December 13, 2008
Anniversary Under the Moonlight...
2009 marks the Thirty-Fifth Anniversary of a particular Ray Stevens recording that often goes over-looked. "The Moonlight Special" is a parody of a late-night TV show called The Midnight Special. In this particular recording, we hear an impressive set of impressions starting off with a stunning Wolfman Jack take off. The Wolfman for those who do not know was the show's announcer and "face" of the show during it's lengthy run. Although Wolfman was the announcer and not the "host", it's Wolfman Jack's personality and distinctive voice and fan-base from his radio listenership that made him arguably the star of that program. The song that parodies the show features Ray's vocal impressions of Wolfman Jack...howling and screaming and carrying on about the show and bringing on the acts one by one. The acts are all spoofs of pop and rock singers who made frequent appearances on The Midnight Special during the 1970's. The ironic part of this whole parody is that Ray wrote and recorded it while the show was in it's infancy...well before it developed into the show it became...for the show itself was in production for 8 and a half years, 1973-1981, and Ray's parody was released as a single in 1974, almost 35 years ago...the show was a cult hit at first but soon it became a huge hit because of it's unique air-time, late at night...90 minutes of pop and rock music performed in a studio with a different host each week and the presence of DJ Wolfman Jack as it's announcer. It aired after The Tonight Show on Friday nights...and so when Johnny Carson would say goodnight, what many viewers saw afterward was The Midnight Special.
Ray opens up the song in his own singing voice...singing the chorus of the song. He then brings on The Sheepdog...his version of Wolfman Jack. Amidst thunderous applause, Sheepdog crams a series of slang expressions together "crazy, too cool, outta sight, right on, and far out!" and welcomes everyone to the show and brings out the night's first guest. Satirizing the sound of Gladys Knight and the Pips, we're treated to Mildred Queen and the Dips. The group sings a nonsense song...Mildred leading the vocals with the Dips repeating everything she says word for word. After becoming frustrated by the repeaters, she screams...only to have the Dips scream in harmony. Sheepdog comes in asking for applause "how 'bout that all you dudes and chickies out there...yeah!!!". After Sheepdog informs everyone what they're experiencing, The Moonlight Special, we hear a more rushed Ray Stevens singing the chorus again in his natural voice as Sheepdog talks over the chorus...concluding with a series of howls.
Sheepdog then brings out the bizarre/alternative rock act...Agnes Stupor and his Chicken. This is a parody of Alice Cooper, who was known for having snakes in his performances. Agnes, however, regals the audience with a bizarre tale that allows listeners to wonder if he's in his right mind...implying about the streaking/flashing craze that was going on "yeah, flash an old lady now!" and then telling us about painting the living room carpet. A completely nutty act that's for sure. Sheepdog returns asking for applause...then we hear Ray singing the chorus once again as Sheepdog informs everyone that they're listening and watching The Moonlight Special.
The closing act, usually reserved for a legend or a classic, features the piano rocking appearance of a Jerry Lee Lewis spoof. Ray incorporates several Jerry Lee-type vocals during the piano rocking...which include a passage where Jerry plays with his feet...hollering and screaming all the while as Sheepdog marvels at the display...
The song comes to a close with Sheepdog thanking everyone for coming to the show and thanks everyone for listening and watching and reminds everyone to tune in next time for The Moonlight Special and he ends by making a series of howls. As this is going on, in the background we hear cheers and claps and Ray's natural voice singing the chorus once again.
The song is a wonderfully produced record...in pop music circles it may even be considered a "gimmick record". Critics and radio people alike often frown on novelty records and records with a gimmick...but thankfully i'm not a professional critic nor am I a radio insider. All kidding aside, though, it's a well-crafted song putting to good use the over-dubbing process. I am not sure but I think Ray is one of the first acts in Top-40 music who used over-dubbing way back before it became so common today in all forms of entertainment...if he wasn't the first he certainly has my vote as the artist who used over-dubbing to it's maximum effect. It is highly unlikely that Ray ever performed this song in concert...the multi-tracking and over-dubbing is not easily duplicated in concert or even on a TV show. The single hit the Hot 100, peaking in the Top-80. It would be perhaps impossible for any of his singles to over-shadow "The Streak"...a monster #1 pop hit for Ray earlier in 1974 that was still selling and getting feedback throughout the rest of the year...so I don't even think Barnaby Records or Ray himself was seriously looking to top "The Streak" but "The Moonlight Special" is a funny recording all the same and it showcases Ray's various talents with his broad vocal impressions.