October 27, 2008

Ray Stevens...Multi-talented musician

Ray Stevens...one of the crowning examples of a multi-talented musician who I feel is also one of the most under-rated artists of all-time. This may sound strange for some, who only know of Ray for his latter-day image as a country comedian with a host of comedy music video's to his credit. In this area of his career, he's far from under-rated. Ray Stevens is without question the #1 Novelty recording artist due to his longevity and success in this genre. He does have his competitors...most notably Weird Al Yankovik and Jeff Foxworthy, both who have had mainstream success in more recent times...but if you do not factor in the fairly recent "redneck" explosion...which, interestingly, fairly recent in this case is pre-2000...but anyway, there are still redneck jokes and redneck references in the mainstream enough to keep Jeff's signature routine in the public arena even if it isn't he himself doing the comedy.

Weird Al, most recently, scored some success with his latest comedy release...but let's back-up a minute to Ray Stevens...

Ray, as the public is well aware, records comedy songs and does comedy music videos. The thing that often gets over-looked is the amount of non-comedy recordings Ray has recorded. There are the two non-comedy songs that get mentioned when one writes about Ray Stevens...the 1970 mega-smash "Everything Is Beautiful" and the 1975 Grammy winner "Misty"...but he's recorded more serious-oriented material than those two singles, even though "Everything Is Beautiful" is his biggest non-comedy recording.

Ray Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale in Clarkdale, Georgia on January 24, 1939.

Ray's career goes back to the mid 1950's...technically, 1957, which would make it the late 1950's. In my earlier paragraphs I related how Ray is one of the most under-rated artists and this is where the under-rated comes into play. Ray cut his teeth on recording sessions...working in the background on recordings performed by other artists. This role allowed Ray to become known as a whiz in the studio as he not only performed instruments but also sang harmony vocals and eventually became an arranger and an assistant A&R man...but we're jumping ahead...

Ray signed a recording contract with Prep Records in 1957...a subsidiary of Capitol. It was at this label that he changed his name from Harold Ragsdale to "Ray Stevens". Stevens was his mother's maiden name. While at Prep, his singles were not national hits but he often likes to tell the story that his first recording "The Silver Bracelet" was a huge hit in Atlanta, Georgia but nowhere else. Regional hits and session work continued while at Prep and then on the Capitol label itself. The 1957-1959 era of Ray's career, while he was still a teenager, offer a glimpse into the future recording style he would employ on later mid 1960's recordings. He released a few love songs and material that would at the time be considered "novelty" songs while at Capitol. Among the recordings he cut while at the labels were "The Silver Bracelet", "Cat Pants", "Chickie Chickie Wah Wah", "The School", "The Clown", and the Japanese-laced "Rang Tang Ding Dong, I'm the Japanese Sandman".

Ray enrolled in Georgia State and studied music theory and composition around this time period. He also signed a deal with the NRC label. Ray recorded for the NRC label for about a year, 1959-1960. It was on this label that the infamous story of Ray's near-brush with national fame took place. It happened with a recording called "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon". The single was issued on NRC in 1960 and according to Ray it shown signs of becoming a national hit. It was then that the owners of the character threatened a lawsuit if he didn't take the song off the market...this experience and the publicity the song recieved gave Ray an idea that novelty songs could make him a success.

While at NRC, Ray recorded a steady amount of songs...mostly love ballads in the mold of the teen idols of the day. Ray was never grouped into that category of "teen idol" even though his songs could have fit that mold well...interestingly, Ray mostly had an older fan base...and by older I mean music listeners in their late 20s-mid 40s were typically who appreciated the sounds of Ray Stevens. His non-threatening brand of pop music appealed to an older audience, not usually associated with the crazy, screaming teenage image often linked to teen idols. A sample of Ray's NRC songs are "That's What She Means To Me", "High School Yearbook", "Truly True", "Part of the Time"...there are a few songs that veer off into the novelty/off-beat genre. In addition to "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon", Ray had recorded the Chinese-laced "Cholly Wolly Chang". Also, Ray demonstrated an Elvis-like delivery during certain passages of "My Heart Cries For You".

Ray left the NRC company for the major label, Mercury, in 1961. It was on Mercury where Ray become the "overnight success" and he did so with a novelty recording. His first release on Mercury was the attention-grabbing song-title...take a deep breath... "Jeremiah Peabody's Polyunsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleastant Tasting Green and Purple Pills". The novelty single itself was about medicine man shows of the 1940's or earlier where men would travel the countryside selling medicine. The single at the same time was a study in commercialism, which one could say is the underlying theme of the recording. The sound-effect of the gurgling/swallowing at the start of the single provided audiences with a great hook, even before the song was sang. This single was Ray's first-ever entry on the Billboard Hot 100, known commonly as "the pop chart" and it enabled him to have his first-ever "Top-40" success, too.

While that single allowed Ray to break into the mainstream Hot 100, Ray continued his collegiate studies until he couldn't afford the time for a college life AND an in-demand music life. He dropped out of college while "Jeremiah Peabody" was riding it's peak on Top-40 radio. Afterward, he married his girlfriend, Penny and Mercury issued the up-tempo love song "Scratch My Back", which didn't enter the charts. Mercury and another record producer, RCA's Chet Atkins, continued to hire Ray for recording sessions...his move to Nashville in 1962 saw Ray take part in close to 300 recording sessions. Something that isn't spotlighted much is during one recording session in 1962 Ray played on three hit recordings. One of the recordings was Joe Dowell's "Wooden Heart" and another was his own recording, "Ahab the Arab"...

That single, "Ahab the Arab", was the breakthrough hit that he'd been waiting for. Released in 1962, the single was a cross-over hit...not only being played on Top-40 pop radio but also on R&B radio stations of the era. The single became a major Top-5 hit and a Top-10 R&B hit as well. "Ahab the Arab" as most people know, became Ray's signature song, and it's closely associated with Ray to this very day. The novelty single tells the story of an arab who loves a woman in a harem, Fatima. Ahab rides through the sands on his camel, Clyde. The camel logo has become Ray's trademark and it's the name of his own recording company, the distributor of his mail-order comedy music video's. Throughout "Ahab..." Ray name-drops cultural references, incorporating lines from Chubby Checker's 'Twist' songs specifically.

After the huge commercial success of "Ahab the Arab", Ray issued the love ballad "Furthermore". It was a chart hit but "Ahab the Arab" was still on the public's minds. A holiday single was issued in late 1962, the original recording of "Santa Claus Is Watching You", which peaked just outside the Top-40. Ray's biggest single of 1963 was the novelty "Harry the Hairy Ape" which poked fun at rock and roll music and Top-40 radio in general. The satire isn't too harsh, though, but if one examines the song you can pick out little things about it that are bold for it's time such as the joke about the near-sighted DJ who thinks Harry is a rock and roll singer and the DJ plays a record that supposedly is from the ape that becomes a huge pop hit. It's a quirky, frenetic novelty single which hit the pop Top-20 and the R&B Top-20.

Striving for a serious/non-comedy hit, Mercury released "Funny Man". The single reached the Hot 100 but peaked outside the Top-40. His second biggest hit of 1963 was the Top-30 R&B novelty "Speed Ball" which also hit the Hot 100. This single is often referenced to when historians like to talk about the influence of Brother Dave Gardner. See, Brother Dave once did a stand-up act and one of his routines became famous, "The Motorcycle Story". There are lines in Brother Dave's act that appear in "Speed Ball", the song about a daredevil motorcyclist. Mercury released a couple more novelty singles on Ray, "Butch Babarian" and "Bubble Gum The Bubble Dancer", but neither of those singles entered the Hot 100.

Mercury in 1965 issued "Rockin' Teenage Mummies". While that novelty single never made the Hot 100 it became a staple of Dr Demento's radio shows in the 1970's and 1980's. "Mr Baker the Undertaker" was the last official single issued from Merucry in 1965. One gets the impression that Ray was working on his own version of "Monster Mash" with those two ghostly-Halloween-esque singles. Ironically, the B-side of one of his last Mercury singles was "Laughing Over My Grave". Ray was now on the Monument label with a new focus on serious recordings.

In 1966 Monument issued "ABC", a little-known song that was a love ballad...Ray was now seriously concentrating on having non-comedy singles...another single from 1966, "Devil May Care" is another experiment from Ray, this time from the pen of Joe South. The song features a similar guitar intro as Billy Joe Royal's "Down in the Boondocks". Incidentally, those two artists along with Ray and Jerry Reed all came up together through their connections to Bill Lowery, a music mogul in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, just when it appeared Ray was on a serious streak, he puts out the novelty single "Freddy Feelgood and His Funky Little Five Piece Band" in 1966. The single hit the lower regions of the Hot 100. Monument then issued "Mary, My Secretary" as a single in 1967. This one was a little bit more sassy and up-tempo, arranged in that style popular at the time. It was a cheating song...about a businessman who wants to spend more time at work than at home.

1968 would mark the turn-around...it was this year that Ray had his biggest non-comedy hit to date. After the moderate success of "Unwind", Ray issued the very serious, satiric, and frank "Mr Businessman". This single, featuring a one-note piano intro which builds into a full orchestration before each successive verse, was a Top-30 pop hit and it was the highlight of his LP, "Even Stevens", his first for Monument Records. After the success of the single, Ray concentrated on novelty songs again and in 1969 issued "Gitarzan", which became his second pop Top-10 hit and a Gold record. The single was followed up with his take on "Along Came Jones", a former hit for the Coasters. Ray's version hit the pop Top-30. The "Gitarzan" album on Monument consisted of other novelty recordings including his takes on "Little Egypt", "Mr Custer", "Alley Oop", "Yakety Yak", as well as "Sir Thanks a Lot" which was a funny story song inspired by Sir Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. It was around this time that Ray began his association with Andy Williams.

Ray was now a super-star in pop music and in late 1969 he issued his take on then-contemporary pop songs on an album called "Have a Little Talk With Myself". The first single from this album was "Sunday Morning Coming Down", from the pen of Kris Kristofferson. This single, while inching up the Hot 100, would do somewhat better on the country chart, reaching the Top-60 there. This marked Ray's first appearance on the country charts. The title track of his album would also chart country...but Ray hadn't become a country act yet. Another foot-note in Ray's career happened when the makers of the movie 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' approached him to perform the movie's main song "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". Ray liked the song but didn't think it fit him and so he passed on recording it. The song would later become an international smash hit for BJ Thomas.

Another reason why he passed on the "Raindrops" song is because he was working on a new single called "Sunday Morning Coming Down", which I wrote about in the above paragraph.

He left the Monument label at the beginning of 1970 but 1970 brought Ray his biggest non-comedy hit song. The song in question? "Everything Is Beautiful".

"Everything Is Beautiful" in brief was a smash hit anyway you look at it. The single captured a mood at a time when protests and war and other social issues were prominent. The single was a million seller for Ray and it was his first #1 single...the song was also his first Top-40 country hit and it was a hit in England as well. Ray was named by Andy Williams to host a summer TV show...the program's official name is "Andy Williams Presents Ray Stevens??". The question marks were added in the official title as a joke because of how meteoric Ray's rise to super-star status had become thanks to "Everything Is Beautiful". Throughout the summer show there was a segment where people asked who Ray was, etc etc.

Ray's theme song for his show was "Everything Is Beautiful", which is one of the reasons why Ray wrote the song. It climbed the charts and was a big hit right about the time the summer show aired for the first time. Another reason he wanted to write what he called a "deliberate hit song" was because it was his debut single for Barnaby Records, a label tied to Andy Williams, and he wanted to make a good impression with the debut. Andy's brother, Don, became Ray's manager. This Don Williams isn't the same person who's a country singer, though. It's a totally different person.

Barnaby released an "Everything Is Beautiful" album as a result of the single's huge success. The album featured the title song of course...it also featured several of his takes on modern-day pop recordings including John Denver's "Leaving On a Jet Plane", Joe South's "Walk a Mile In My Shoes", and the optimistic "Get Together". Another song on that album was "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head", the song he orginally turned down in 1969. Barnaby Records later released an album called "Unreal", which featured a majority of songs that Ray wrote.

"Unreal" featured the single "America, Communicate With Me" which was in the vein of the protest-songs of the era. It was a mid-level Hot 100 hit but it struck a chord with adults, a segment of the pop audience becoming favorable in some markets. On the Easy-Listening chart, the single hit the Top-20. Another single, "Sunset Strip", was promoted as an homage to the sounds of Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame. The single in fact incorporates that 'sound' of Beach Boys recordings and while it wasn't a major Hot 100 hit, stalling in the lower half of the chart, it was a hit with adults...reaching the Top-20 on the Easy-Listening/Middle-of-the-Road survey. Ray bounced back to novelty recording once more with a late 1970 hit, "Bridget the Midget the Queen of the Blues". The single was a Top-50 pop hit and a smash in England, hitting the Top-5. The novelty single used the gimmick of sped-up vocals in the tradition of David Seville's Chipmunks recordings. Bridget is a Go-Go dancer which makes the single very topical as go-go dancers were still around by the time this single hit.

The big news was still to come as Ray picked up the Grammy award for Best Male Vocal Performance-Pop for "Everything Is Beautiful"...a second Grammy went to Jake Hess for his recording of the song in the Best Sacred Performance-Male category.

1971 was a gospel-flavored year for Ray...it was also the year Andy Williams' TV show ended production of weekly episodes. "A Mama and a Papa" as well as "All My Trials" became Top-10 Easy-Listening hits that year...he closed the year with "Turn Your Radio On", the title track of his gospel album. This single reached the country Top-20, his biggest country hit up to that time, and it hit the Top-30 on the Easy-Listening chart. 1972 and 1973 were quiet years in comparison to 1968-1971. Barnaby Records continued to release singles on Ray but none of them were hitting...it had been suggested that the overall changes in music, period, at that time affected genre-busting artists like Ray who enjoyed success in various radio formats...it was a sign of things to come as Top-40 pop radio started to become tighter in it's radio playlists. A nice album, "Losin Streak", was issued by Barnaby in 1973 which consisted of no hit singles. The album featured something new to the eyes: Ray appears on the album cover with a beard, which up to that point he had been clean-shaven.

After this album, Ray issued "Nashville". Although the song pays tribute to Nashville, Tennessee and it was a country Top-40 hit, the album as a whole wasn't exactly a 'country' album...the previous album featured his take on Freddie Hart's "Easy Loving"...signaling a country direction in Ray's career. After the "Nashville" album, Ray released a single that would become his biggest hit single of all-time.

Enter 1974...

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