October 28, 2008

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

The 1980's were very good for Ray Stevens depending on how one looks at things. The decade started off with Ray enjoying continued success...but that success came as a result of a comical recording and in 1980 he was still heavily persistent on being known and accepted as a serious artist.

On the music front...as I mentioned in part two, Ray went to RCA Records in 1980. This label was the one that Chet Atkins ran for a number of years as a producer and as an executive. Ray was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame this year in addition to being inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Ray wrote or co-wrote 85% of the material he had recorded up to that point. Ray's debut single for RCA was the novelty "Shriner's Convention". The single and the album of the same name were big hits in 1980. The single hit the country Top-10 in spite of the fact that it was well over 3 minutes in length. The album was a Top-10 success as well. RCA released "Hey There" over in England, which is Ray's spoof of the pop ballad from the 1950's. This album also contained fan-favorite "The Dooright Family" about a gospel family who travel the country in a silver eagle equipped with the most luxurious items. The song features great mimicry of preachers...the hook of the song, one of them, is the sort of mis-treatment of poor ol' Mama Dooright at the hands of Brother Virgil. If you hadn't heard the song, it's hilarious. Another novelty song on the "Shriner's Convention" album poked fun at John Cameron Swayze. "The Watch Song" tells the story of a man who loves his watch so much he'll do just about everything for it. John Cameron Swayze appeared in many commercials for Timex watches as to why he's name-dropped frequently in the song.

As I earlier mentioned, Ray was still wanting attention for the non-comical songs he wrote and recorded and was longing for recognition for the serious work and as a result of this desire there wasn't any major push after the summer of 1980 for the comedy album. In fact, later in 1980, Ray issued a single called "Night Games". The song took place inside a bar room, an image that went hand in hand with the Urban Cowboy era in country music. It was a serious straight-forward recording and it became a Top-20 country hit.

Ray continued his acting during this time period. In addition to the usual country music TV shows he began to appear in other genre's. One in particular is a 1981 appearance on the daytime soap opera, Texas. Ray appeared as himself and performed a couple of songs and was featured on and off during a week's worth of shows. 1981 also saw the release of a new album...this one non-comedy. The album was called "One More Last Chance" and it featured his Top-20 country hit from late 1980, "Night Games". The title track was issued as a single in late 1981 and it reached the country Top-4. Ray performed "One More Last Chance" on the Texas soap opera and also performed "Misty". The 1981 album cover featured Ray dressed up in Urban Cowboy attire with an alluring woman looking at him. Some other gems featured on the 1981 album are "Melissa", "Just About Love", "Certain Songs", and his Mexican-laced arrangement of "Pretend", a former pop hit for Nat King Kole. 1981 was also the year that Ray's voice appeared on the movie CANNONBALL RUN singing the theme song as well as a love ballad called "Just For The Hell Of It".

By 1982 the country music scene was more or less Urban Cowboy driven. Ray issued another album on RCA, "Don't Laugh Now". This particular album was more up-tempo than the ballad heavy "One More Last Chance" LP. The album contained one Top-40 country hit and another Top-65 country hit. "Written Down In My Heart" hit the Top-40 while "Where The Sun Don't Shine" charted lower. In spite of such a title, it wasn't a novelty song. The rocking "Such a Night" kicked off the 1982 album, setting the tone. "Take That Girl Away" and "Always There" were other up-tempo songs on the album. One of the stand-out songs was "Oh Leo Lady", a song that blends astrology with an everyday profession of love to somebody. The enduring tale of upper and lower class finding love with each other is sprinkled throughout "Country Boy, Country Club Girl". Ray left RCA Records and signed with Mercury in 1983...the label in which he became a pop star in the eary 1960's.

I do not know the details of his Mercury contract but it only lasted one year and not many people know much about the album he released for Mercury in 1983. The album was simply titled "Me" and the album cover featured him as a painter working on a painting of himself while a mirror was nearby giving off a reflection of himself. There was only one chart hit on this album and it arrived in early 1984...the melancholy "My Dad", written by Dale Gonyea. Mercury had previously issued "Love Will Beat Your Brains Out" and "Piece of Paradise Called Tennessee" as singles but they didn't enter the country charts. The research I did shown that the album was not promoted much at all by Mercury which explains why the first two singles didn't make any noise. Ray appeared on an episode of the TV show, The Fall Guy, and performed "Piece of Paradise Called Tennessee". Ray played the role of Webb Covington. So, at least, there was some sort of effort made to promote the album. "Me" featured a lot of intimate-style love songs...in addition to the title track, it boasted "Mary Lou Nights", "Kings and Queens", "Piedmont Park", plus it featured an off-beat love song called "Game Show Love" in which Ray builds a song using a host of game show titles and catch-phrases. Again, the "Me" album was terrific and I do not know why it was not promoted much. After "My Dad" peaked, Ray remained on Mercury Records for a little while longer until making the switch to MCA.

Ray's arrival at MCA was like a "comeback" of sorts. This is the label that promoted Ray as a country comedian...cementing the image that Ray had always tried to keep in the background but according to Ray, the comedy songs/the comedy image is what the public at large had always seen him being and so he began to purposely promote himself as a country comedian. The risk paid off because his first MCA album, "He Thinks He's Ray Stevens", was a Top-10 hit and hit Gold status, which indicates half a million in sales. The album featured two singles that are now considered classics. "Mississippi Squirrel Revival", sometimes referred to as the "Squirrel Song" by casual fans and the general public.

The song told the tale of two kids who go to church and accidentally set loose a squirrel. The over-all message of the song is the squirrel caused miracles amongst the church goers...where infidelity was exposed. The novelty single reached the country Top-20 in early 1985. MCA then issued "It's Me Again, Margaret". In spite of the novelty single's peak in the country Top-75, the song has become as synonymous with Ray as "The Streak" or "Ahab the Arab" or "Gitarzan". It was around this time that his 1984 album was certified Platinum...sales of over a million copies sold.

Ray's commercial resurgence on MCA went hand in hand with the explosion of country comedy in the mainstream. Hee-Haw was still going strong on TV but on top of that Nashville had a channel all it's own to promote the music. The Nashville Network came on the air in 1983 and was still in it's infancy in 1985. I have no doubt that TNN helped Ray gain a new audience...a lot of these newer fans were often not aware of Ray's pop career...for they only knew of Ray for his comedy songs and his jokes on Nashville Now, for instance. The good times kept coming and in late 1985 MCA issued "I Have Returned". This comedy album featured several more signature songs. "The Haircut Song" was issued as a single...it was too long for radio and so it was edited. The radio edit features Ray visiting two barbershops, instead of the three in the full version of the song. The single is basically a story, with Ray narrating the bulk of the recording and singing the wrap-around segments. It was a Top-50 country hit. The other single from the album was the famous "The Ballad of the Blue Cyclone" or "Blue Cyclone" for short.

The song is about a man who, with a couple of buddies, encounter a wrestler named Blue Cyclone. Wrestle Mania and everything associated with wrestling was the most talked about news story a lot of times in the entertainment sections and so this song hit in a timely manner. One thing leads to another during a fight at the wrestling match and Ray finds himself on the receiving end of Cyclone's wrath. Wrestling fake? Not so in this song...for Blue Cyclone gives Ray one heck of a beating and sends him to the hospital. The comic violence puts the single on the edge. The song was naturally too long for country radio. The recording was broken up into two parts on the album. Each part was over 5 minutes...so you're looking at a 10 minute plus recording...for the radio edit they carefully constructed a recording that was just a little over 4 minutes which edited out a lot of the detailed lyrics and other parts of the song and the end result was a 4 minute or so radio edit that told the story from start to finish. It was still funny but it wasn't like the full two part version. The single reached the country Top-50 in early 1986. In addition to that song and "The Haircut Song", the 1985 album also featured "The Pirate Song" which has become a fan-favorite about two pirates on a ship: one pirate is gruff and angry while the second pirate is easy-going and feminine. The song is a parody of The Pirates of Penzance. A catch-phrase repeated throughout the song is "I want to sing and dance". The 1985 album also contained his re-recording of "Santa Claus Is Watching You", which Ray originally had a pop hit with in 1962. The album, which hit in late 1985, inched up the charts and hit the #1 spot in early 1986. It was certified Gold in 1986 as well.

1986 also saw the start of an annual tradition for Ray. He was named Comedian of the Year by the readers of Music City News. Ray would win this award each successive year: 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994. Ray's third comedy album for MCA arrived in 1986 and it featured a couple of hit singles. "The People's Court" was an obvious spoof of the TV show of the same name. It reached the country Top-75. "Southern Air" on the other hand was a collaboration with two other country comics: Jerry Clower and Minnie Pearl. The novelty single hit the Top-65 in 1986. That event marked the first time a guest vocalist appeared on a Ray Stevens recording. The album that contained those two singles was "Surely You Joust". The album featured other now-classic recordings: "Can He Love You Half as Much as I?", "The Camping Trip", "Smokey Mountain Rattlesnake Retreat", and the biographical "Dudley Dorite of the Highway Patrol". Moving on to 1987, this marked Ray's 30th year in the music business. MCA issued several albums on him, one of which went Gold and another which went Platinum. "Greatest Hits" and "Greatest Hits, Volume Two" featured classic Ray material from the '60s and '70s but sprinkled in recent 1980's recordings as well. "Mississippi Squirrel Revival" and "It's Me Again, Margaret" were the recent hits found on "Greatest Hits" while the volume two release contained the 1985 singles as well as recordings from 1986, 1987, and as far back as 1961. Among the songs on "Greatest Hits, Volume Two" was a brand-new recording called "Mama's in the Sky with Elvis". Adding confusion to the 1987 albums that were released, MCA had released a mail-order album on TV called "Get The Best of Ray Stevens", a two-album collection. There was an album of all-new recordings issued in 1987...an album called "Crackin Up"...which featured the hit single "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?".

"Crackin Up" had been issued after the success of "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?". The single was a satire on televangelists, a hot topic in the news. Chet Atkins co-wrote the song with Margaret Archer. It was a country Top-45 hit...coming close to breaking into the Top-40. After this single, Ray went into a dry-spell...as far as airplay is concerned. "Sex Symbols", a parody of sorts of the Willie Nelson-Julio duet "To All The Girls I've Loved Before", was issued as a single in 1987. Ray sings with 'Julio' on this recording...not the real Julio...but nonetheless it was a funny recording. Today Show weatherman, Willard Scott, was even a target on "Cool Down, Willard", a funny tale of a man who's annoyed at the women in his family going ga-ga for Willard.

Ray managed to squeak into the country chart once in 1988 with the single "The Day I Tried To Teach Charlene MacKenzie How To Drive". His 1988 comedy album for MCA was more low-key and didn't feature any zany or strange comedy songs. I suppose it did feature at least one zany recording...well, off the wall...the spoof of hippie culture on "Old Hippie Class Reunion". Cable-TV was targeted on "Language, Nudity, Violence, and Sex". He takes a jab at Michael Jackson of all people...you read that right...Ray does his take on "Bad", a Michael Jackson pop hit from a year or two earlier. The name of Ray's 1988 album was "I Never Made a Record I Didn't Like". Ray coasted into 1989 and his album that year was a departure. He released some non-comedy songs for the first time since 1983. The 1989 album for MCA, "Beside Myself", featured Ray performing 5 non-comedy songs and 5 comedy songs. The first five on the album were non-comedy. "Your Bozo's Back Again" was the kick-off song...on the album's cover Ray is seen sitting beside himself. One pose is a more serious looking Ray who has his arm up on the shoulder of his clownish alter-ego. "There's a Star Spangled Banner" orginated on this album. "Marion Michael Morrison", the third track, is a salute to John Wayne. In the comedy set, we have the tabloid-inspired "I Saw Elvis In a UFO" which became a fan-favorite, thanks largely in part because of how he performed the song in front of an audience...with a UFO hovering over the stage and pink aliens dancing around. "Stuck On You" spoofs infomercials and "Bad Dancin" captures the 1980's era wonderfully. After the release of this album, Ray's contract with MCA was up and he moved to the Curb label in 1990.

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