October 14, 2012

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

We take a look at the third studio album from Ray Stevens today entitled Even Stevens. This particular album was a surprising departure from the material that was found on his first and second albums in 1962 and 1963 respectively. The third album came along in 1968. In between his last studio album in 1963 and the release of Even Stevens in 1968 he had left Mercury Records and signed up with Monument Records. It was during this period that Ray became a key figure in the A&R department. His songwriting, musical skills, and production prowess led him into a series of single-only projects for a whole host of artists and groups on a wide variety of record labels. Almost all of the acts that Ray worked with were heavily involved in R&B, sometimes soul, and straight ahead pop music. As early as 1962 he was becoming familiar as a session musician but this activity didn't necessarily pick up in any considerable way until the mid '60s. Some of the most important people in Ray's early career were Bill Lowery, Shelby Singleton, Chet Atkins, Ralph Emery, Fred Foster, and Andy Williams. Each of those talented personalities individually gave Ray all kinds of advice, studio work, and career boosts. Monument Records had released four consecutive singles on Ray between the years of 1965 and 1967. A couple of those singles became regional hits but a fifth release titled "Unwind" broke through the Hot 100 and reached the Top-60 early in 1968 yet in Canada the single hit the Top-20. The next release, "Mr. Businessman", did even better in America as it reached the Top-30 of the Hot 100 and the Top-10 in Canada. Monument issued their first studio album on Ray that very year...Even Stevens.

The album features 10 songs and runs the gamut from the social commentary of "Mr. Businessman" to the poignant and haunting "Isn't It Lonely Together?". The material seems to have been written specifically for the time period, too, as we get another topical entry by the title of "The Minority". In that song we hear about specific instances where a person's activities are examined as being a representation of a majority or a minority point of view and how neither points of view should automatically render an outcome valid. It's some heavy stuff but this was the era of the protest song where pop music artists were routinely inserting political and social points of view into their writings. "Mr. Businessman", "Isn't It Lonely Together?", "The Minority", "Unwind", and "The Great Escape" all feature heavy topicality and social commentary. In the case of "The Great Escape" we hear about the angst, irritation, and overall headache a worker experiences as he makes his way to and from work everyday. The worker, living outside the city in a quiet area, can't stand the traffic and the overall fast paced environment he has to put himself through day to day all for a paycheck and yearns to make the escape once the clock on the wall indicates it's time to go home. The single reached the Top-30 in Australia. It's b-side, "Isn't It Lonely Together?", told the story of unwanted pregnancy while "Unwind" celebrated the quiet life in a similar fashion as "The Great Escape" does. The hook of "Unwind", for me, is how Ray goes from a frantic, uptempo delivery of the song's verses to a mellow, laid back delivery at the start of the song's chorus. In essence what Ray did was transition from one tempo to the next, back to back, to show he's vocally unwinding and becoming more relaxed and subdued as the music softens but then he's right back uptempo with the start of the next verse. The single's b-side is "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". Ray wrote 8 of the 10 songs himself, co-wrote one of the songs with Bob Tubert, while the one exception is "The Earl of Stilton Square" from the pen of Tupper Saussy. That song carries a British flavor musically. It is on this album that Ray gives us an updated and much more melancholy take on "Funny Man". The original from 1963 had a soaring tenor vocal effect from Ray but in the 1968 update it's much more sedate by comparison.

I have the vinyl album in my collection and the CD version that came along in 1996 that you see in the picture above. The CD features all 10 songs plus four bonus additions.

This 1968 project is collectively referred to by critics and fans alike as Ray's first serious album...and it wouldn't be his last...yet what some have described as an internal musical battle between the comic and the crooner would play out for the next decade and a half as Ray valiantly attempted to create awareness for his more serious work while the infrequent comedy recordings he'd issue every once in awhile were what music consumers were ultimately buying. He'd eventually top the acclaim that the serious work on this album had garnered but more about that later on in this series.

Coming up next in this series is Ray's fourth studio album, the all-comedy project, Gitarzan!

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