November 30, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 30...

In this Golden LP Series installment we take a look at studio album 30 from Ray Stevens. Ray had returned to the MCA label late in 1996 and their first retail release on him was the VHS home video, Get Serious!. The video became another sales hit for Ray and it remained on the charts throughout much of the first half of 1997. It hit the weekly sales charts in January 1997 and remained a best-seller through July 1997. Ray's first audio release for MCA in 8 years arrived in the form of studio album 30, Hum It. Now, for those keeping track, this was Ray's first studio album in four years. As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, Ray was extremely busy between the years of 1993 and 1997 with his home video successes. Hum It features 8 songs filled with various styles of comedy. A 9th song, "It Ain't Over Till It's Over", is a mid-tempo love song while a 10th recording, "I'll Be In Atlanta", is a very clever salute to Georgia as well as Gone With the Wind. It's a wonderful recording and poignant in a way as Ray himself hails from Georgia. As you listen along see if you remember the faces of the character names he mentions. Elsewhere on this project we have sound effects in a recording simply titled, "R.V.", which tells a comical story of a recently retired man who purchases an "R.V." and then takes to the roads with his family. Along the way he gets into several incidents due to his inability to maneuver the vehicle...including a memorable encounter at a fuel station.

On the cover photo Ray is dressed up as Whistler's Mother. Ray, in referee uniform blowing a whistle, is playing Whistler's "son". Some people thought Ray was dressed up as Mother Bates from the Psycho movies. Whistler's mother is tired of whistling...so she's decided to hum instead. That's where the idea behind the album title came from according to an interview Ray gave on The Nashville Network when the project was released.

"Too Drunk To Fish" was one of the few songs to be pushed as a single. Ray did a music video shot on location at a lake for this song. It features a cast of extra's who act as Ray's 'audience' as he tells the story of his friend who spent the day drinking instead of fishing. Besides Ray, the only other person in the video whose name I know is Buddy Kalb. Has anyone ever had a neighbor that was either embarrassing or obnoxious on some level? Ray sings about this in "My Neighbor" as he laments about a family who moves in next door and how the neighbor's lawn has become a junkyard within a span of half a year which also causes the property value of the adjacent houses to plummet.

Apollo-13 is spoofed in "Virgil and the Moonshot". This was a second music video release in 1997. In this song Ray sings about an unlikely hire at N.A.S.A. who accidentally locks himself inside a spaceship while pretending to be an astronaut. It all goes downhill, or I should say, up in the air from that point forward as the ship launches into outer space. Virgil keeps in communication with Mission Control during his accidental launch. This collection is also notable for being one of the last major releases to feature J.D. Sumner, a legendary bass singer and gospel music fixture. Sumner was brought in to portray the role of 'Mama' in the hilarious "Mama Sang Bass", a spoof of a former hit for Johnny Cash titled "Daddy Sang Bass". Mama and Daddy were victims of hormonal imbalances in their later years. Mama's voice got deeper while Daddy's got higher. Ray and Sumner performed this song on television in 1997. In the performance Sumner wore a long blond wig.

Carl Perkins, who would also pass away not long after this project was released, co-wrote the spoof with a writer named Luther Crabb. Also from the pen of Crabb came the comical love song, "She Loves Elvis Better Than Me", which tells of a man who has a wife that's completely obsessed with Elvis and in order to get attention he finds himself having to dress up and act like Elvis. In the religious vein we have "Sunday Morning" which carries a nostalgic flavor but it's about the weekly routine a family goes through as they prepare to head off for church. The album closer is the satiric "How Much Does It Cost to Fly to Albuquerque?" where Ray calls up a travel agent and asks a question about flight costs from one place to the next but the agent ends up going on and on and on about special deals, fares, discounts, and alternate flights. It's a song that's humorous even if you've never stepped inside a plane or airport before.

Several months after the release of Hum It and during it's initial publicity campaign Ray began working on his next release. Studio LP 31 arrived in the winter of 1997...it was filled with material that was recorded in the hot months of late summer/early fall. In news stories that ran in the winter of 1997 it was reported that Ray deliberately had his office and studio all decorated for Christmas during the summer months while recording the Christmas songs.

In one of his interviews he said it was rather odd to be in the studio singing about the snow and reindeer while the outside temperature was pushing 90 degrees but in order to have it done and out in time it needed to be recorded in the middle of summer.

In the next installment we'll look at studio album 31, Ray's first Christmas album ever!

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series Extra...1995...

In this Extra installment I wanted to mention a few projects that emerged in 1995 featuring the music of Ray Stevens. There had long been a consistent string of compilation albums on the market featuring Ray's songs. While several were contractually released hits albums and other similar collections there were quite a few that were released by an entire series of low-budget and Independent record companies from all over the globe. This kind of thing seemed to taper off by 1997 but in 1995 there were at least five compilation releases did on Ray Stevens that I'm aware of. There was a 3-CD collection called The Incredible World of Ray Stevens which had two separate releases based upon which country a music consumer lived in. Warner Brothers released a 3-CD set called Cornball, Do You Wanna Dance?, and The Serious Side of Ray Stevens. Each of those CD's contained obscure, hard to find vocal gems from Ray that he recorded in the late '70s. A lot of those songs made their debut on CD in 1995. A fifth compilation in 1995 came from his record label at the time, Curb Records. They issued a CD titled 20 Comedy Hits. It came with liner notes in a fold-out cover which also featured pics of Ray. The pics of Ray were more contemporary to reflect the majority of songs on the CD being from the early '90s. It's the only CD compilation to deliberately showcase an abundance of his Curb recordings. In addition to those five compilation releases there was also the 1995 audio soundtrack of Get Serious!. This collection gathered the songs performed in video format in Ray's movie and presented them in audio format. The song titled "We Don't Take Nothin' Off Nobody" is heard in it's entirety on the soundtrack whereas in the movie only the first verse and chorus is heard.

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 29...

Well, we've made it up to studio album 29 in the career of Ray Stevens!! This particular release arrived in 1993 on Curb Records with a peculiar title, Classic Ray Stevens. The project featured brand new songs but it's title led a lot of believe that it was another in a long line of compilation releases. There are even some reviews of this project that erroneously state that these were re-recordings of songs from his past. As a Ray Stevens fan, it's easy to tell when a music reviewer hasn't actually researched the project that they're now telling us all about. One really quick way to spot an illegitimate review is simply know more about the subject matter ahead of time. There were a couple of songs that were said to be singles but there weren't any commercial singles available in any wide distribution. The song to get the most publicity was the opening number, "If 10% Is Good Enough for Jesus". It was a non-charting hit and one that Ray performed several times on television programs, mostly in April as people rush to get their income taxes filed on time. A couple of other notable songs from this project are "The Motel Song" and "Super Cop". They're notable to those who are familiar with this era of his career as those two songs were also pushed a lot during his television appearances. In "Super Cop" we hear the comical tale of an overzealous security cop at a local shopping mall. In one of Ray's TV appearances he was literally brought out on stage accompanied by two security officers. "The Motel Song", on the other hand, tells the story of a traveling man whose patience is growing thin when it comes to the monotony of motel madness. In each motel he's stayed in he's had the same negative experience time and time again: lack of sleep, noisy neighbors, and the same kind of uncomfortable room.

One of the undiscovered gems is "The Ballad of Jake McClusky". It's a fun little song about small town gossip, hearsay, and recreational adultery. It has a religious overtone throughout the song's sing-a-long chorus as it comes off as a cousin to other songs about such subjects. In "Meanwhile" we hear a memorable blending two stylistically different tempo's as Ray goes from love ballad crooning to full-fledged up-tempo stomping as he tells the story of a man and a woman whose relationship is strained to say the least. All he wants to do is run around with his friends and drink beer and have a great old time, meanwhile, she's had enough and ends up turning to a certain person once again.  

Buddy Kalb and Glenn Fortner were the main songwriters on Classic Ray Stevens as the two of them wrote the majority of the songs as a team. Kalb wrote "The Motel Song" and "The Higher Education of Ole Blue" solo while he co-wrote "Super Cop", "The Ballad of Jake McClusky", "Little League", and "The All-American Two Week Summer Family Vacation" with Glenn Fortner. "If 10% Is Good Enough For Jesus" was written by Hal Coleman, Ken Gibbons, and Roger Searcy. The love ballad "Meanwhile" was written by Devon O'Day, Gerry House, and Billy Dean. "The Bricklayer's Song" is credited to Noel Murphy even though it's been credited to dozens of artists through the decades. Ray, as a writer, provided "If You and Yo' Folks Like Me and My Folks".

Classic Ray Stevens came along at a time when Ray was in the midst of a phenomenally successful home video stampede. I couldn't jump to studio album 30 without first spotlighting Ray's biggest successes during the early-mid '90s and those successes came in the VHS home video format.

Ray had released a home video in 1992 titled Comedy Video Classics on his own label, Clyde Records. The project was sold exclusively through direct-mail by way of TV commercials and newspaper/magazine advertisements. The home video sold more than a million copies through mail order during the latter half of 1992 and into 1993. It was released to retail stores in 1993 and the success continued, reaching #1 and remaining at or near the top for more than 40 weeks. It was a mainstay on Billboard's Home Video chart for more than a year...falling quietly from the weekly sales chart in the early half of 1994. In the meantime, a companion home video, Ray Stevens Live!, hit the TV airwaves in 1993. This project, also on Clyde Records, contained half of a concert filmed at his Branson, Missouri theater. The other half was released as More Ray Stevens Live! in 1993 for fan club members and those who visited his theater's gift shop. The 1992 and 1993 direct-mail home videos enjoyed massive mail order and retail success. Ray Stevens Live! was released to retail stores in 1994 and it remained on the best-seller list for nearly a year. It was during this home video craze that Ray decided to take a little break from performing and he closed his enormously popular Branson, Missouri theater after the 1993 season wrapped up. He had launched the theater in the summer of 1991 and by the end of 1993, after three successful seasons and a combined total of more than a million visitors during those three seasons, he was itching to do some other things.

Classic Ray Stevens is indeed a classic but it was overshadowed by the hugely successful home video's that Ray released during the early to mid '90s. Ray remained a Curb Records artist through mid 1996 even though his home video releases were on his own label, Clyde, with retail distribution in 1993 and 1994 by Curb Records. In late 1995 Ray issued a new home video, a movie titled Get Serious!. This mail-order project was also a success. It hit retail stores in late 1996...and by this time Ray was with a different record label. He marked his return to MCA in late 1996 after previously recording for them from 1984-1989. MCA handled the retail distribution of Get Serious! and it spent almost half a year on the home video sales chart through mid 1997. It was around this time that Ray Stevens released studio album 30!

November 27, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series Extra...1992...

In this Golden LP Series extra we take a look at collection that became available in 1992. Collector's Series had quite a history through the years. It was originally a project released in 1985 by RCA showcasing eight recordings that Ray Stevens did for the label in the early '80s. That collection was re-issued in 1987 with a different album design and a slight change in song selection. The 1987 Collector's Series joined the CD market in 1992. The differences between the 1985 original and the 1987 re-issue was simply a matter of 1 song being replaced by another. In the 1985 collection it features, among it's 8 songs, his 1981 hit single during the Urban Cowboy era, "One More Last Chance". In the 1987 re-issue that song is left off while a novelty from 1980, "Put It In Your Ear", joins the collection. So, what we have in this 1992 CD are eight fabulous recordings from Ray Stevens during the early '80s. This Collector's Series is the only project to exclusively spotlight songs that he recorded for RCA. Unfortunately the series only featured 8 songs per artist. RCA artists both past and present were represented with a Collector's Series release. The songs featured on this obscure collection are: "Shriner's Convention", "You're Never Goin' To Tampa With Me", "Country Boy, Country Club Girl", "Where the Sun Don't Shine", "The Dooright Family", "Let's Do It Right This Time", "Why Don't We Go Somewhere and Make Love", and "Put It In Your Ear". Again, this project is the only release to feature RCA originated material and nothing more. Unless you have the vinyl albums that he recorded for RCA then this project is a must-have if you can track it down. It's been out of print for years and it's a great showcase of tragically overlooked material. The songs were recorded between the years of 1980 and 1982 and so we're talking about some very early '80s vintage Ray Stevens on this CD. It's a wonderful collection.

November 26, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 28...

Once again welcome to the Golden LP Series! This time we take a look at studio album 28 in the career of Ray Stevens. This particular release hit in 1991 and it could easily be described as songwriter Buddy Kalb's magnum opus. Kalb wrote or co-wrote 9 of the 10 songs on here. This wasn't the first Ray Stevens project that featured an abundance of Kalb material. He'd been writing songs for and with Ray on a consistent basis since the early '80s. Each successive LP that Ray issued throughout the '80s would usually include at least 4 songs from the pen of Buddy Kalb...often in collaboration with Ray. Their magnum opus on vinyl as a songwriting team was studio album 26 in 1989. That particular album was largely written by Ray and Buddy but this 1991 release is the first time that Buddy was the sole writer on just about every song.

The 28th studio album was titled #1 With a Bullet. This title is based on music industry jargon that a general audience may not be familiar with. In the music business there are weekly charts that rank albums and songs based on sales and airplay. Whenever a single or an album shown an increase in sales or airplay it receives what's referred to as a bullet. If you look at any weekly music chart you'll see numbers that appear on a black dot on certain singles and albums. Those are the releases that have been given bullets to indicate that the release is 'hot' and is a 'fast mover', etc. etc. just like a real bullet from a gun. When a single is said to have gone #1 With a Bullet that means the single is incredibly hot and shows no signs of losing steam for a couple of weeks even though it can no go higher than #1. The same applies to albums as well. The phrase "with a bullet" simply indicates that a song or album is selling briskly or has a good opening week on the charts. However, this doesn't mean that an artist must reach the charts in order to show their popularity. All artists have their initial across the board successes but ultimately what happens over the course of time is an artist begins to focus on their fan-base and what might please a targeted audience rather than a general audience.

As far as this album goes it's a return to zaniness and nuttiness. In the early years of the macho do-it-yourself kind of men we have the perfect song addressing the situation in "Power Tools". In this song, one of the single releases, Ray sings about the utter chaos and destruction that happens as a result of his messing with stuff he shouldn't be messing with. It's a good way to open up an album filled with zany goings-on. The song reached the Country Singles chart early in 1992 as an album cut. There wasn't a commercial single available for purchase.

In a song that was inspired by a Saturday morning cartoon series we have "Teenage Mutant Kung Fu Chickens". Spoofing the Ninja turtles, Ray's song tells about a chicken foursome and their heroics on the farm. Ray showcases his elderly lady impression as well as a gruff vocalization as a shady con-artist who tells a story of a peculiar rooster on the farm. When Ray guest hosted Nashville Now in the latter part of 1990 or early 1991 he performed a song about the trend in country music where all the men were wearing cowboy hats. New artists that were popping up were wearing hats. In "You Gotta Have a Hat" Ray whimsically informs us that the only thing it takes to become rich and successful in country music is a hat. Ray's impression skills and overall mimicry brilliance is once again on display in "Tabloid News" where we hear about the outrageous headlines and get to hear first hand accounts by those people written about in the made up stories. One of the stories is about a woman who gives birth to an alien. We get to hear her gush and show emphatic approval of his mistakes. "The Sheik of R&B" is a pun on the movie title Sheik of Araby. In Ray's song we hear about an arab who loves the sounds of classic R&B. He'd discovered it by accident while in the vicinity of an American soldier's army tent. "Juanita and the Kids" is a satire on the IRS and taxes in general. In the original recording Ray performs the song in his natural voice but several years later, when a music video was made, he re-recorded the song with an exaggerated Americanized Spanish-Mexican accent. Ray offers a re-recording of "The Pirate Song", track five.

"A Little Blue Haired Lady", track 9, is a comical story about the frustrations motorists experience while being stuck behind a driver going 20 mph in a 65 mph zone. An interesting tidbit of information you may not realize is little blue haired ladies played a factor in the hours leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. How? You'll have to listen to the song to find out! Pearl Harbor's 50th Anniversary was marked in 1991. How ironic, though, that the 1991 album would close with the social commentary of "Working For the Japanese". This is an incredible song and it was the first single release in the latter part of 1991. It was a topical song about the economy and how America consumes more and more products from overseas rather than our own products. A gong was a prominent instrument in the recording as were the vocal impressions of Geisha girls cooing and sighing in the background. The single was showing some signs of gaining traction with country radio...it reached the Country Singles chart, too. This was his first appearance on the weekly singles chart since 1988. However, political correctness was becoming an ever increasing nuisance in society. The success of the song was halted by the politically correct advocates who threatened anyone and everything that shown the slightest support of the song. As a result of a potential protest/boycott, radio stations one by one started to pull the song from their playlists. In the meantime, advertisers didn't want the song played on stations that their ads aired on for fear of a backlash of some sort. The single was nearing the Top-50 on the Country Singles chart when it was pulled from the airwaves.

1991 is the year that Ray Stevens opened up his much anticipated theater in Branson, Missouri. The facility was one of the most popular for a period of years. Ray's years in Branson, Missouri saw an obvious decrease in his road dates as well as a decrease in television show appearances. The following year would launch a new creative avenue for Ray and one that caused a steady decrease in his audio releases as more and more of his attention was being taken up by his successful theater and a phenomenal music video collection released exclusively through mail-order. As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the more we progress into the 1990's the more we see a creatively restless artist having the time of his life with music video production and marketing.

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 27...

In the summer of 1990 Ray Stevens emerged with his twenty-seventh studio album, Lend Me Your Ears. This was his second project for his newest home, Curb Records, but it was his first studio album for the label. The project features the standard 10 song program and musically it's a bit more adventurous. There were several songs pushed as "singles" but only one actually became available on a 45 rpm but that was a promo single sent to radio stations and jukebox operators. The two songs pushed the most from this collection were also available in music video format: "Sittin' Up With the Dead" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night". The first music video received a fair amount of airplay on The Nashville Network and the second received even more. Ray had turned the classic slow ballad, "Help Me Make It Through the Night", into a frenetic and wild sing-a-long filled with all kinds of sound effects and comical quips that commented on the lyrics. The music video was just as zany with Ray playing dozens of characters with the aid of lightning quick editing. Ray appears on the cover photo as a well known Shakespearian character looking as if he's trying to make a deal with the rabbit...perhaps explaining that the loss of the rabbit's ears is for the good of mankind!? Although rabbit stew or fried rabbit isn't sang about we do have a song that offers a passionate plea for tasty "Barbecue". In it, Ray sings like a man possessed as he can't hold back his passion for this delicious dish. Consider yourself lucky if you've ever seen him perform the song...I saw him perform it just once and it was on an episode of Nashville Now and it was stunning. 

In answering one of my questions from a previous blog entry, this debut studio album from Ray Stevens for Curb Records doesn't contain any non-comical ballads...all 10 songs are comical. Earlier I mentioned that the music was more adventurous and by that I mean the arrangements...these songs sound as though they specifically exist for this project only. It's hard to imagine hearing any of the songs from this 1990 album side by side with songs from his 1989 or 1991 projects. My way of explaining it is as follows: the arrangements and the overall music exist in a here and now universe whereas song lyrics are much more flexible and can be adapted to almost any musical arrangement or format. Ray is often quoted as saying that he wants a song's music to tell the story as much as the lyrics do and this is probably the reason why so many of his albums feature the most ambitious of musical sounds.

What else did Ray offer on Lend Me Your Ears? He takes us on a Safari in a musical spoof with Stanley and Livingstone in "This Ain't Exactly What I Had In Mind" and he revisits a jungle theme with "Bwana and the Jungle Girl", the closest thing to a ballad on the collection, but it's more of a whimsical love song than a deep love ballad. "Used Cars" is one of the good ol' country boy kind of songs that often make it to his albums...it's the story of the used car generation and the misadventures we all have as used car motorists. One of the hooks of the song is his vocal imitation of a car attempting to start and it's sputtering reaction. Another song that fits well with the everyday man theme is "Jack Daniels, You Lied To Me Again" about a guy who continues to strike out with women while under the guidance and influence of alcohol. The timeless tale of teenagers learning to drive and their desire to have their own car is the main focal point in "This Is Your Daddy's Oldsmobile". Instead of being poignant and saccharine, this song takes the opposite approach as Ray portrays a father whose overly protective of his car and come hell or high water he's going to make sure his son is mature, gets good grades, and is completely responsible in everyday life before he even considers allowing the boy to take daddy's car for a spin.

"Where Do My Socks Go?" is a bizarre novelty song about the disappearance of socks during their time in the dryer. Ray performed this song on an episode of Hee Haw and at the end of the performance the audience members all threw rolled up socks at him. The album's closing number, "Cletus McHicks and His Band From the Sticks", is a southern fried adaptation of the jazzy "Freddie Feelgood and His Funky Little Five Piece Band" combo from 1966. In the McHicks song, the jazz/R&B instrumentation and scat singing is replaced by a much more countrified backwoods delivery. There is a form of scat singing on the McHicks song as the leader plays the guitar, enabling Ray to vocally emulate a Johnny Cash style of guitar playing.

The thing that overshadowed this studio album was the music video popularity of "Help Me Make It Through the Night". People reading this will probably wonder how in the world could a music video overshadow the album from which it came? Stranger things have happened in the world of music. How is it that a single can sell more than a million copies and yet the album from which it came doesn't even make the Top-40 on any album chart? How can a single reach the Top-20 and yet the album not even make the charts at all? There are a lot of strange facts that defy logic within the music industry. The fact is "Help Me Make It Through the Night" was one of the most talked about music videos of 1990 among viewers of The Nashville Network and it was a foreshadowing of things to come!

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series Extra...1990...


Welcome to 1990...the start of a new decade in the career of Ray Stevens. Ironically enough the new decade brought about a few changes and one of the changes was a new record label home. After having been with the MCA family for 5 years (1984-1989), Ray joined the Curb Records label in 1990. Another irony was the label's first project with it's newest roster addition happened to be a compilation titled His All-Time Greatest Comic Hits. I assume given Ray's longevity in the music industry the label wanted it's first commercial release on Ray to feature material a general audience would more than likely be familiar with. This latest compilation more or less collected nine recordings from both Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits, Volume Two which had been released in 1987 by MCA. There was one recording on this 1990 project that didn't appear on either 1987 compilation and that was 1970's "Bridget the Midget the Queen of the Blues". It's anyone's guess why that particular hit single wasn't included on any of the 1987 compilations from MCA but whatever the reasons it found it's way onto the 1990 compilation. It is this very project that introduced me to that 1970 hit single from Ray. The collection also features "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", "The Streak", "Shriner's Convention" and others.

As you can tell from the picture and as you can see on the cover photo, one of the songs on the 1990 collection is 1984's "It's Me Again, Margaret". The image used on the cover is the actual publicity photo of the single that appeared in country music publications of the time period. Ray appears in character as an obscene phone caller forever on the quest to bring irritation and harassment to his victim, Margaret. I wrote about this single in previous blog entries and so this time around I'll make mention of the inclusion of "In the Mood". This recording appeared on 1987's Greatest Hits, Volume Two as well as other compilation projects down through the years. The performance, released as The Henhouse Five Plus Too, features a band of chickens who cluck out "In the Mood" backed primarily by a saxophone and a few other instruments. The recording was a Top-40 pop and country hit in America while it also reached the Top-40 in Canada and the United Kingdom early in 1977. The single was released under Ray's name overseas whereas in America it was released as The Henhouse Five Plus Too. Also on this collection, "Ahab the Arab" is the 1969 re-recording he did on Monument Records. The original recording from 1962 is most often featured on compilation releases from labels associated with Mercury Records, the label Ray originally recorded the song for. There have been multiple recordings of this song and it all depends on the record label when it comes to which version you're going to receive.

His two 1969 hit singles for Monument are included, "Gitarzan" and "Along Came Jones". His Top-20 country hit from 1985, "Mississippi Squirrel Revival", is track six. This collection would become a Gold album within a few years of it's release. The main reason for this, in my opinion, was due to the previous compilations no longer being available in wide distribution and so this 1990 project made up for the lack of classic Ray Stevens hits that weren't readily available anymore. I'm also of the opinion that the inclusion of "Bridget the Midget the Queen of the Blues" played a role in the sales of this album. The song hadn't been featured on any major compilation release by any of the labels that Ray recorded for during the 1980's. It's obscurity on American released Ray Stevens compilation albums perhaps caused the curious to purchase the collection just to hear that particular song!? The song's been a fixture on overseas compilation projects released on Ray Stevens considering that it hit the Top-5 in the United Kingdom in 1971 and charted on other international music surveys throughout early to mid 1971.

Ray's debut studio album for Curb Records would follow this compilation in the summer of 1990.

November 25, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 26...

In this installment of the Golden LP Series we look at studio album twenty-six in the career of Ray Stevens. We also say farewell to the 1980's in this blog series. Studio album 26 hit in 1989 with the title of Beside Myself. The album featured, for the first time since 1983, non-comical recordings from Ray Stevens. The project was split in half between the serious and the comic personalities of his songs and it featured a memorable album photo, too. Since the early '80s Ray's albums featured memorable photo shots and as the decade went on the photo shots became increasingly memorable and deliberately eye catching.

Beside Myself contains 10 songs and as mentioned the project devotes equal time to the two main recording styles in Ray's career. Serious Ray Stevens is heard during the first 5 songs while comical Ray Stevens is heard during the remaining 5 performances. The album's photo illustrates, as well, which style of Ray Stevens you'll hear as the more serious looking Ray is positioned first while comical Ray is seated second. This particular LP reached the Country Album chart as did all of his studio albums for MCA. This one peaked in the middle of the chart in 1989 but the single releases weren't able to reach the Country Singles chart. As mentioned in Part 25, Ray's single releases were having a difficult time gaining favorability among country radio programmers. Ray has often said that it's a lot more difficult to have a comedy song or a comedy album that's successful than it is to have a love ballad become successful. In my opinion the challenge is finding people in radio that will embrace a comical recording and then everything else should fall into place. It all starts with airplay. If a single isn't getting any significant airplay chances are the public at large will have no idea that a song is available for purchase. What I think happened is more publicity was given for the actual LP instead of the single releases.

The cassette release came into my possession at some point in the very early '90s. It had been an elusive release and a project that I was not aware of until I saw it sitting in a tape rack at a local shopping store. I was unable to convince my parent's to purchase the tape. Apparently it was still selling for it's original asking price which would've been anywhere between $9.95 to $12.95. I was never able to come across another Beside Myself for the longest of time. As luck would have it, though, another retail store had the tape in what's known as the discount rack and my parent's got it for me for Christmas. I was excited beyond belief...I unwrapped the plastic from the case and opened the cassette. I glanced at all the song titles, the writers, musicians, etc. etc. but I held off playing it. When I spent the night with my grandparent's I had my grandfather play it on a portable tape player he had. This was a memorable occasion for the wrong reasons, though. After the first song was over we assumed the cassette was defective because Ray's vocals were in slow motion...after listening to the next song I didn't know what to think. I stopped the tape because I couldn't take the sound quality. Thinking the elusive gem was defective I was not going to play it anymore but something caused me to play it on my own tape player. The one I had was the standard radio/tape player combination. I put the tape into the tape deck, hit play, and was astounded at how crisp and crystal clear the music was and how Ray's voice was as it should be. What had happened is my grandfather hadn't used his portable tape player in quite awhile and the batteries were nearly run down! This had caused the tape to playback in a low, barely listenable quality...much like when you switch speeds on a turntable and play an LP at 45-rpm speed or play a 45-rpm at LP speed.

So, then, what were the songs that appeared on Beside Myself? The LP kicks off with "Your Bozo's Back Again" which ties in perfectly with the album's cover shot. In this song Ray sings about a relationship where the woman continually hurts and humiliates a man but in spite of this the man can't gather up enough courage to walk away for good and so he finds himself returning to her each and every time he's walked out for a few hours. The second song, "Another Fine Mess", features prominent saxophone accompaniment and with this the song comes across much more easy-listening than a lot of the other non-comical songs found on this LP. It's also a mood setter...once you hear a saxophone played in this fashion you'll immediately recognize that the song will be heavy on romance and other love song conversation. This song has Ray singing about a relationship where the woman makes a series of little mistakes...but the crux of the entire song has to do with a man who finds himself falling in love with this accident-prone woman and how, to him, the whole situation has become "Another Fine Mess"...but it's a mess that he particularly enjoys as you'll realize when you hear it. "Marion Michael Morrison" is hands down the greatest tribute, in song, to the movies and impact of John Wayne. When I first heard the song I had know idea that John Wayne was his stage name...but once Ray started referencing the movies, the catch-phrases, and the characters associated with John Wayne it didn't take me that long to realize who the song was about but I was still baffled why it was called "Marion Michael Morrison" rather than something else. I later found out Marion Michael Morrison was the birth name of John Wayne. I was still unaware that celebrities used stage names. It was a few years later that I learned that Ray's birth name is Harold Ray Ragsdale...so yes, there was still a lot for me to learn about Ray Stevens as time went on.

The fourth track, "Butterfly Inside a Coupe de Ville", tells the story about the pressures of fame, the trappings of success, and how even if someone appears to have everything, the lack of a relationship makes it all meaningless. This deep thinking was prompted by the sight of a harmless butterfly that was trying to get out of a cadillac. The song's title would have you believe it's a comical song but it's not. The fifth song, "There's a Star Spangled Banner", uses topical news and the military conflicts of the era to salute the American flag and all it stands for. It's another great performance.

 The comical portion of the LP starts with track six, "I Saw Elvis in a U.F.O.". This recording spoofs the multitude of tabloids that consistently report Elvis sightings and how U.F.O.'s of all descriptions abducted him in 1977 and took him to outer space. I've never researched or understood the whole Elvis sighting craze so I wouldn't know how it all came about but nevertheless people seem to get a kick out of claiming to see Elvis from all corners of the planet and after all this time tabloids still run with Elvis sighting stories to this day. In Ray's song we hear a spoof of a newscast where Ray plays the part of the newscaster, the reporter, and the eyewitness who tells of his encounter with the U.F.O., the aliens, and Elvis himself. The song is done in a rock and roll arrangement with Ray using a rocker type of vocalization. Sound effects are featured throughout as we hear the U.F.O. hovering around and for added hilarity is the sped-up vocal effects of the aliens. Ray comically states that these high-pitched aliens sound like The Jordanaires. When Ray would perform this song in concert he'd usually have a big inflatable U.F.O. hovering above the stage, lots of smoke and fog effects, dancers running around on stage in pink alien attire, but the best part of all was Ray dressed up in a typical Elvis jumpsuit. It's definitely a show-stopper in concert. "The Woogie Boogie", track seven, is a funny little song about a fictional Indian tribe in Chattanooga, Tennessee called the Woogies. It's one of the shortest songs on the LP but a lot of it's charm is the "oogie" factor applied throughout the lyrics. The song ends with a continued refrain of the Woogie chant over and over until the song fades. "Stuck on You" comes off like a musical infomercial as Ray sings about the purchase of a super glue kind of product that he saw advertised on television. Ray tells about the various incidents and the chaos that ensues after he opens the tube of glue. The song's title, "Stuck on You", is taken literally as you can tell! Strangely enough it was never made into a music video. "Bad Dancin'" is a song that champions the art of dancing with an undertone of satire as it singles out the culture of the 1980's and blends these elements together. The story takes place at a country club and Ray acts as spectator/reporter filling us in on what all he's seeing as he watches the wild dancing taking place. Several dances and entertainers are mentioned at various places in the song, too. The closing track, "I Used To Be Crazy", is the b-side of "I Saw Elvis in a U.F.O.". In "I Used To Be Crazy", Ray sings about how he used to be crazy...but demonstrates to us that he's perfectly sane now. Once you hear the way he demonstrates his sanity you'll find yourself laughing and giggling. The song is a marvelous showcase for his skilled impressions and mimicry. By the end of the performance and still trying to convince us that he's sane and serious and no longer "crazy", Ray has assumed the role of a british King. The song ends as Ray offers a frenetic, comical exchange of dialogue between himself and his impressions of John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and the King of England. Amidst this activity you'll also hear a chicken and a barking dog lend themselves to the chaos.

Beside Myself wrapped up the 1980's for Ray Stevens and it also wrapped up his association with MCA for the time being. He joined the label in 1984 and by the end of 1989 he was in the process of joining up with another record label. It was the start of a new decade...which always brings about feelings of a new direction, a new outlook, a new start, a change in direction, etc. etc. What would 1990 and beyond hold in store for Ray Stevens? Which label would he find himself on? How would the changing tastes on country radio and country television impact his career? How would political correctness impact his career? Would his next LP be a comical one or a blend of comedy and ballads? Were there any music videos on the horizon? Such questions will more than likely be addressed in the next installment of the Golden LP Series. Although the manufacturing of the LP had dwindled down considerably and it's commercial appeal had dwindled down as more people were buying compact devices like cassettes and CD's, I'll still use "LP" in the blog entry title even as we get more and more into contemporary technology.

November 22, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 25...

Welcome to part 25 of the Golden LP Series...we're up to 1988 and the twenty-fifth studio album from Ray Stevens. This particular release contains 10 songs, five per each side of the album. There were only two single releases from this LP although I feel there should have been a couple more lifted from the album.

In the previous blog entry I mentioned rope tricks...and such a sight can be seen on the album's cover. I Never Made a Record I Didn't Like was on the Country Album chart for nearly 20 weeks and peaked ten places higher than Greatest Hits, Volume Two earlier in the year. In spite of it's chart appearance only one of the two single releases managed to make an appearance on the Country Singles chart. "Surfin' U.S.S.R." was the lead-off track and the release that made some news for a couple of weeks since the American and Soviet Union were inching closer to an end to the decades long Cold War. The Reagan and Gorbachev summits throughout the mid to late '80s played a role in the music video that Ray put together. In the video, which starts out like a nightly newscast, Ray's voice is heard describing the latest Cold War news. The video continues on as Ray does vocal impressions of both. I don't know exactly who's on screen wearing the replica masks of Reagan and Gorbachev, though, but I know it's Ray performing both voices. After this segment is completed, the actual song starts to play. The audio recording found on the album lacks this Cold War news segment as it was apparently made exclusive for the music video. Unfortunately this slice of topical levity didn't receive a lot of attention from radio. Acclaim for his previous single, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", continued to mount when it became a finalist for a Grammy in 1988 and it found it's way into the editorial sections of newspapers that year. Paul Harvey, a little more than a year after the single became a hit, had the song as the subject of one of his columns when he criticized the reputation that religious leaders found themselves in due to the shenanigans of a select few.

In the meantime, the other single release from I Never Made a Record I Didn't Like was track six, "The Day I Tried To Teach Charlene MacKenzie How To Drive". In this recording Ray sings about attempting to teach a near-deaf woman how to drive and how she mishears all of his instructions which leads to chaos, wrecked cars, and angry bystanders. It has an early rock and roll sound depicted by the uptempo, urgent vocal delivery and the prominent saxophone heard throughout completes the mood. The single did manage to reach the Country Singles chart but it didn't have the staying power to have a good chart run thanks largely to decreased radio airplay and an overall changing of the guard in the country radio industry. This would be his final single to reach the country charts for a couple of years but it was by no means the end of the road...in fact, Ray continued to do more than 100 shows a year entertaining hundreds of thousands of fans with his eclectic music. Elsewhere on this album we have a few songs that I think should have been issued as commercial singles. "Mama's in the Sky With Elvis" was included on here as track three. It made it's debut on 1987's Greatest Hits, Volume Two. It's about a man whose married to an Elvis fanatic...but she dies in the darkest kind of way and now she's having the time of her life with her idol. The song should have been explored a bit more and promoted as a single. Another song that should've been a single is "Bad". Yes, it's the song that Michael Jackson wrote and had a gigantic pop hit with. If Ray's cover would've been promoted as a single and if country radio would've played it I don't think too many people could resist buying it. It's such a funny, cute, and satirical performance. One of the topics spotlighted is satellite TV. In an era when, it seemed like, the quantity of one's channel line-up and the size of a satellite dish plopped down in the front yard told the difference between "rich and poor", Ray tells a humorous tale of a southern family who get satellite TV for the first time in a song that spells it out rather bluntly: "Language, Nudity, Violence, and Sex".

In an unusual twist, Ray delivers a performance with a raspy, hushed, southern-rock zeal on "Blood and Suede", a humorous song with big production about a wreck that happens in Southern California between a rock singer and a drunk driver. If all this wasn't emotional enough we add adultery to the mix. It's a very unsuspecting song...it will take repeated listens to take in everything that's going on in this melodrama. The album closes with a jewel of a song in "Old Hippie Class Reunion". This is a very funny song playing on all kinds of stereotypical imagery and phrases that have been associated with hippies down through the years. It's one of those few recordings where you don't hear Ray's natural voice at all. He delivers the song in a laid-back tone with a mix of Bob Dylan added in. Ray performs two hippies at their class reunion...the laid-back hippie and a gruffer voiced hippie. Vocally we're to assume that the hippie with the laid-back voice is thin while the gruff, throaty voiced hippie has some weight to him. He used the same gravelly voice on 1987's "Ballad of Cactus Pete and Lefty".

In conclusion, studio album 25 in the career of Ray Stevens could be considered more daring in terms of humorous content. Never before on a Ray Stevens album had there been as many of what I call "song sketches" like there are on his 1988 LP. How would studio album 26 compare? That particular LP appeared in 1989...it was a side by side examination in song and personality of an artist who'd not recorded many non-comical songs over the last 6 years...was he about to? Studio LP 26 answers those questions and more...so be on the lookout for my next Golden LP Series commentary!

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series Follow-up Extra...1987...

In this special follow-up Extra I'm spotlighting two 1987 compilation albums from Ray Stevens. Get The Best of Ray Stevens is a 2-LP compilation release advertised on television and in print ads. The project was released on vinyl and cassette as well as CD. The collection features 10 songs and it was released between Greatest Hits and Crackin' Up. Most of the songs on this LP were previously released on Greatest Hits while much of the rest were released on the forthcoming Greatest Hits, Volume Two the same year. As I've written previously, I saw the television commercial for Get The Best of Ray Stevens twice and it was always midway through...I never saw the commercial all the way through. Ironically, in this age of You Tube, the commercial hadn't found it's way on-line yet. I'd love to see it again...all the way through. Considering that this was a 2-LP release, each side of the vinyl is labeled accordingly: Side 1, Side 2, Side 3, and Side 4. I assume the LP is titled as such because of it's direct marketing approach. Rather than titling it Greatest Hits or 20 Hits, I assume it's named for what was most likely heard throughout the commercial by whoever did the voice-over.

Greatest Hits, Volume Two came along after the release of Crackin' Up. This particular Volume Two collection took much of what was left over on Get The Best of Ray Stevens (songs that didn't get spotlighted on the first Greatest Hits release from earlier in 1987) but to make Volume Two enticing the label added his current single, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", as the opening track and a brand new recording, "Mama's in the Sky With Elvis", as track five. These two 1987 recordings weren't featured on Greatest Hits or Get The Best of Ray Stevens. The first Greatest Hits of 1987 was on the Country Album chart for more than 20 weeks and it would eventually become a Gold and later, Platinum, seller. Get The Best of Ray Stevens, a direct-market release, was ineligible to chart due to it's lack of retail availability. Greatest Hits, Volume Two charted far more modestly than it's predecessor and had a chart run of a couple of months starting in the fall of 1987, reaching it's peak early in 1988. This Volume Two features the edited radio version of "The Ballad of the Blue Cyclone" as well as the single version of "The Haircut Song" which cuts out the visit to the second barber. The unedited versions of both songs can be found on Ray's 1985 album, I Have Returned.

Ray's never recorded a song that there isn't something about it I like. He's never made a record that I didn't like, either, which sort of leads up to the next studio album from Ray Stevens. I'll be writing/commenting about the 1988 LP soon so be practicing your rope tricks in the meantime.

November 18, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 24...

We're now up to what I called the super-hot controversial album from Ray Stevens that hit the market in 1987. The twenty-fourth studio album from Ray was titled Crackin' Up. Now, for those who read Part 23 and didn't go searching for what I'd be writing about, I'll fill the blanks in this blog entry.

Crackin' Up hit amidst a nationwide scandal that was going on in the religious community. A number of televangelists, a name for preachers who used television broadcasts to reach millions of people, were embroiled in various scandals throughout the latter half of the '80s. Some of the scandals made national headlines while some remained locally driven. The studio album was released in June 1987 while it's first single, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", initially hit in the spring of the year but experienced the bulk of it's commercial success throughout May and June. The single itself wasn't a commentary on any sex scandal or other tabloid-style item but it did question the ethics and motivation behind a lot of televangelists who shamelessly behaved vastly different from their sermons. Several of the lines in the song point to the overall attire seen on many famous televangelists whereas the bulk of the song asks a lot of questions about how would Jesus conduct himself in a modern world given the hypocrisy of those preaching his words and the expensive jewelry dripping from religious leaders, both nationally and locally. When the various religious sex scandals were breaking all over the country, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" suddenly found itself roped into that controversial story even though the basic message of the song had more to do with hypocrisy than any specific sex scandal. The song was being discussed by syndicated newspaper columnists and Ray appeared twice on The Tonight Show and performed the song. The columnists that were name dropping the song were tying the song's message of televangelist material wealth hypocrisy to that of hypocrisy in general. The song's writers are Chet Atkins and Margaret Archer. Chet often commented that the song was written long before the televangelist scandals but yet it would be those very scandals that inevitably caused the song to become a hit. "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" would reach the Top-50 on Canada's Country Singles list and in America it came ever so close to reaching the Top-40 on the Country chart. The single did become a Top-20 Sales hit, though!

Crackin' Up would go on and reach the Top-30 on the Country Album chart more or less on the strength of "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" since the two follow-up singles didn't reach the charts. "Three Legged Man", from the pen of Shel Silverstein, was one of the follow-up releases. This recording is a comical tale about a woman who is stolen away from a man who wears a peg leg. I could go into more details but it would spoil the hilarity for those who haven't heard the song before. I will say it contains a trio of laugh out loud sound effects as we hear of the misadventures of the chase that ensues. A third single release, the much more satirical "Sex Symbols", is a parody of the unlikely duo of Willie Nelson and Julio a few years earlier. Although Ray doesn't do a Willie Nelson impression he instead offers a Julio impression. The song is performed as a 'duet' between Ray and Julio as they sing and talk about the high life and how it feels to be sexy and popular with the women. In the song a recurring gag is the listing of celebrity sex symbols...Julio refers to legitimate sex symbols while Ray offers a list of celebrities not necessarily thought of as 'sex symbols'. It's a cute recording, I think, and one that he used to perform in concert a lot in a parody of a ventriloquist act. He performed the song on a later home video release that I'll write about in a couple of blog entries from now. As mentioned, neither single release reached the Country charts.

Remember in Part 23 of this Golden LP Series I mentioned that a critic or two called this an R-rated album and that it was unsuitable for children? That statement refers to a review I came across a few years ago while scouring the internet for vintage stories on Ray Stevens. I was looking through 1987 news archives and came across a review that commented that Crackin' Up had adult humor and lyrics saturated with double-entendre and wasn't a safe album for the entire family. Basically the critic was lamenting that Ray chose to use a more broader style of comedy on this LP and aside from a couple of zany recordings the overall flavor of the LP was, in the opinion of that critic, not suitable for the entire family (emphasis on children). This is a very funny album in a long list of funny albums from Ray Stevens and I obviously disagree with anyone who labels this as an R-rated, adults only kind of LP. "Cool Down Willard" has some fun with the former weatherman on The Today Show, Willard Scott. Ray sings about the women in his family having huge crushes on Willard to the point where the Grandmother adopts a wild new look in the hopes that Willard will come knocking on the door.

Ray covers "I'm My Own Grandpaw" and it's funnier than the original by Lonzo and Oscar in my opinion. If you've ever heard the original it's performed, to my ears at least, as a run on sentence with hardly any pause for musical accompaniment or comic effect. I assume this was done on purpose so a listener wouldn't actually be able to have much time to sit and think about the lyrics. Ray's version includes pauses, music interludes, and a much more lively vocalization. I think the original became a huge hit due to the clever writing and the convoluted story where, I imagine, listeners in the late '40s continued to request the song over and over just so they could attempt to comprehend the family tree being described. The song, as mentioned, was performed originally as a run-on sentence and maybe by deliberately performing the song that way the artists and label knew it would cause repeated requests from radio listeners or repeated plays on jukeboxes to understand the lyrics completely. In those days jukebox plays, single sales, and radio requests factored in more heavily than actual radio airplay when it came to determining the popularity of a song.

"Doctor, Doctor Have Mercy on Me" is a satirical comment on the medical profession as Ray sings about the notorious experiences many people have when visiting their local doctor's office. It's uncommon for a patient to arrive and see their doctor within the span of 10 minutes. Even if you show up early, the doctor is still running late. "The Ballad of Cactus Pete and Lefty" is a comical tale about a gruff voiced homeless drifter and his pet sidewinder, Lefty, who travel the Southwestern portion of America in search for wealth. Cactus tells various comical stories of his adventures with Lefty, all with an obvious comical punch line. Lefty is 'heard' through a series of rattler effects, reacting to many of the tall tales that Cactus spins. I'd only seen Ray perform this song once and it was on an episode of The Riders Radio Theater, a show that used to air on The Nashville Network hosted by the cowboy group, The Riders in the Sky, based on their public radio show. Woody Paul, if my memory is right, operated Lefty on the TV show.

Elsewhere on the LP we have "The Flies of Texas Are Upon You" which, as you can tell, has a title based on another phrase, 'The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You'. In Ray's recording we hear about a guy who falls in love with a woman whom he thinks has a lot of money based upon the way the woman described her father's business. To Ray's horror he ends up being a garbage collector rather than a rich businessman. "Gourmet Restaurant" is a satirical comment on just about any upper-scale, fine dining experience when it's happening to someone clearly out of place there. Ray's character takes things literally and is surprised when he's given food that's on fire and raw. The album's closing track, "The Day That Clancy Drowned", is a none too subtle account of a worker in a brewery who slips into a vat of alcohol and eventually drowns...but not before having the time of his life in one of the most hilarious send-offs a worker could have.

Coming up next in the Golden LP Series we take a look at a second compilation project released on Ray in 1987. This time around the song selections were more contemporary but there were still classics being represented as well.

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series Extra...1987...

In this Extra feature of the Golden LP Series we take a look at a series compilation album releases on Ray Stevens in 1987. This first compilation was a little bit different than others in that it was promoted heavily for a compilation project and it only featured two contemporary recordings from Ray with the rest of the material dated pre-1981. The interesting thing about this compilation is that it wasn't the only one issued on Ray in 1987...there were a few other compilation releases later in the year and I'll discuss those in a follow-up Extra feature.

Starting things off is Greatest Hits. This collection features 10 recordings and as you can see it shows Ray and an uncredited woman as Bonnie and Clyde. This is one of the cassette tapes that I grew up listening to and it's where I was introduced to 10 of Ray's most popular songs. The compilation, from MCA, features liner notes written by Ronnie Pugh from the Country Music Foundation and as mentioned the majority of the recordings all come from a pre-1981 time period. The project kicks things off with Ray's 1974 multi-week #1 smash pop hit "The Streak" which had by now sold more than 5,000,000 copies worldwide. Selection two happened to be the longer version of "Shriner's Convention". This recording reached the country Top-10 in 1980 and the label he recorded it for, RCA, had released two recordings of different lengths. There was the long version and then there was the short version. The long version appears more on the MCA compilation projects while the shorter version appears more often in the compilation releases from other labels. Each recording is longer than your average country music single but once you hear the long and short versions you'll be able to notice a few omitted lyrics as well as a rushed vocal performance in the shorter version. Track three is the more contemporary "It's Me Again, Margaret", one of two hit recordings from Ray's MCA debut in 1984. You can read about that LP in this Blog Entry.

Side One closes out with two non-comical performances in 1971's "Turn Your Radio On" and his Grammy winning 1975 hit "Misty". As you turn to Side Two things get started with the second contemporary single from Ray, "Mississippi Squirrel Revival", the second hit single from his MCA debut LP. The rest of Side Two are comprised of classics in his career. "Gitarzan", his million selling Top-10 pop hit from 1969, is track seven and it's followed by his 1969 re-recording of "Ahab the Arab" which has often been featured on many other compilation projects instead of the 1962 original recording which appears almost exclusively on projects associated with Mercury Records (the label Ray recorded the single for originally).

Selection nine, "Along Came Jones", also comes from 1969 and it reached the Top-30 on the pop chart. Those three 1969 recordings are from the Monument label, more specifically the Gitarzan album. The album's closing track, "Everything Is Beautiful", comes from 1970. It sold more than 3,000,000 copies during the early '70s and hit #1 on the pop chart and it became an international hit single along the way.

Considering that this LP features 10 of the most popular, most recognizable, and the most commercially successful singles of his career it was inevitable that the LP would go on to sell 500,000 copies and continue to sell another half a million+ during the latter half of the '80s. This particular LP was certified Platinum for sales of more than 1,000,000 copies. His first two studio albums for MCA, He Thinks He's Ray Stevens and I Have Returned, were certified Platinum and Gold respectively around the same time Greatest Hits was receiving it's sales awards.

November 15, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 23...

Good morning all Ray Stevens fans! We're up to studio album 23 in the career of Ray Stevens which brings us to an album chock full of comical recordings from 1986. As mentioned in the previous installment, the spring of 1986 saw the eventual climb to #1 of his 1985 LP on the Country Album chart. The follow-up LP hit in the latter part of the summer in 1986 on it's way to a Top-20 finish on the Country Album chart...it came ever so close to reaching the Top-10. The LP itself entered the Country Album chart in September 1986 and it reached it's peak position rather quickly...spending nearly 30 weeks on the best-selling chart.

This issue of Music City News is for the month of June. This was the first year that Ray Stevens won the fan-voted Comedian of the Year award at the annual awards program. Ray had been a frequent performer and sometimes a co-host on various awards programs affiliated with the Music City News publication but it wouldn't be until the 1986 awards that he captured Comedian of the Year. The awards program was part of what was once called Fan Fair. This event took place for several days in Nashville where artists/labels would set up booths and fans could stroll by and get their pictures taken or get autographs from the artists. Also, fans could purchase merchandise and have their favorite artist autograph it. This tradition was legendary amongst country music fans and historians, having started in 1972, but it's name was changed to CMA Music Fest. Some reports say that the name change was due to negative perceptions that the word 'fan' created...perhaps some thought the word suggested exclusion in some form or another...but anyway, the CMA Music Fest continues to this day every summer.

The 23rd studio album from Ray Stevens, Surely You Joust, contains 10 comical recordings altogether. The LP features a country comedy lover's dream act in that the opening track and second single release, "Southern Air", features Jerry Clower and Minnie Pearl along for the ride as Ray sings about a fictional rural airline that flies in the southern states. In the performance Jerry Clower, a fellow country comic, portrays the captain of the airplane while another legendary country comic, Minnie Pearl, portrays the stewardess. Ray plays the part of the nervous passenger who tells his story of the goings on in "Southern Air". The comical tale flew into the weekly country charts for several weeks in November 1986 and peaked in the Top-65 on the Country Singles chart by year's end but it reached the Top-30 on the Country Single Sales chart. Novelty songs, in general, weren't getting a lot of airplay in any radio format...even the morning radio shows on FM and AM radio had seemingly shunned the novelty song except for rare occasions. I believe it was a testament to Ray's popularity that his singles and his albums were continuing to sell and reach an audience...even if that audience was slowly becoming undesirable among radio programmers. As mentioned, the LP peaked in the Top-20, and remained charted for more than 25 weeks...without the benefit of a major Top-10 or Top-40 hit...and this sort of thing would become commonplace for Ray for the next several years as his music was hitting with consumers but radio, for the most part, would have none of it.

If radio was non-existent then how was Ray able to get his music to consumers? That's where the power of The Nashville Network, a heavy touring schedule, and the syndicated show, Hee Haw, comes into play. In a previous blog entry I mentioned that Ray began making numerous appearances on Hee Haw beginning in the mid '80s. He co-hosted quite a few episodes for a number of years, too, in addition to the many appearances on Nashville Now, the program Ralph Emery hosted on The Nashville Network for 10 years (1983-1993). Ray was able to reach a large segment of consumers by appearing on those shows. Whereas radio tends to single out certain age groups or certain genders, television usually attempted to aim for a more diverse and larger reach. I've often read that there's a saying in the music business that radio courts one set of music consumers while television courts another. It's not like that now but in 1986 there was plenty of evidence to support the idea that most artists who advertised their music through TV appearances were all over the age of 45 and couldn't be heard on the radio anymore. Since people of all ages watch TV the chances were more greater that an over 40 artist could reach an audience that the narrowly confined demographics at radio stations couldn't allow.

The first single release, "The People's Court", is based on television court programs. The song hit the Singles chart the same week that the LP debuted on the Country Album chart. Yes, that's right, before the court programming boom of the mid '90s during and after the O.J. Trial and the advent of cable channels designed to showcase all kinds of legal programs, before all of that there were quite a few court programs on syndicated television seen mostly in the daytime...some in the evenings. The top two were Divorce Court and The People's Court. This single blended both of those programs together...with Ray, at various times, doing an impression of Jim Peck, the low voiced host/interviewer on Divorce Court. The song plays out like an episode of "The People's Court" toward the middle of the performance. In the beginning of the story we hear Ray as a backwoods character in a one-sided conversation with Judge Wapner. Obviously this was completely fictional. In order to appear on the show you'd have to go through a series of qualification steps, of course, but for the purposes of comedy we hear Ray, in character, setting up an appearance for him and his wife to appear and tell the whole country their private issues. It's a satirical comment on reality show fans some 15 or so years before 'reality TV' would define a generation to come. The single charted a bit more modestly on the Country Singles list but it's a hilarious performance. Ray gets to show off his nagging wife character voice at various moments in the recording.

A third single release from Surely You Joust appeared with little to no fanfare in late 1986, early 1987. "Can He Love You Half as Much as I?" was actually a whimsical love ballad and it became a long time fixture at his concerts and it was even made into a music video...twice...but more on that much later in this LP series. In this single, Ray asks all sorts of questions to a woman that's dumped him for someone else. There are humorous sound effects at various moments and Ray's vocalization is upbeat, too, as he asks if the man's talents are a match for his own peculiar gifts. In other words it's a clever way of asking the woman if the new man in her life is any better of a person just because he may have more book learning and muscles and more money. Ray performed this song, if I'm not mistaken, on two separate appearances on Hee Haw...once in 1986 when it was still an album track and again in 1987 after it had been released as a commercial single. The single didn't chart which ended a mini-streak at six. His previous six single releases, dating back to December 1984, had all reached the Country Singles chart. Elsewhere on the LP we have three hilarious stories relating to the outdoors. "Smoky Mountain Rattlesnake Retreat" tells the story of a couple on vacation who mistakenly enter a church that handles rattlesnakes and the chaos that ensues. The couple were looking for a bible camp retreat but end up in the middle of all things rattlesnake. "The Camping Trip" tells the story of a camping adventure and all the headache and mayhem that takes place. It starts out quite peaceful and optimistic but soon it turns into a horror story triggered by a tremendous downpour and the muddy and bloody aftermath. A grizzly bear gets into the act! "Camp Werethahekahwee" is downright demented. It paints a wholesome all-American image as we hear of parents that send their son off to summer camp. The music sounds as if you're at a camp ground. As I told you many blog entries ago, Ray Stevens is a master at arranging music. The comic twist comes at the end of the song, though.

The original health food craze is a focal point in "Fat" where Ray sings about being hugely overweight. Along the way we're told of the various incidents and accidents that his weight have caused on total strangers. There's a clip on You Tube of Ray performing this song on an episode of Nashville Now from around the time this LP was originally released. You should really check it out.

In "Bionie and the Robotics" we hear a very unusual recording, even for Ray Stevens. In this song, with the help of a vocoder, Ray sings half of the song as if he were a robot or a cyborg. Ray had recently appeared on The Fall Guy, which starred Lee Majors. The previous decade saw Majors star as The Six Million Dollar Man where he played cyborg Steve Austin. I don't think it cost six million dollars to make Ray's 1986 recording, though. "Bionie and the Robotics" is an all robotic rock band. The name, Bionie, I assume is a pun on the word 'bionic'. In spite of the robotic sound effects you'll be able to, in time, decipher much of what the robot is saying. I have a difficult time understanding what some of the shorter words happen to be. I think the official lyrics would go a long way at deciphering the robotic language but so far there's not been any official lyrics supplied anywhere.

The album's closing track, "Dudley Dorite of the Highway Patrol", is in reality Ray's musical biography. In the song Ray sings about being pulled over by an over zealous highway patrolman. Ray has apparently been declared Public Enemy #1 in this small town. The fictional characters from several of Ray's previously released songs apparently exist in real life and much to Ray's horror they're out for revenge. They feel he's made their lives a laughing stock. It's an entirely surreal story blending reality and fiction...one that seems as if it could've made for a good Twilight Zone episode.

All in all the 1986 LP ranks up there with his best comedy releases. Ray continued his successes into 1987 with several high profile television appearances and a super-hot single that was too hot to handle for some given it's topicality and controversial undertone. What could I be referring to?? What sort of single could generate even an ounce of controversy from Ray Stevens? What sort of Ray Stevens album would some music critics decry as R-rated and unsuitable for children? You'll find out the answers to all the above in the next Golden LP Series installment!!

November 12, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 22...

Welcome to Part 22 of the Golden LP Series. In this installment we take a look at the twenty-second studio album from Ray Stevens, 1985's I Have Returned.

To put it bluntly, this is a very funny LP. It is also one of the more adventurous in that it contains quite a few long comical tales...there are at least three recordings that have a run time of more than 5 minutes and yet there is one recording that's just a little over 1 minute believe it or not. This brief recording, "Thus Cacked Henrietta", revives the chickens that appeared on 1976's "In the Mood". This time around instead of performing a jazzy clucker of a recording the chickens do an about face and cackle the familiar strains of the opening to a classical piece known as Also Sprach Zarathustra, heard by millions as the theme song in the late '60s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. After the chickens and their friends finish up their opening performance we hear Ray sing about "Hugo the Human Cannonball". In this song Ray sings about a circus performer based on real life human cannonball, Hugo Zacchini, and an exaggerated tale of the extreme highs and lows in the life of any human cannonball. The song uses dark humor as it depicts the down side of human cannonballs and the notion of what could happen if the trajectory is wrong and instead of hitting the net the performer hits...well...you'd have to hear the song to find out more! "Vacation Bible School" is about the mischief kids can get into while away during a bible school retreat. The main crux of the song deals with the aftermath of a preacher who, during a sweltering summer day, fills himself up on lemonade that he doesn't know is spiked.

The vinyl version of I Have Returned came into my possession in the summer of 2006. I bought it at a local flea market. I had the cassette copy for years but it was fun coming across the vinyl copy...most people don't realize that vinyl albums would have the main cover shot on the front but then on the back of a vinyl album you may have a secondary picture of the artist that typically doesn't get much publicity and so it becomes almost exclusive to the vinyl album. I'll post an image of what the back of the vinyl album looks like further down the blog entry for those who don't own a copy. Earlier I mentioned that several songs ran more than 5 minutes. "The Haircut Song" is one of those recordings. The song is about a man who has several run in's with barbers who end up giving him terrible haircuts. The idea behind the song came from a stand up comic named Mike Neun who received co-writer credit. The album version features Ray's adventures with three barbers while the single release cuts out the second barber visit entirely. Apparently the running time was a bit too long for radio stations. The single hit in September 1985 and eventually made it's way into the Country Top-50. A month later, I Have Returned hit the Country Album chart. Although not released as a single, "The Pirate Song" would be discovered in the following years and it would become one of his popular recordings as a result. That particular song was a parody on Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance with Ray performing the roles of the pirate captain and a feminine pirate who detests the pirate lifestyle entirely. The song is officially titled "The Pirate Song (I Want to Sing and Dance)".

The back of the LP shows Ray, in his General MacArthur attire, looking at a map and trying to figure out exactly where he's "returned" to. The front of the album as you see above shows a serious pose of Ray and company wading through the water in a tableau reminiscent of the famed image of MacArthur and his army arriving off the shores of Leyte in the Philippines during World War Two. The back cover shows that the army waded ashore to a well populated modern-day beach. The credits state that the photography took place in Gulfport, Mississippi. There were other pictures taken during the photo shoot and some of them appear on a photo web-page devoted to the images taken by Slick Lawson. If you're familiar with album credits then you'll recognize Lawson's name as it appeared on just about every Ray Stevens album for at least 2 decades. Here's one of those images. A second single release, an updated recording of "Santa Claus Is Watching You", came along in the winter months of 1985. The single came complete with a picture sleeve of Ray, dressed as Santa, peaking from behind a Christmas tree. The song would be made into a music video...it was Ray's first music video production. The song had originally been released as a single in the early '60s and was along the lines of a children's song. Ray retained the song's title and it's chorus but rewrote the verses entirely. Instead of it being a children's song it now carried a more adult flavor as Ray warns his wife to not be unfaithful since Santa's watching and knows who's being good or bad. The music video takes it a step farther by having the wife's other man turn out to be, you guessed it, Santa Claus! Ray contributed a second holiday song to the music world the same year...he wrote and performed "Greatest Little Christmas Ever Wuz" and it was included on a various artist's collection of Christmas music titled Tennessee Christmas that MCA released.

A third single release arrived in January 1986, the hilarious story of a wrestler and the unfortunate encounter Ray has with him. "The Blue Cyclone" had been around awhile, first recorded by Glenn Sutton, one of the song's writers, and it was issued as a b-side on one of his singles in early 1979, but it's Ray's recording that became the most widely known by far. Timing plays an important role in comedy, any comic will tell you that, and when you marry topical comedy with music a very different kind of timing is even more vital. 1985 had been considered the year of the wrestlers. It was the year the Wrestle Mania event was first put together and so what better way to comment on the wrestling phenomenon than with a laugh out loud, cartoonish story of a hulk of a wrestler who literally beats a person senseless not once, but twice! So, in this case, the timing played a critical role and "The Blue Cyclone" climbed it's way into the Country Top-50 in the early months of 1986. Earlier I mentioned that radio stations wanted a shorter version of "The Haircut Song"...well, "The Blue Cyclone" in it's original form ran at least 10 minutes!! It was broken into two parts on the album. Obviously this recording was way too long and so an edited copy was made for radio stations which trimmed down those 10 minutes or so into a compacted recording that ended up being a little more than 6 minutes. This was still much longer than the average country music recording but yet if you were to cut more out of the song then you'd lose even more of it's humor and so I suppose that's why it remained the way it was and it didn't get edited down further.

The edited copy left out a lot of the detailed information surrounding the build up to the encounter with the wrestler. There were additional lyrics added in to perhaps retain some of the timing of the story. The edited copy would appear in an upcoming compilation album from MCA while the full length recording would continue to be found only on I Have Returned. Other songs found on this LP include "Armchair Quarterback", "Kiss a Pig", and "Punk Country Love".

The LP hit the Country Album chart in mid October of 1985. The album climbed up the chart briskly but it didn't fly up the chart by any stretch of the imagination. The album continued to climb up the charts week after week throughout the rest of 1985 and into 1986. It would make it's way into the Top-10...it would continue to climb up the Top-10 until for one week in March of 1986 it held the #1 spot on the Country Album chart!! After it's one week stay at #1 it would remain on the charts until the fall of '86...in total it spent almost 1 full year on the Country Album chart, October 1985 through September 1986.

In the summer of 1986 Ray was selected by the readers of Music City News as Comedian of the Year. Without a doubt, Ray's decision to go ahead and market himself as a novelty singer in 1984 was paying off big time. Nobody, including critics and fans alike, could have predicted that he'd have back to back Top-5 Country Albums devoted entirely to novelty songs, with one of those albums going all the way to #1, but yet that's what happened. Sales of his albums had increased...he'd charted frequently with his albums but he was much more of a singles artist...but the move to MCA in 1984 changed all of that. It seemed as if there was more emphasis on album sales. His inventive photo shots were a visual hook on his first series of albums for MCA.

Studio album twenty-three arrived in the late summer of 1986...and we'll take a look at this comedy album in the next Golden LP Series installment. Have your swords and lances ready!!

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 21...

This studio album is the one that set in motion a new direction, of sorts, for Ray Stevens. Released in 1984, He Thinks He's Ray Stevens was the first all-comedy studio album from Ray since 1980. This new LP was on the MCA label, his new home. MCA and their publicity department, combined with creative ideas from Ray and his associates, enabled this particular LP to become what the music industry likes to call a surprising success. First of all the LP was issued in the latter part of 1984 and it reached the charts in the middle of December 1984. It continued to climb the Country Album chart, as well as the Pop Album chart, throughout early 1985. The LP reached the Top-5 on the Country Album chart and it charted in the middle of the Pop Album chart. The Pop Album chart has 200 positions by the way...100 more positions than the Pop Singles chart. Even more impressive, as far as a comedy/novelty LP is concerned, it spent nearly 40 weeks on the Country Album chart.

The single releases from this LP didn't necessarily create a flurry of activity on the charts but two of the three single releases have become signature songs for Ray and are included in practically every concert he's done from 1985 onward. "I'm Kissin' You Goodbye", the lead-off song, was one of the three single releases from the LP. It didn't reach the charts but it was a funny story of two lovers who go from lust to hatred due to the woman's adultery. "Mississippi Squirrel Revival", a comical tale of how a squirrel causes all sorts of chaos and miracles within a southern church in Pascagoula, Mississippi hit the Singles chart in December 1984, a week before He Thinks He's Ray Stevens entered the Album chart. "Mississippi Squirrel Revival" became the hit that the LP was looking for. Research shows that the publicity for the single was heavy and it paid off because, as mentioned, the LP and single became commercial successes during the first half of 1985. "Mississippi Squirrel Revival" was written by Buddy Kalb and his wife, Carlene. It would eventually climb into the Top-20 on the Country Singles chart and become one of the biggest single releases of the year in terms of sales. The follow-up single, "It's Me Again, Margaret", has become one of Ray's most beloved performances although it peaked in the Top-80 on the Country Singles chart. The song is about an obscene phone caller who gets enjoyment out of calling up a woman named Margaret and asking her all kinds of personal questions. Ray, to be authentic, used a kind of naughty laughter throughout his performance as the prank caller. This laugh became one of the biggest hits of the performance and he's often asked to do "that laugh" whenever he's giving an interview. The single was publicized and promoted visually as print ads appeared in various magazines showing Ray playing the part of the obscene phone caller inside a phone booth. The publicity photo would eventually be used several years later when a compilation of his comical hits were released by another record label. "It's Me Again, Margaret" and "Mississippi Squirrel Revival" would both be turned into music videos several years later...more on that as we get there.  

The rest of the songs on this album run the gamut of humor...some of it silly, some of it satiric, but all of it fun. "Happy Hour is the Saddest Time of the Day" tells about a couple of alcoholics who've ended their relationship. Sprinkled throughout the lyrics are various references to alcoholic drinks with punch lines centering around the effects of having too much to drink. One of the national fads in 1984 was jogging...and on this LP we have "Joggin", a cute story of a jogger who gets extremely excited over jogging and how much of a health food junkie he is. Heard in the background are panting and exhalations of the jogger as he's going about his routine. This particular jogger, though, has several run-in's with bad luck...not only does he have to watch out for clothes lines but a dog comes into the picture as well. "Ned Nostril" is a comical tale of a kid whose born with a bigger nose than normal and we're told it grows to incredible length as the boy gets older. Ray vocally performs the song as Johnny Cash while musically it mimics the sound heard on a lot of Cash's recordings. "Erik the Awful" is hilarious...it's filled with all sorts of satirical comments that go by so fast that you'll have to listen to the song many times to catch all the comical remarks. It's about a Viking and his group of marauders. One of the more hilarious performances is his cover of "The Monkees" theme song. In Ray's version the song is performed by two men from a beer garden in the Alps. Ray opens the song doing an impression of a generic rock and roll DJ which is followed by a Monkees-like vocal group but as the accordion and other instruments play away in the background it gives way to the two lead singers who proceed to do a cover of "The Monkees" theme song. Within the performance the two bicker back and fourth and ad-lib.

The success of Ray's debut LP for MCA paved the way for the follow-up in the fall of 1985...it, too, would be an all-comedy release. Suddenly Ray Stevens found himself grouped in with country comedians. Although the general public had thought of Ray as a novelty artist for the longest time there was never really any intentional marketing of Ray as a comedy or novelty act until the mid 1980's. Knowing the potential success, all parties involved started marketing Ray in a country comedy direction. One of the more important visual publicity efforts from my point of view was to get him booked on the biggest country music driven TV programs and that's why, in my opinion, Ray appeared on numerous programs on The Nashville Network during much of the mid and late '80s as well as the syndicated program, Hee Haw, where up until the mid '80s he hadn't appeared on too frequently. After 1984 he began appearing annually on that show, sometimes 3 or 4 times a season. Nashville Now, the show hosted by Ralph Emery on The Nashville Network, turned out to be the program that Ray appeared on the most. Ray and Ralph's friendship had gone back to the 1960's...with Ray making at least one appearance on practically every radio and TV show that Ralph hosted. All of this publicity and marketing in a country comedy direction was soon to be rewarded as Ray returned in the fall of 1985 with a brand new comedy LP.