October 27, 2008

Ray Stevens...Multi-talented musician, part two

In 1974, Ray Stevens released the song that forever became linked to his career. "The Streak" was a novelty single in every sense of the word. It capitalized on the fad of running around without any clothes. The story goes that Ray was on an airplane and he was reading a news magazine and he saw an article about streaking and he got an idea for a song. Later, he found out, that streaking was a big fad on college campuses and that it had spread into the mainstream. Ray rushed out "The Streak" and at the time there were other streaking songs on the market...Ray's song is the only one to become a hit and it became a gigantic hit. It flew up the Hot 100 and was #1 in a matter of weeks...staying #1 for three weeks. The single sold in the millions...most reports indicate it sold at least 5,000,000 copies. This out-sold his previous Gold record, "Everything Is Beautiful", which had sales reported to be over 2,000,000. "The Streak" would also reach #1 in England and become a country Top-5 hit. The song introduced the catch-phrase "Don't Look, Ethel!!" into the vernacular. An album built around the song followed. The album in question, "Boogity-Boogity", was issued in 1974 and it featured another single, "The Moonlight Special".

That particular novelty single poked fun at the TV show The Midnight Special, which featured radio DJ Wolfman Jack as it's on-camera announcer. Ray, as he often does in his comedy recordings, struts his comedic stuff by vocally imitating Wolfman Jack in the role of Sheepdog. Along the way we hear satirical spoofs of Gladys Knight and the Pips, Alice Cooper, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The names have been changed in the song to Mildred Queen and the Dips, Agnes Stooper, and Jerry Joe Harry Lee Jimmy Billy. The single managed to creep into the Hot 100, peaking in the Top-75. The single was too long but it also made light of the music teenagers of the time took seriously as to my guess why the hilarious spoof wasn't a bigger hit. Nonetheless it was a very funny recording.

In a change of moods, Ray delivered the calm "Everybody Needs a Rainbow" in late 1974. The single was a Top-40 country hit as well as a Top-20 Adult-Contemporary hit. The chart wasn't called Adult-Contemporary until later in the 1970's...it was still going by the Easy-Listening and Middle-of-the-Road banners.

As pop music was changing in the mid '70s, Ray was becoming increasingly visible on country music TV shows. He was still charting pop and country but as far as television exposure his calling card were country music TV shows. He made the rounds of Hee-Haw, Pop Goes the Country, and That Nashville Music during this time period. "Misty" was Ray's next single...it was another big hit that won him a Grammy for Best Arrangement of the Year. The arrangement of "Misty" was up-tempo and featured a banjo, fiddle, and steel guitar as it's lead instruments. The song was a Top-5 country hit, a Top-20 pop hit, and a Top-10 adult-contemporary hit. Ray's album, also named "Misty" featured his take on pop standards. "Indian Love Call" was a single from this album...it became a Top-40 country hit and a Top-65 pop hit. Ray arranged this song in a ballad style that was very different than the hit recording from Slim Whitman years earlier. Ray's version came complete with "bop-shoo-bop" background vocals which he provided himself. A third single from the album was issued in early 1976...the very slow "Young Love". This had been a hit for Sonny James and this version from Ray inched up the Hot 100 and reached the country Top-50.

Ray left his long-time Barnaby Records home for Warner Brothers in 1976. It is on this label where he was promoted officially as a country singer for the first time in his career. His debut single for them, "You Are So Beautiful", a previous pop hit for Joe Cocker, featured a similar arrangement with "Misty" using the same instrumentation. "You Are So Beautiful" became a Top-20 country hit. He followed that with the country Top-30 "Honky Tonk Waltz". In late 1976 he issued "In The Mood" under the name Henhouse Five Plus Too. The novelty single featured a chicken clucking choir performing the Glen Miller pop hit. Ray wasn't going to release the performance as a single but Warner Brothers insisted and it became a Top-40 pop, adult-contemporary, and country hit in early 1977 and it became a hit in England where it was issued under Ray's own name. Later in 1977 Ray's publishing company boasted the success of "Way Down", a single recorded by Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, "Way Down" became the last hit single during Elvis' lifetime. It was also in 1977 that the pop duo Captain and Tennille had Top-20 success with Ray's song "Can't Stop Dancing". His other songs that year included "Get Crazy With Me", a Top 100 country hit and "Dixie Hummingbird", which managed to inch up to the Top-50 on the country chart.

1978 was another relatively quiet year for Ray on the singles front. "Be Your Own Best Friend" was the only commercial single to emerge from Warner Brothers. It was a country Top-40 hit. It was the name of his main album that year which also featured "L'amour", "With a Smile", "You're Magic", and other love ballads. He had recorded another album that year paying tribute to the R&B music he grew up listening to. That album, "There Is Something On Your Mind", contained no hit singles but it features a wonderful tribute to early R&B. Ray tackles "Money Honey", "Talk To Me", "One Mint Julep", the title track "There Is Something On Your Mind", and others. In 1979 he issued a new novelty single...

"I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow" came along at a time in Ray's career when it needed a publicity boost. This song was written by Dale Gonyea and it was never revealed why Ray picked the song to record unless for the obvious connection to Barry Manilow, then one of the biggest pop artists all over the world. The album that Warner Brothers issued to promote this single was called "The Feelings Not Right Again". The title track is a song from his 1978 album "Be Your Own Best Friend". The song was chosen as the 1979 album title because it sounds similar in title to one of Manilow's songs "Trying To Get The Feeling". The album cover design on Ray's 1979 release was a parody/spoof of Manilow's album design of "Trying To Get The Feeling". It's a very funny send-up.

The "I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow" single predictably didn't chart too high country but it did well on the pop and adult-contemporary formats. It was a Top-50 pop hit and more ironically it was a Top-20 hit on the adult-contemporary chart, a format Manilow dominated throughout the mid/late 1970's. This became Ray's final single on the Hot 100...charting country exclusively with his next wave of singles in the 1980's. This would also bring a close to his three year contract with Warner Brothers. He went to RCA to kick off the 1980's.

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