September 15, 2012

Ray Stevens: Nostalgia Valley, Part 43...

Oh what a year we have on today's stroll through Nostalgia Valley as we look at the career of the legendary singer/songwriter/musician/comedian and pop/country/political humorist and artist, Ray Stevens.

As ironic as it sounds, Ray Stevens is an under-rated superstar, and 1969 was one of the key years of his career.

"Freddie Feelgood", a very hilarious song, has a unique history in Ray's career. Ray recorded it in 1966 and his label at the time, Monument, released it as a single. The single charted in the lower 10 of the Hot 100 but it's still a great performance in spite of the chart finish.

As I've pointed out many, many, many times over the last several years, chart placings are more or less irrelevant and do not exactly tell the Ray Stevens story at all. His career has thrived for decades without the crutch or aid of a popularity chart. The value of a song and it's true measure of greatness can easily be determined by a simple method of subtraction. If you were to take away any Grammy or any award that a song has won or take away it's sales achievements or any other type of industry or non-industry award, the song would still be the same song as before, only without the awards or praise.

Down through the decades it's become commonplace to elevate songs into higher places based upon any award or sales success associated with it. It's also become equally commonplace to look down or diminish a song if it doesn't win any awards or receive hefty doses of radio airplay.

Ray Stevens' masterful "Everything Is Beautiful" would still be the great song it is even without the Grammy awards that it won or it's #1 finish on the pop chart. Those awards are like the icing on the cake.

"Freddie Feelgood and His Funky little Five Piece Band", as mentioned earlier, debuted in 1966. It was written by Ray and he does a heavy amount of scat singing in various places in the recording. Well, actually, he vocally mimics the sounds of four of the five instruments featured in this performance. The names of the band members, by introduction, are: Yum-Yum, Ace, Tyrone, Percy, and Freddie. In 1969, while still on Monument, an all-new novelty album was released, Gitarzan. Ray had a short string of pop hits in the early '60s with Mercury Records but then the novelty single releases slowed down, mostly due to what's known in American pop music as the British invasion with the meteoric rise in popularity of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Herman's Hermits, and others. Post-1963 Ray started putting more time in the numerous recording studios in Nashville as a session musician and music arranger. In fact, Dusty Springfield was one of the artists whose recording sessions Ray often played on. Concurrent with this he also found the time to be a record producer/music arranger for a group of artists on the Monument label. Even though Ray had become known as a novelty artist, the b-sides of many of his Mercury singles featured non-comical love ballads. Ray's first release for Monument as a recording artist arrived in 1965 with the release of "Party People" backed with "A-B-C". "Freddie Feelgood" arrived in 1966 followed by a few other love ballad single-only releases later on in 1966 and into 1967. "Unwind", in 1968, charted in the Top-60 of the Hot 100, more closer to the Top-50, and had become the highest chart hit for Ray since 1963. 1968's "Unwind" had also become the first non-comical single release from Ray to make that kind of impact on the Hot 100. His very next release, "Mr. Businessman", went even higher and finished in the pop Top-30. The follow-up, "The Great Escape", didn't make the Hot 100 but it appeared on the Bubbling Under chart, indicating that it had the potential of breaking into the Hot 100 but ultimately it didn't happen. Nevertheless, it was a Top-50 single in Canada.

Ray's first studio album for Monument, Even Stevens, arrived in 1968 and it featured "Unwind", "Mr. Businessman", "Isn't It Lonely Together", and "The Great Escape" among the selections. The Gitarzan album came along the following year which reinforced his novelty/comedy image.

The album featured just two single releases, the million selling Top-10 title track, "Gitarzan", and the Top-30 pop hit, "Along Came Jones", which had been a huge hit for one of Ray's favorite groups, The Coasters, in 1959. "Freddie Feelgood" and "Bagpipes, That's My Bag", from 1966, were placed on this 1969 album and it's on this collection where "Freddie Feelgood", in particular, started to attain something of a quiet appreciation. The enhanced recording...which was in reality the same 1966 recording with electronic laughter dubbed over top...became a fixture on countless compilation albums released on Ray Stevens through the decades. Ray performed the song in concert several times and once on a television special hosted by Jerry Reed in 1979. The music video, embedded above, come along in 2000 and was uploaded onto You Tube in 2011.

In addition to the comedy album, Ray issued a mostly covers project titled Have a Little Talk With Myself in 1969. The album contains his versions of contemporary pop songs with a few original songs added to the line-up. One of the new songs at the time, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down", appeared on this album. Ray holds the distinction of being the first recording artist to cover the song. It was written by Kris Kristofferson. Ray's recording reached the Hot 100 and it made the country music chart, his first ever appearance, and it reached the Top-50 on the country chart in Canada. The album's title track, "Have a Little Talk With Myself", hit the country music singles chart early in 1970 and it was followed by his version of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" which Bubbled Under and became his final single release for Monument.

It was during this same time period, 1969-1970, that Ray began his association with Andy Williams. Initially starting out as a recurring guest star on Andy's television program in 1969, Ray ultimately joined Andy's Barnaby Records in 1970. The same year Andy chose Ray to host a summer fill-in television program...airing nationally every week on NBC during the summer months of enormous exposure to his music, most notably the show's theme song, "Everything Is Beautiful", which would go on to win a Grammy, sell more than three million copies, and reach #1 internationally.

To date, Have a Little Talk With Myself has never been issued in CD or Mp3 format. I own a vinyl album and it appears as if a CD or Mp3 of this album will never see the light of day as I discussed in a recent blog entry. 

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