October 1, 2010

Examining 1987's Ray Stevens...

One of the funniest songs that Ray Stevens recorded during the second half of the 1980's was "Sex Symbols". I'm quite sure a lot of people who hear the song or have seen him perform the song in concert are well aware of the duo partnership that's being spoofed. "Sex Symbols" for those unaware is a song that comments on the sexual appeal of several male celebrities but for comedic purposes there's also playful mentions of celebrities not exactly considered sex symbol material. Ray sings the song as a duet between himself and a man named Julio...now, by giving out that bit of information you now know that the song is spoofing the unlikely but successful vocal partnership of Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias. For the record, though, Ray doesn't imitate Willie Nelson...so for those curious and wish to seek out the song for yourselves it won't feature him impersonating Willie. Ray does a broad impression of Julio, though! In concert Ray would sing the song as if he were a ventriloquist...with a dummy of Julio sitting on his lap. An in concert performance of the song can be found on Ray Stevens Live, the home video he released in 1993. "Sex Symbols", as you can see from the image, was released in 1987. Although the song was pretty popular in concert and it received a lot of exposure through television appearances during that era it didn't make the national music charts. The inclusion of "Sex Symbols" as well as "I'm My Own Grandpaw", "Three Legged Man", and "Cool Down Willard" on the 1987 Crackin' Up album led some narrow minded critics of the time to label the album R-rated and unsuitable for the family. Can you believe such nonsense? I wouldn't have believed it either if I hadn't myself seen a few of the critic's reactions to the album.

First off, Ray never to my knowledge made any statements that his albums would be family friendly and lack any kind of adult-themes. Secondly, why would critics rate an album based upon pre-existing expectations? Too many times music critics tend to have this vision of what an album is suppose to sound like or be like and if the album doesn't measure up to their standards then they trash the album in their reviews. All of Ray's comedy albums are different from one another. 1987's Crackin' Up is way different than 1986's Surely You Joust, for example. 1991's #1 With a Bullet is vastly different than 1997's Hum It or 1985's I Have Returned. I think that critics get this sound or this expectation in their minds before they listen to something and if it's different than what they expected they tend to dislike it...even if the material is still top-notch and funny.

It's hard to imagine boisterous and bouncy novelty songs, which Crackin' Up is abundant with, could ever be labeled "graphic", "adult-oriented", or "R-rated". Such over-the-top adjectives are misleading and could cause a potential customer to think that the album is filled with smut and four letter words, etc etc. The bottom line is critics need to be more responsible with how they critique.

The songs I mentioned are harmless and witty...silly as well...Ray, I don't believe, had any subliminal messages at all when deciding to record those songs. The only song that one could consider hard-hitting or pointed is the opening track, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", which skewered televangelists and the concept of millionaire preachers. That particular song was the main focal point of the year for Ray...and the 1987 album was assembled to, I assume, cash-in on the Rolex single. It wasn't long after that single was issued and had become a hit that MCA released Greatest Hits, Volume Two which featured the song as the opening track.

"Three Legged Man" is a comical song about a man who runs off with another man's wife. The wife's husband happens to have a peg leg...and in an effort to create havoc the man steals the husband's peg leg in the early morning darkness. As the song goes on we're told of the adventures of the couple as they flee from the one legged husband in hot pursuit...meanwhile, the one legged husband has some news of his own to deliver once he catches up with the cheating duo. "Cool Down Willard" has some fun with Willard Scott, the weatherman. In that song Ray sings of how his wife, grandmother, and his aunt all have a thing for Willard and they all congregate every weekday morning to catch his weather reports and marvel at his clothes and hair. To make matters worse, the wife spends most of her day shopping and talking on the telephone with her friends bragging about how wonderful Willard is. Does this sound like a song that's adult-oriented or graphic? Did critics consider the swiping of a peg leg to be graphic? What's with those kinds of critics?

"I'm My Own Grandpaw" had been around since the 1940's...Ray's version obviously is produced and arranged with a much more modern sound. The song tells the story of how a complicated family tree is planted. A man ends up becoming married to his step-grandmother after his wife becomes the mother of his mother. It's a very funny tale of step-children and step-parents and how, through marriage, a family tree can exist relating everyone to one another. Some critics have analyzed the song line by line...I'm referring to the original by Lonzo and Oscar...in an attempt to show that the song stays within the boundary of legalized marriages. The intentional omitting of the word, step, in front of brother, sister, mother, and father is where the humor comes from.

All in all Crackin' Up is a very funny album filled with a lot of nutty, silly songs living up to it's title. The album is NOT this adult-oriented, R-rated smut fest that critics would have you believe. Other albums from Ray Stevens in 1987 include...

Greatest Hits
Greatest Hits, Volume Two
Get The Best of Ray Stevens
{television advertised double album}

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