December 16, 2009

Ray Stevens: Clown Prince of Country Music

A certain value has been placed on a lot of Ray Stevens items down through the years. Of course we're not talking about the kind of value that rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars like most Elvis or The Beatles merchandise from the past. Instead I'm referring to personal value...that sort of priceless feeling that comes over you when listening to your 45's or your long-playing vinyl albums. Albums from artists that are valuable within one's own mind. I know that when I went through my vinyl buying stage of life I bought any vinyl album or single I could find of Ray Stevens on eBay that was in my price range. I mostly bought the vinyl albums but sometimes I'd buy a single. A lot of the singles that I have of Ray actually came from Ray's fan-club when it was active. Toward the end of the club's existence they got in their possession an inventory of 45's that they were selling. If I remember correctly the only catch was you could only buy 1 copy of a single. Some singles were in very limited quantities...and so if they had 30 copies of a single for sale, you could only purchase 1 copy to be fair to other buyers. This is how I was able to purchase so many singles of Ray's without really using an on-line auction site...but then the singles became unavailable...but I'm fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time to take advantage of the singles that the fan club was selling. The single above is the promo version of "The People's Court" from 1986. It's a spoof of the TV show of the same name but it wasn't promoted as much as I think it could have been. The song that Ray preferred to hype from the 1986 album was "Can He Love You Half as Much as I?"...and that song actually appears on 1987's Greatest Hits, Volume Two in spite of the fact that it didn't achieve a chart position as "The People's Court" and "Southern Air" did that same year. It's one of those songs that appears in his concerts and everyone cheers and applauds when he starts to sing it...a perfect example of a song that's a fan favorite and treated as a hit song even though it didn't reach the national music charts. There are plenty of those kinds of fan favorite songs in Ray's career.

I have a 45 of this single but it doesn't have the fancy sleeve that you see here. However, this fancy sleeve with the record company logo on it graces a 45 that I have called "America, Communicate With Me". That single was released in 1970...meanwhile, "Indian Love Call" came along in 1975. This is the commercial copy, too, as it contains the funky illustration of the melted vinyl on the tree trunk. All artists who recorded for the Barnaby label had singles with this same illustration. When I was just discovering 45's I thought the funky illustration was just something that the label put on Ray's singles given his reputation for comedy and novelty songs...but that wasn't the case. Barnaby Records is what one would call an Independent label was a subsidiary of larger labels. Originally in 1970 the distributor of Barnaby recordings were CBS. When the label was under the CBS banner, the paper on the vinyl recordings were a solid blue color. When Barnaby switched to MGM the color remained the same. When Janus became primary distributor that's when the melted vinyl illustration began appearing on the singles and albums.

This is a picture I took with my digital camera. I'm holding up a single I bought from the fan-club quite awhile ago. It's a promo copy of "Speed Ball", a single that Ray had out in mid 1963. It reached the Top-70 of the Hot 100 and the Top-30 of the R&B chart that year. It was what you might call a quick hit...not a song that had long-lasting radio appeal...but it was popular in it's time. You can click the image for a bigger view. The b-side of the single is a ballad called "It's Party Time". I'm wearing rubber gloves because the picture sleeve gets dusty from time to time since it's the first one in my stack of Ray Stevens singles and is vulnerable to any surface dust that may form. I wipe any such surface dust away, though. The vinyl is clear, dust-free, and in mint condition according to my ears. One of the things that I feel I'm fortunate about is my vinyl albums and singles don't skip or know like the stereotypical record player will do. I've yet to experience an issue where the needle on my record player skips. I think, of course, that has more to do with the quality of the vinyl's surface than my own personal luck.

Ray Stevens is sometimes referred to as the Clown Prince of Country Music. It depends on who you ask...some feel that the nick-name is restrictive because it emphasizes his comical image over his body of work overall which includes a lot more than comedy songs. When I first heard the phrase "Clown Prince of Country Music" I felt then and still feel that it's a nick-name that certainly applies. When you get right down to it, it's the comical songs that will be Ray's lasting imprint. Although us Ray Stevens fans wish the public at large would recognize a lot more serious material from him besides "Everything Is Beautiful", I happen to understand that his comical recordings and his comical music videos have proven to be much more commercially successful by comparison. Ray was selling comedy 45's in the 1980's based pretty much on word-of-mouth and exposure on The Nashville Network and Hee-Haw. Country or pop radio certainly can't take credit for the success that Ray's singles experienced during much of the 1980's.

Now, of course, some out there may say something stupid like: "I don't think radio would want to take credit for any attention Ray's songs may have brought.". The point is, though, Ray sold strong enough during his years with RCA and MCA Records in the 1980's that airplay or lack thereof really didn't play a significant role in his on-going success. To paraphrase his longtime friend and songwriting partner, Buddy Kalb: "if there's a mountain or a road block in Ray's path he finds a way around it.".

In a lot of ways Ray has certainly earned the right to laugh at his critics and those who consistently scratched their heads with each new project he'd come out with. Why? Because of the success he's enjoyed in spite of any critical disdain or contempt that may have come his way. The fuss over "Mr. Businessman" back in 1968 being on the surface anti-capitalism, for example. "Everything Is Beautiful" in 1970 being optimistically cheery caused a lot of critics to reach for their headache medicine. This same feeling swept a lot of the critics in England, too, when Ray had a big hit in early 1971 with the gimmick novelty, "Bridget the Midget, The Queen of the Blues". In some people's minds the song was simply to inane and weird to purchase or even enjoy listening to. As usual the critics over-looked Ray's talent and production skills that are showcased throughout the song. The gimmick was the sped-up vocals of Bridget and her back-up group, sort of like a spoof of the Chipmunks. The single was a Top-5 hit in England...but yet, mysteriously, "nobody" was a fan of it. "The Streak", his 1974 monster hit, generated so much critical contempt you'd have thought Ray had just defected to communism or something awful like that...and for a single that is supposedly hated and something nobody purchased, how did it sell close to five million copies world-wide if people didn't like the song? The truth is, people liked the song and there's nothing to be ashamed of if you hear the song now and grin or chuckle at it....

Here is another 45 of mine. As you can see I took the pictures on the same day. I keep my vinyl collection and my record player at a relatives house as there is no room in my own bedroom for the records...and so I often take my digital camera along with me if I know I'll be at the relative's house and I end up taking several pictures in one session instead of making frequent trips there. This is the 45 of "Bubble Gum The Bubble Dancer". It isn't a bubblegum song, though. The song is actually about a bubble dancer who goes by the name of Bubble Gum. It's a jazzy, up-tempo number about the exploits of a dancer who drives men wild. The bubble dance is something that was a feature in strip-clubs and other establishments that catered to that crowd. You can look up it's history and everything else on-line if you're so inclined.

There are two slightly different takes on this song...there is one version that features Ray playing an announcer with a dopey kind of voice bringing out Bubble Gum to the applause of all. This dopey voice can be heard much more in the "Rock and Roll Show" that appeared originally on Ray's debut album in 1962.

There is another alternate take of "Bubble Gum the Bubble Dancer" that features Ray playing an announcer with a more rural drawl bringing out Bubble Gum to the delight of all. The songs, however, are exact duplicates...only the announcer's voice is different. This sort of thing wouldn't be noticed unless you happen to be a Ray Stevens nut-case like myself.

This road book as I call it was issued in 1977 for Ray's international audience. Note the way the word "program" is spelled on the cover. The booklet was originally available overseas in England. It's not a tell-all book, of course. It's a write-up promoting an overseas series of concerts. It consists of rather large pictures of Ray and an essay giving a quick over-view of Ray's life in the music business. The last page is a write-up of Del Shannon, the artist that Ray was appearing in concert with over there. In spite of the fact that at various points in the early 1970's Ray was seen with his beard, the pictures in the road/tour book show only clean-shaven Ray Stevens. I've written about this booklet before but I decided to bring it back out and promote it again. I bought it on eBay and read it front to back the day it arrived in the mail.

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