviously had a lucrative deal with Al Gallico. Songs from other publishing companies were cut on Columbia sessions but the singles were almost always Gallico songs. In the last year, Hal had gotten a lot of his songs cut by Columbia artists but each time they wound up in the can or on the album and a Gallico song was released as a single. The big money came from the radio performances.
    Price was the only one who had refused to play the game. He had never cut a Gallico song and since Don Law produced him independently for Columbia, he was outside the chain of command.
      Price turned to the engineer and said, “Play the ballad again, Lou.”
     Lou turned in the swivel chair and called back to the backup engineer, “Play the ballad, Charlie!”
    Charlie stuck his head around the corner, “Is it the first cut or the second one?”
    “The second one,” Price and Lou said at the same time.
     Price came around and sat down in the producer’s chair and Cam Mullins walked over and shook hands with Hal. “Have you heard it yet?”
     “No, I just got here.”
    Cam wore a white dress shirt open at the neck and with the cuffs turned back over his forearms. “It’s fine, man, fine. One of the best things he’s done since ‘For the Good Times.’”             Don Law came in from the isolation room and Price got up and turned the chair around to him.
     “Sit down Don, they’re gonna play the ballad.”
    Lou had pulled off the white adhesive tape he had used to mark the gain positions for the last song and reset the knobs. He stood up and said, “Sit here Ray, where you’ll be in the middle of the speakers.”                                                      
     Price sat down and Charlie’s head ducked behind the partition. The tape began to roll.
     Cam’s voice came over the speakers. “Ah one, ah two, ah one, two, three, four -”
     The strings and the steel guitar played the intro and then the familiar baritone began singing,
 
      “Everything that’s beautiful reminds me of you,
       Everything that spring can bring in shades of green and blue
       The sound of children laughing, the rose in morning dew,
       Everything that’s beautiful reminds me of you.”
 
      Price’s singing took Hal back to the Texas barrooms and honky tonks of his youth. This was the voice that had woven the dream for a generation of dreamers and losers. They came into the air-conditioned dimness, lit only by the light from the jukeboxes and beer signs, fleeing from the hot dry winds of reality.
 
     “In the first days of my sorrow, I could never realize
     Why falling snow or a rainbow would bring teardrops to my eyes
     But as lovely scenes brought back lovely dreams, finally I knew,
     Everything that’s beautiful reminds me of you.”
 
     When the tape had first begun to play, Hal had been analyzing the production, examining the mixture of sounds, passing judgment on the instrumentation, but more and more he found himself being drawn into the story of the song. He was thinking of Rita, the girl he had been obsessed with when the song had been written.
     Suddenly he realized that this was Price’s great talent: that he phrased in a manner that forced the listener to pay attention to the words of the song. He broke the notes down into patterns of human speech so that it was not possible to groove along, listening only to the beauty of the voice and the melody. It was an added dimension of communication.   It occurred to him that Price, in order to work all this out and perfect it, would have to be very intelligent.
     He looked up and saw Price watching him, his face inscrutable and totally without expression. He knew his own face must have been reflecting the awe and wonder of his discovery and he smiled a warm smile of tribute, but Price’s eyes moved to a place on the wall several feet above Hal’s head, with no flicker of recognition.
 
     “How can I forget you, or pretend I’ve never met you
     When everything that’s pretty always brings you to my mind
      In a world so full of beauty every picture is a memory
     To forget you I would need to be blind.”
 
     As the end of the bridge, the orchestra did a clean modulation and Price began the last verse, which was a repeat of the first verse. Hal felt the goose bumps that always rose up on his arm when he heard something really beautiful.
     When the song was over, the electronic entity, which had transported them to another reality, clicked to a stop and turned back into a mass of inert wiring and cooling metal. The people in the control room all came out of wherever they had been and began moving their bodies around, reestablishing contact with the present time and place.
    Everyone began to talk at once, the women’s excited voices cutting through and overriding the others. Cam was laughing happily, his plastic cup of wine forgotten.
     “That’s it! That’s the one we’ve been wanting! That’s a monster,” he said to Price. Price was nodding in grave agreement.
     Don Law said, “I think that’s definitely the ‘A’ side single.”
     Bledsoe moved from the far end of the console like a boxer springs to the middle of the ring when the bell rings. “It’s not even a good ‘B’ side!   Play the last song, Lou.” His manner was that of a teacher telling the children to get back to work when recess is over.
     Don Law’s head jerked toward Bledsoe and he stared at him incredulously. Cam froze with his cup halfway to his mouth. Price was the only one whose expression did not change.   He seemed detached and deep in thought.
    After a quick glance at Don Law, Lou called, “Charlie, play the last song.”
    They heard Tom counting and then the strings played an intro that was a blurred version of the last four bars of “Home Sweet Home.” Price’s voice began singing “She’s Got To Be A Saint.” The knot in Hal’s stomach was back and he realized he had stopped breathing as some point. He took a deep breath and slowly ran his hands along the legs of his Levis, attempting to dry the perspiration. As he listened, he realized Cynthia’s evaluation of the song was correct. It was a piece of shit.
    Bledsoe stood behind Price’s chair, listening intently and fingering the gold medallion.
    Hal felt an almost overpowering need to stand up, take a half step toward Bledsoe and put all of his weight behind a right hand and see if he could explode the left side of his face. He could see the cheek bone caved in and maybe the left eye hanging out of its socket. They would take him to Vanderbilt and put the eye back in, but they could never restore the cocksure arrogance.   For the rest of his life he would be glancing nervously to his left. “He might even become a communist,” Hal muttered under his breath.
     Cynthia’s head spun toward him, “What did you say?”
     “Nothing, I’ve got to go take a leak.”
     The only restroom he knew about was downstairs and by the time he got back, Price was out in the studio, sitting on a stool in the singer’s separation booth.
     Lou was back in his chair, Blesoe stood behind him and Don Law sat staring through the half‑lensed reading glasses at a notebook, a gold tipped fountain pen in his right hand. Behind the partition, the whir of the sixteen track stopped and Lou said to Don Law, “We’re ready, Mr. Law.”
    The old man’s head moved toward the talk‑back button, but Bledsoe leaned over and pushed it.
    “We’re ready in here Ray. Are you ready to put one down?”
    Price was adjusting his earphones. If he was surprised at Bledsoe’s intervention, his voice betrayed nothing. “Yeah, let’s try one.”
     After the intro, Price began to sing “She’s Got to be a Saint.” When he had gotten half way through the first verse he stopped, “Lou, can you turn the voice up in the earphones? I can’t hear me.” The studio was dark except for the control room and the singer’s booth.
     Lou said, “I’ve got them up as high as they’ll go, Ray. Try another set.”
    Price took the earphones off, unplugged them and put on another pair. Charlie rewound the tape and they began again.
     This time Price got through half of the second verse before he stopped singing.
     “Lou, can you turn down the other voice track? I keep hearing the old cut and it’s throwing me off."
    Lou pushed the engineer’s talk back button and said, “Ray, there’s not any old track. That’s the one we’re cuttin’ over. It must be bleedin’ in from one of the musician’s tracks. Lemme see if I can find it.” The tape started again and Lou listened to one instrument at a time until he came to the guitar track. You could hear Price singing in the background. “Yeah, that’s it. It’s Pete Wade’s mike. He was up close to the booth and it picked you up. All we can do is pull him down for now, and then bring him in later to overdub his part.”
     Bledsoe leaned over in front of Law and pushed the button. “Ray, what you had was good, do you want to keep it?”
     “Naw, start at the top.”
    As Price began singing again, Bledsoe kept leaning with his back in Don Law’s face until the producer got up and walked over to Irene and asked her to get him a cup of coffee. As soon as he was out of the chair, Bledsoe sat down in it.
     As Price sang, and the old Englishman stirred his coffee, Hal reflected on what a really nice man he was. Too nice to tell an artist he was dropping him from the label, too nice to tell an invalid wife he was in love with a rich socialite in Dallas, and too nice to fight with the New York types who were descending on Nashville now that country music was beginning to earn big money.
     Hal glanced at Irene and saw her staring at the old man with fierce loyalty. She was the last of a long line of people who had loved him and tried to shield him from the harsh realities that invade an alcoholic’s life from time to time.
     As Price came in from the studio and passed Bledsoe in order to get to the chair Lou had vacated for him, Bledsoe looked up at him with the smirk that he used for a smile and said, “I think we got it that time!”
     Price ignored him and sat down. “How’d it sound, Don?” 
     The old man looked grateful for the tribute, but the voice came from far away. “Very good, Ray, very good.” He took the reading glasses off and dropped them in the pocket of his tweed jacket. 
    The tape rolled again and as Hal watched Price, he remembered what Clarence Selman had told him on Marigold’s boat two weeks before. “They’ve got Price over a barrel. His contract is up and he still owes them twenty‑seven sides. If he dudn’ go along with them, all they have to do is suspend him till he cuts all those sides. And all that time he’s suspended, he’s still under contract. He can’t record for anybody else. And while all that’s goin’ on, his career’s liable to go down the drain. They’re holdin’ his feet to the fire.”
    When the tape stopped, Bledsoe stood up, “That’s it! It’s a smash! I don’t hear a thing wrong with it!” Hal saw a little rhythmic spasm in Bledsoe’s right eyelid and noticed that his normally pallid face was flushed. Price didn’t seem to hear him. He was looking through the wall and off toward the Life & Casualty building, or somewhere.
     Bledsoe looked defiantly at Cam.
    Cam’s little Errol Flynn mustache twitched and he dropped his eyes to study the wine cup in his hand. Doing Price’s arrangement had made him the hottest arranger in town, but Columbia was his biggest account.
     As everyone watched Price he slowly nodded his head, “Alright.” He turned to the engineer, “Lou, on the bridge, I was listening to the other voice when it was bleeding through and I was getting a unison effect. It sounded good. I wonder how it would sound to put me on again, singing in unison on the bridge. Have you got an open track?”
     Lou said, “Ray we’ve got a machine that will delay your voice a fraction of a second and add it at the same time. You won’t have to cut it on another track.”
     Hal nudged Cynthia and stood up.
     Janie called, “Are you leaving?”
     He stepped over in front of her and put out his hand. “Yeah, we’ve got a baby sitter that’s got to go to school in the mornin’.”
     She took his hand and pulled him down to whisper in his ear, “I’m sorry about what happened to your song.”
    “That’s alright. I understand. You lose some and you win some.”
     He shook hands with Price and thanked him for cutting the song, then followed Cynthia out the door.
    After he had taken the babysitter home and he and Cynthia were lying in the big four‑poster bed, she asked, “How can Price work with a man like Bledsoe? What an awful person!”
     “He cain’t and he won’t. They’ve won the battle and lost the war. As soon as he cuts the sides he owes them, he’ll go to another label.” He tried to decide what label he would go to if he were Price.
     She yawned and said, “You know I really like Price.”
     “Yeah, me too. The funny thing about it is, I’ve been around him a lot of times, over the years, but tonight was the first time I ever really liked him. I guess I wound up understandin’ him a little bit.” 
    She reached her hand over and laid it on his chest, “I think you’re the greatest songwriter in the world and I sure do love you.”
    He sighed, “Well, you just have to write so many good songs that they can’t screw you out of all of ‘em.”
    After she was asleep, he lay there staring at the ceiling, thinking of all the times this had happened to him since long ago in West Texas when he had begun to write songs.
     “Maybe they can screw you out of all of ‘em,” he thought. “Maybe they can.”
 
 

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