October 28, 2008

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

The 1990's offered some changes in Ray's career. He made a couple of music video's for two songs on his debut album for Curb Records. Lend Me Your Ears was the title of Ray's 1990 album and on the cover he appeared as Julius Caesar. "Sittin' Up With the Dead" and his up-tempo version of "Help Me Make It Through the Night" were made into music video's. Another song promoted from the album was "Barbeque", a song about a man's obsession with barbeque. The album wasn't a chart hit for Ray as his previous MCA albums had been. Curb at the same time had issued a compilation album called His All-Time Greatest Comic Hits and on the CD cover he appears in costume singing "It's Me Again, Margaret". This album would achieve Gold status. He followed the 1990 album with #1 With a Bullet in 1991. This particular album contained two chart hits. "Working For The Japanese" hit in late 1991...reaching the country Top-65. The satirical tale is borderline serious, too, as it questions America's dependence on foreign products and the immigration frenzy. "Power Tools" hit in early 1992 and it was a comedy song about a macho man who is obsessed with power tools and the trouble he gets into with them. One of the big hit shows that year was ABC-TV's "Home Improvement" and that show focused on a power tool fanatic played by Tim Allen. "Power Tools" was written months before the ABC show hit the air so it's one of those coincidental things. The 1991 album also featured "Teenage Mutant Kung Fu Chickens" which was a spoof of a certain Saturday morning cartoon series I'm sure everyone's heard of called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "Tabloid News", the fourth track, is a rip on tabloid news. There's a song on there that takes aim at the Hat Acts in country music, "You Gotta Have a Hat". The 1991 album was filled with nutty material...one song invovled pulling a fast one on the IRS with the help of an inflatable doll named Juanita. You'd have to hear the song to grasp it's nuttiness.

After the 1990 and 1991 albums, Curb issued Greatest Hits in 1991. This compilation was just a collection of mostly non-comedy recordings from Ray during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. It included an alternate take on "There's a Star Spangled Banner", a song originally recorded in 1989. 1991 was a busy year for Ray...as you previously read in the above paragraph...it became even busier when his theater in Branson, Missouri opened up.

The Ray Stevens Theater was one of the consistently sold-out venues in Branson. He played the theater during most of the year...performing two shows a day for six days a week. The theater was one of Ray's biggest commercial successes during the 1990's. His biggest success, though, came along in 1992 with the release of a home video called Comedy Video Classics. This landmark home video, sold over TV, and eventually sold in stores, introduced Ray to an even bigger audience than before. His 30 second TV commercial for the project ran at all hours of the day, on most TV networks...and on cable-TV late at night. I even heard a radio commercial for it. The work paid off because the home video eventually sold a million copies on TV marketing...the success of it would transfer into stores and sell half a million copies, which for a home video, was something rare. All in all, Comedy Video Classics would sell 1.5 million copies and become a #1 home video for half a year in retail stores. Billboard named it Home Video of the Year, which wasn't a surprise, but the sales took the industry by surprise...and it allowed Ray to claim success in four consecutive decades: '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. Comedy Video Classics was released on his own label, Clyde Records, named for the camel in "Ahab the Arab".

Ray followed this home video in 1993 with Ray Stevens Live, a concert video shot at his theater. This one was not the blockbuster success of the previous one but it was a success. A little known home video sequel, More Ray Stevens Live, was issued in 1993 to fan club members and to those who visited his theater's gift shop. After the successes in home video's, Ray returned to audio with Classic Ray Stevens which in spite of it's title, featured 10 all-new recordings. Ray's face appears on a bust of Beethovan as to why the album has it's name. A couple of songs were promoted as singles. "If Ten Percent Is Good Enough For Jesus It Oughta Be Enough For Uncle Sam" was the album's lead-off song and the song being promoted the most at the start of the publicity. Later, focus was shifted to "The Motel Song" and then "Super Cop". One of the songs that didn't get much attention but should have was "The Ballad of Jake McCluskey". That song was patterned after the scenario of small-town morals verses reality. Jake McCluskey was an adulterous man...and as the song plays out, so was almost all the other men in town, including a local policeman and local politicians.

Ray shut down his theater in 1993 after three consecutive years there: 1991, 1992, 1993. In 1994 there was a Ray-drought. There was no CD or home video released...later it was revealed that Ray was working on a movie. The results surfaced in 1995...a direct-to-home video movie called Get Serious which is more like a musical because in addition to the spoken dialogue, there are 10 music video's interwoven throughout. It, too, was a commercial success. It featured cameo appearances by several country music personalities: Charlie Chase, James Gregory, George Lindsay, Johnny Russell, Chet Atkins, Williams and Ree, plus Jerry Clower. The movie's plot was based on a song Ray had recorded in 1986 called "Dudley Dorite of the Highway Patrol". In the song, Ray is pulled over by a cop for going 57mph in a 55mph zone.

In the movie, Ray is stunned to learn that a lot of the people he has sang about in previous songs actually exist and that Dudley Dorite turns out to be Bubba from the "Shriner's Convention". So, using the 1986 recording as a basis, the movie consists of Ray and girlfriend, Charlene MacKenzie, on the run from Dudley Dorite and his deputy, Coy. As a sub-plot, Ray's record label is bought out by a Japanese company and they want to re-shape Ray's image and want him to "get serious". Ray refuses and so the record company executive and a few of his pals dream up a plan to ruin Ray's career by planting protesters at various personal appearances Ray takes part in claiming that Ray is politically incorrect with his comedy. The movie takes aim at political correctness and it has a happy ending. One of the highlights is Ray's song "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" which he performs with co-star Connie Freeman. The two of them perform an all-out song and dance number in a chicken coop.

Ray's long-time friend and songwriting partner, Buddy Kalb, plays the Dudley Dorite/Bubba character. Ray plays a variety of roles. Tim Hubbard plays the hat obsessed Deputy Coy. The label executive is a hilarious parody of Paul Lynde. A lot of Ray's music video co-stars are in the movie, too.

In 1996 Ray returned to touring...something he had stopped doing in 1990 prior to the opening of his theater in 1991. Later in 1996 year he signed a new contract with MCA. Hum It was released in 1997 on MCA...marking his first full-length CD in four years. The comedy album featured 10 songs and of those ten, a few of them were made into music video's. "Mama Sang Bass" wasn't a music video but it was a parody of the Johnny Cash hit "Daddy Sang Bass". Appearing in the song as Mama was gospel singer JD Sumner. The song was about hormone injections of all things.

"Too Drunk To Fish" was patterned after Jaws but it told the story of two men fishing...and the problems that arise when one of the men get drunk. "Virgil and the Moonshot" is a parody of the Apollo-13 movie. Hum It contained a slap on the wrist on the airline industry...the funny "How Much Does It Cost To Fly To Albuquerque?" closes the album. "I'll Be In Atlanta" is a wonderful non-comedy song honoring the city and State of Georgia that is found on the album. Later in 1997 he released his first and only holiday album Christmas Through a Different Window. The album is chock-full of demented holiday songs...political correctness is targeted on "The Nightmare Before Christmas". "I Won't Be Home For Christmas" is a touching song about a man who can not stand his family because they are idiots and barbarians who trash his house. "Guilt For Christmas" opens up the album...setting the tone. "The Little Drummer Boy...Next Door" is a song about a kid who gets drums for Christmas and drives Ray crazy. "Home For the Holidays" carries the arrangement of a warm, glowing Christmas song but it's far from it when Ray tells us about how going home for the holidays is a terrible thing and that lots of medication needs packed for the trip. The office parties are given center stage on "The Annual Office Christmas Party". In a somewhat throw-back to Spike Jones, Ray delivers "Bad Little Boy", a narrative told in a little boy's voice.

Ray parted ways with MCA in 1998 after those two albums. 1998, 1999, and 2000 were quiet years for the most part. He began a Christmas series at the Acuff Theater at Opryland that ran in 1998 and 1999. He was the main attraction at the Acuff Theater throughout 1999. In 2000 he issued Funniest Video Characters which included the long-awaited music video of "The Blue Cyclone". The video was broken into two parts. The first part aired at the start of the home video...then there were six additional music video's...and the second part of the song closed the collection. On the home video it also included music video's of "Freddy Feelgood", "The Pirate Song", "The Haircut Song", "Juanita and the Kids", and the two music video's he did in 1997 "Too Drunk To Fish" and "Virgil and the Moonshot". On Clyde Records he issued a new audio CD, Ear Candy, in 2000.

2001...the year is forever remembered for September 11th, or 9/11. The date of 9/11 is in reference to the terrorist attacks. Osama bin Laden became a household name on 9/11 and on the days, weeks, months, and years following...patriotic songs popped up in country music...some artists saw sales spikes in their older recordings, most notably Lee Greenwood and Johnny Cash. Newer songs included Charlie Daniels "This Ain't No Rag It's a Flag", Clint Black's "I Raq and Roll" which is pronounced "I rock and roll", and Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?". When it appeared the country had 'forgot' about 9/11, Darryl Worley came along with "Have You Forgotten" in answer to those who wanted to downplay 9/11 and push it aside. Ray was no exception...he released an Osama song in early 2002...Ray's single was "Osama Yo' Mama" which featured a sing-a-long style of lyrics and included vocal appearances from Osama's mama, Ray in his falsetto voice, as well as a broad vocal impression of President Bush, referred to as Dubyah in the song. The single caught on...mainstrem country radio didn't play it but it reached the country Top-50, making this the first single of his to reach the country chart in 10 years. Soon afterward, Curb Records issued a single "Osama Yo' Mama" backed with "United We Stand". The single, available mostly as an on-line download, but some music stores carried a physical copy of the single, the single ended up achieving Gold status...half a million in sales. The song hit #2 on the Country Single Sales chart and remained charted for nearly half a year.

Curb then issued an album Osama Yo' Mama: The Album to distingush it from the CD single of the same name and cover design. This 10 song album hit the country Top-30 in 2002. Seven of the ten songs were actually pulled from his 2000 Clyde Records release Ear Candy. The three songs that weren't from 2000 were "Osama Yo' Mama", "United We Stand", and "Freudian Slip". "United We Stand" was a pop hit in the 1970's and Ray's version of the song is spectacular.

In spite of the success in 2002 and early 2003, Ray remained low-key. I do not even know if he performed "Osama Yo' Mama" in concert anywhere. He re-opened his Branson theater in 2004 and did a series of concerts there as well as in 2005. Acclaim for his older material surfaced the same year as Collectables Records issued three separate CD collections spotlighting six of Ray's 1970's albums: Everything Is Beautiful, Unreal, Turn Your Radio On, Nashville, Boogity-Boogity, and Misty. He started to experiment with animated music video's around this time. The animation was limited. In 2007 Ray issued a new album on his label, Clyde. This album was a salute to New Orleans and it's music. New Orleans Moon contains the title track plus plenty more songs about New Orleans and Louisiana. Some of the songs are "New Orleans", "Louisiana", "Louisiana Man", "Way Down Yonder In New Orleans", "Battle of New Orleans", "Basin Street Blues", and others. The album wasn't promoted at all...

In mid 2008 he did a mini-tour...this was brought about to promote his music and re-introduce himself to the touring circuit again. He issued a comedy album prior to the start of the mini-tour...called Hurricane. This album featured seven all-new recordings and five re-recordings of earlier songs. "Hurricane" is patterned after "The Streak" but in "Hurricane" the action news reporter is replaced by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who in this novelty song appears as Wolf Spitzer. Christiana Ammonpour{?} appears as Christiana I'm in a Downpour. Another reporter of the hurricane is Raegae Dreadlocks. In addition to "Hurricane", there's the topical "Sucking Sound" which brings to the forefront Ross Perot's messages during the 1992 Presidential campaign. Ray does a broad impression of Perot throughout the song "talking" to Larry King. "The Cure" is a song about enema's. "Hey Bubba Watch This" is a song patterned in the redneck theme. A little known album came along in mid 2008 called Ray Stevens Sings Sinatra...Say What?? where Ray offers his take on several Sinatra classics. Most recently he has issued a comedy album, Laughter Is The Best Medicine, which contains re-recordings of previous songs with a hospital or doctor's office plot. "The PSA Song" represents the only song that had never previously been available before.

And with that...i'll conclude this career look-back at Ray Stevens...the multi-talented musician.

1 comment:

  1. It seems that plenty of performers head to Branson! The place does have some great Branson attractions to check out though!


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