October 10, 2010

Examining Ray Stevens on RCA...

One of the things that a lot of us dedicated fans of Ray Stevens have been well aware of is the lack of availability of his RCA catalog. In this blog I'll attempt to break down his RCA period as I feel in other blogs I've written I haven't really concentrated too much on the albums themselves...instead I usually name a few songs here and there that Ray recorded from that time period. This blog entry intends to remedy that by examining Ray's association with RCA in a much more detailed fashion...here we go...

Ray joined the RCA label late in 1979 and immediately began working on what would be his debut for the label. This debut arrived in late February of 1980 in the form of a comedy album...his first all-comedy album in six years. The album was built around his debut single, "Shriner's Convention", which had been released late in January of 1980 and research indicates that it entered the music charts the first week of February 1980. By all accounts the debut album and single for RCA would become his biggest hits for the label. The album, also called Shriner's Convention, featured a cartoonish illustration of Ray as one of the characters in the song sitting on a motorcycle with one of the waitresses at the motel...the song takes place at a motel for those not familiar.

There would not be another single released from the album here in the United States even though his comical cover of "Hey There" was issued as a single overseas. The album features nine comedy songs...there are quite a few lengthy recordings and this may play a part as to why there's only nine songs as opposed to the standard 10 or 11 per album. In addition to the title track which runs well over 5 minutes in length we have "The Dooright Family" which runs a little over 5 minutes and then there's "The Watch Song" which is part singing-part narration where Ray plays the part of a man whose obsessed with his wrist watch so much that it plays a part in an accidental death outside of a bar room.

"Rita's Letter" sort of breaks up the comical mood even though it's a comical song...what I mean is, it's not really a nutty comedy song. Instead we're told about a couple who've since divorced but the husband's written his ex-wife a letter saying that he's returning to town a changed man and excited over his new-found inspiration and purpose in life. You see, Rita's ex, Beauregard, returns as a Guru...in love with the world and life...but an angry Rita doesn't buy in to her ex's new-found redemption and is none too pleased to see him show up on her doorstep. "Coin Machine" is one of my favorites...well, they're all favorites of mine...but this song in particular. It sounds almost like the type of song that Jerry Reed would have recorded and not surprising is the song's writer, Dick Feller, is responsible for Reed's "Lord, Mr. Ford" and a co-writer with Reed on "East Bound and Down". Feller is also the man who wrote "Makin' the Best of a Bad Situation" which Ray recorded later on. "Coin Machine" simply tells the story of how annoying and frustrating it is to lose money in vending machines of all types: food, pop, and cigarettes. Of course that last item will be lost on modern-day listeners who may find it hard to fathom a vending machine that carried cigarettes.

Clever word play is abundant in the comical love song "You're Never Goin' To Tampa With Me" which borrows heavily on Florida cities and the culture down there to tell a whimsical story about a lonely man on spring break. Buddy Kalb, a long-time associate and friend of Ray's, wrote the song.

You all may be wondering...why wasn't any more singles released off of the Shriner's Convention album?? It was a Top-5 hit album so it looks as if more should have been released...why wasn't there? Well, my explanation for that is as follows...it's all my opinion, too...

This was still at a time in his career where he tirelessly fought against the comical image and given that it had been six years between comedy albums for Ray Stevens you can tell how serious he was at being thought of as a singer/songwriter/musician and not "a half-crazed novelty act". Ray has this unique ability, in my opinion, to effortlessly go from serious to funny and in both cases come off genuine and sincere. When he's singing a ballad, for example, during that stretch of 3 or 4 minutes he pulls you into the performance and you're left wanting more. At the other extreme if he's singing any number of comedy songs he pulls you into that performance and you're left wanting more. It's a rare talent to sound like a pro in both serious and comical performances...so few people can pull it off.

The track list for the 1980 album is as follows:

1. Shriner's Convention
2. The Last Laugh
3. Rita's Letter
4. The Watch Song
5. The Dooright Family
6. Hey There
7. Put It In Your Ear
8. You're Never Goin' To Tampa With Me
9. Coin Machine

At the height of the success of his 1980 album Ray began working on a much more serious follow-up which he hoped would return his image back into that of a serious artist. The new music began to surface in the form of a brand new single in the fall of 1980, "Night Games". This single, also written by Buddy Kalb, was the first from a then-upcoming album. The song was quintessential for the times: it took place inside a bar and tied in with the growing Urban Cowboy trend in country music. The album containing the excellent "Night Games" would eventually get released early in 1981...showing Ray decked out in fancy western wear with a leering woman over his shoulder. The title track, "One More Last Chance", is a majestic power ballad complete with electric guitar solo's and steel guitar solo's.

Unfortunately the One More Last Chance album didn't make the country album charts in spite of it boasting the hit single, "Night Games", in addition to the hit title track. Ray took a songwriting break for this album...whether it was did intentional or not is anyone's guess. This was one of the few albums in his career up to that point which featured no songs written or co-written by Ray. He was still the record producer and arranger and so he was able to put his creative stamp on the songs. Some of my favorites from the 1981 album are "One More Last Chance", "Night Games", "Take Your Love", "It's Not All Over", his cover of "Pretend", and "Melissa". I also like "Certain Songs" but you'll have to turn the volume up during the song's opening lyrics because it's so quiet and softly sung...but it then transforms and becomes louder until it reaches power ballad status with swelling orchestration effect.

The track list of the 1981 album is as follows...

1. One More Last Chance
2. Just About Love
3. Certain Songs
4. Melissa
5. I Believe You Love Me
6. Pretend
7. It's Not All Over
8. Let's Do It Right This Time
9. Take Your Love
10. Night Games

This album and the material on it, if anything, did indeed return Ray to the role of the serious singer and in a nod to the trend of the day he began wearing a cowboy hat during some of his concerts and TV appearances. He'd remove the hat during comical songs but then put the hat on again when he was crooning love ballads. Ray appears on the back of the One More Last Chance album wearing the cowboy hat that the woman on the front of the album is wearing. It's a visual indicator that Ray was able to get another chance...at least for one night.

Ray's third RCA album came along in 1982 and while the 1981 album was heavy on the ballads the 1982 album was more even with the number of ballads and up-tempo songs. Don't Laugh Now, appropriately titled, features 10 songs of various tempo all delivered in the signature Ray Stevens style. The album, like it's 1981 predecessor, didn't make the charts either. In spite of a couple of singles reaching the charts in 1982 this album received next to no publicity outside of it's initial promo's upon release. I've scoured newspaper articles from 1982 and looked up quite a lot of archival information on Ray Stevens in 1982 and this album rarely got much attention from critics or the media in general. I did come across one write-up, rather small, which was reprinted in other publications. The album contained one Top-40 single and one chart hit. The difference between a Top-40 and a chart hit is simple: if a single places at #40 or higher then it's generally referred to as a "Top-40" single. If a single charts but doesn't go higher than #41 then it's referred to as a "chart hit"...meaning it hit the charts but didn't reach the radio-dominant Top-40 portion. There were once 100 positions on the country singles chart and then it was cut to 75 for a long time and then cut further to 60 positions.

In the Don't Laugh Now album we're treated to his cover of "Such a Night" and in recent times he's opened up his concerts with that song. The Top-40 hit of the album, "Written Down in My Heart", is easy-listening and was written by a writer named W.T. Davidson. Unlike the 1981 album this one features a couple of songs written by Ray: the title track, "Don't Laugh Now", and the clever astrological love ballad "Oh Leo Lady". In "This Old Piano" we're told a story of a musician who loses his family while on the road and now his only comfort and companion is the very same piano that cost him his wife and children due to his being away from home all the time. Ray sounds very Kenny Rogers-like on this recording.

Ray hit the charts with a second single from the album...this time around with the borderline novelty "Where The Sun Don't Shine". The song is about a couple that's getting a divorce and the man decides to not put up a fuss and offers to give the woman everything and suggests she take it all...but there's a twist to the offer and that brings us to the title of the song. Nothing more needs to be said...it's a very catchy toe-tapping sing-a-long presented with a gospel overtone.

The songs from the 1982 album are as follows...

1. Such a Night
2. Written Down In My Heart
3. Take That Girl Away
4. Always There
5. Where the Sun Don't Shine
6. Oh, Leo Lady
7. Don't Laugh Now
8. This Old Piano
9. Country Boy, Country Club Girl
10. Why Don't We Go Somewhere and Make Love

A fourth album released by RCA on Ray Stevens arrived in 1983...it was a compilation called Greatest Hits which I wrote about several blogs ago. This particular album reached the lower portion of the country album charts and then he parted ways with the label...re-joining Mercury Records later in 1983. The hits compilation, by the way, featured 10 songs...8 of the songs were classics from the '60s and '70s while the other 2 were fairly recent recordings Ray did for RCA in 1980.

Afterward, in 1985, RCA released a compilation series on all of their artist's both past and present. The series, titled Collector's Series, was a low-budget affair concentrating on a small number of songs that the artists recorded while at the label. Ray got his showcase with a 1985 release which featured only eight songs...I think eight songs was the maximum in all of the releases in that series. The songs covered the years of 1980 through 1982 with high emphasis on 1980 and 1982. There's been a lot of understandable confusion about Collector's Series due to RCA releasing two versions with nearly identical track lists but different album pictures.

1985's Collector's Series track list is as follows...

1. Shriner's Convention; 1980
2. You're Never Goin' To Tampa With Me; 1980
3. Country Boy, Country Club Girl; 1982
4. Where the Sun Don't Shine; 1982
5. The Dooright Family; 1980
6. Let's Do It Right This Time; 1981
7. One More Last Chance; 1981
8. Why Don't We Go Somewhere and Make Love; 1982

In 1987 the label re-released the collection but dropped a song in favor of another one...

1. Shriner's Convention; 1980
2. You're Never Goin' To Tampa With Me; 1980
3. Country Boy, Country Club Girl; 1982
4. Where the Sun Don't Shine; 1982
5. The Dooright Family; 1980
6. Let's Do It Right This Time; 1981
7. Why Don't We Go Somewhere and Make Love; 1982
8. Put It In Your Ear; 1980

In 1990 RCA put out a compilation on Ray and titled it Everything Is Beautiful and Other Hits. It featured just one song from his RCA period while the remaining tracks were pulled from the '60s and '70s. It was re-issued on CD in 1992.

Collector's Series, the 1987 edition, was issued on CD in 1992...and since that time the CD has gone out of print. However, it continues to be the only collection released to exclusively spotlight material that Ray recorded for RCA Records. BMG issued an obscure release in Canada called Lassos 'N Spurs which featured 10 songs...6 of them were recordings Ray did for RCA and four of them were his classic hits. In 1999 BMG issued The Last Laugh...which features 10 songs but only one of them, "Shriner's Convention", is an RCA recording. Ironically Ray recorded a song called "The Last Laugh" on his 1980 RCA album but strangely enough it isn't included on the 1999 compilation CD of the same name.

It's a shame that his 1980, 1981, and 1982 albums have not gotten their proper acclaim and attention in the digital age. I'll continue to gripe and complain about the lack of availability of Ray's RCA material...it makes no sense whatsoever that the material he recorded for them continues to remain out of print in an era where it's become commonplace for vinyl albums to be digitally remastered for CD's. One day I hope to see his RCA albums get the CD re-issue treatment that they deserve.

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