October 14, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part Four...

As it's been noted for decades by music critics regionally and nationally, Ray had at long last found acclaim for serious work on the previous release in 1968, Even Stevens, only to turn around and issue an all-comedy project in 1969 titled Gitarzan. The album features 11 songs and it was re-issued in CD format in 1996 with three bonus tracks added to the list. I have the vinyl album in my collection. This particular album was largely built around the enormous popularity of "Gitarzan", the novelty single from Ray Stevens spoofing Tarzan and related characters. In Ray's tale, for those not familiar, we hear about a jungle dweller with a love of music. He wants to play the guitar while Jane fancies herself as a singer. Their pet monkey gets into the act by lending his unique verbal skills to the spectacle. The song's title was thought up by Bill Justis. Ray gave him co-writer credit using the musician's birth name, William Everette, even though Ray wrote the lyrics and the music himself. The single reached the Top-10 on the American pop chart and it also became an international smash hit reaching the Top-5 in New Zealand, Australia, and #1 in Canada. Sales were reportedly in the millions...prompting a Gold certification by the RIAA. It was easily Ray's biggest commercial success since 1962's "Ahab the Arab". As far as record producers go, Fred Foster and Ray had been the producer for 1968's Even Stevens. This 1969 comedy album was produced by Fred Foster, Jim Malloy, and Ray. Shelby Singleton had been the producer of Ray's first two studio albums on Mercury.

After the enormous success of "Gitarzan" and all the media publicity it brought, Monument released a second single from the album...it was Ray's cover of "Along Came Jones". Ray, admittedly a long-time fan of The Coasters novelty songs, does an excellent job recreating the melodrama but yet he makes the song his own with the added touches not heard in the original by The Coasters. Ray added the screaming, whining pleas of help from damsel Sweet Sue in addition to the dirty laugh of Salty Sam. The arrangement basically remains the same, though, as the 1959 original. Ray took his 1969 version of the song to the Top-30 in America, the Top-20 in Canada, the Top-10 in Australia, and the Top-5 in New Zealand. There were no other singles released from the album...perhaps because of how enormously successful the two singles had become world-wide that releasing anything else from that album would certainly typecast Ray even further as a singer of nothing but novelty songs once more.

Elsewhere on the album we have his versions of "Yakety Yak", "Little Egypt", "Mr. Custer", and "Alley Oop". Those four recordings, added to the two single releases from the album, totals six. This leaves five recordings not mentioned yet. Two of the remaining five were re-recordings of earlier Mercury hits, "Ahab the Arab" and "Harry the Hairy Ape"; two more were 1966 recordings, "Freddie Feelgood" and "Bagpipes, That's My Bag"; and a fifth was the brand new "Sir Thanks-a-Lot", a wild story about a knight and the damsel in distress being held captive by a fire breathing dragon. The versions of "Ahab the Arab", "Harry the Hairy Ape", and "Freddie Feelgood" that exist on this album have become fixtures on many compilation albums released on Ray Stevens through the decades. The reason being is because the songs that Ray recorded for Monument and the next label he was on soon fell under the distributive ownership of a certain music company that would license Ray's recordings over and over to whichever label wanted to issue a compilation project on Ray. This is why on many compilation albums you get the 1969 versions of his Mercury hits and not the original recordings.

Coming up next in this series is Ray's fifth studio album, 1969's Have a Little Talk With Myself!

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