August 27, 2010

Ray Stevens and Arizona...It's no Laughing Matter...

I happen to believe that a lot of things in the music business are cyclical. There is abundant proof currently on display when it comes to Ray Stevens. Ray burst onto the scene in the late '50s performing love ballads rooted in R&B and early rock music. However, he didn't get any mainstream attention until he joined Mercury Records in 1961...following a 1960 single on the NRC label entitled "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon", one of his very first comedy recordings. The comical approach told Ray that it would get him some attention...and during 1961-1963 Ray wrote and recorded a steady stream of comical songs and love ballads. The comical songs made the most impression on the various pop music charts of the era...and suddenly Ray found himself being labeled a novelty artist. This comical image was difficult to overcome no matter how many fine, serious recordings Ray made during the mid 1960's.

Then something 1968 Ray found himself gaining some momentum on the pop charts with a non-comical song for the first time in his career. "Unwind" would peak just below the doing so it became his most successful non-comical recording to date. The song was his fifth single release on Monument Records...and the sixth single release later in 1968 became his major breakthrough non-comical song. The song in question? It's none other than "Mr. Businessman". It was a social commentary song putting on trial the average businessman's reputation. Ray's album that year, Even Stevens, shown a much more serious overtone than his previous albums. Also, his voice had by this time deepened...causing him to sound completely different than he did throughout the bulk of the '60s. Ray would continue to issue comical material off and on during the 1969-1974 time frame but 90% of the material was non-comical. This serious approach to material enabled Ray to build a fan base that preferred the serious, non-comical recordings he was making in this era.

1970's "Everything Is Beautiful" was and continues to be his biggest non-comical hit song. It reached #1 and was a million seller...a year earlier he emerged with an all-comedy album, Gitarzan, featuring the million selling title track. He flip-flopped from comedy to serious material often and in early 1971 "Bridget the Midget, The Queen of the Blues" became a smash comedy single in England. Ray would continue to release the occasional comedy song or full length comedy album but the bulk of his commercial singles happened to be serious love ballads. Ray had his biggest selling hit single, "The Streak", during the streaking fad of was a million selling comedy song and hit #1 in a little over a month's time on the pop chart.

What all of this boils down to is Ray's career can be described as somewhat cyclical due to the flip-flopping of serious and comedy recordings...not to forget the flips from pop to country to R&B to gospel. Throughout the mid '80s and on through the next two decades of the '90s and 2000's Ray had firmly established himself as a country comedian...and it's that image and it's those comical recordings that typecast him once and for all as a singer of comedy songs. Also, several generations of audiences grew up on this comical version of Ray Stevens...and much like the audiences of the late '60s through the mid '70s preferred the much more serious Ray Stevens, the audiences of the '80s through the '90s were much more familiar with the zany and comical Ray Stevens and that's what the general public wanted to see. "God Save Arizona" and his recent video hits on You Tube carrying political overtones is something foreign to the generations who grew up with the image of Ray Stevens singing and prancing around a stage playing characters-in-song and joking around with the audience and his band members. This brings us back to that cyclical phrase once again. Anytime an artist chooses to shift gears it's bound to ruffle some feathers and make some uncomfortable. Ray Stevens "going political", as some refer to it, is something new and different from an artist who up until late last year rarely talked politics in such a public way.

The very idea of a "comedy singer" having anything "serious" to say, especially about politics, tickled a lot of people's funny bones and gained Ray a lot of attention. There were some who misunderstood "We The People" and took it to mean something completely out of context. Some thought Ray was spoofing the Tea Party, for example, but in reality he was supporting them through his style of humor. In "Come to the USA", you had people out there whining and crying and accusing Ray of being racist. "God Save Arizona", the latest hit video, created a similar misunderstanding when some accused Ray of being a borderline fascist who wishes to see the Federal Government over-thrown. I'm sure at some point Ray will return to the non-political songs...cyclical time indicates things often return again...but let none of you out there forget that it is a business after all. Ray's having some of the most talked-about songs of his career and they're finding audiences on You Tube...and the exposure translates into potential sales for the music. Like in time's past once something isn't successful anymore you move on to something else that'll hopefully grab people's attention. Meanwhile his political music videos of late are grabbing people's attention...and the idea of getting attention is what any singer hopes to do with everything they release.

Anyway...enjoy Ray's current You Tube video hit...

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