January 20, 2013

Ray Stevens and the Golden hairy ape...

Reaching the 50 year golden milestone this year happens to be one of rock music's most under-rated fictional stars, a hairy ape named Harry. This carefree ape was introduced to the music world in 1963. His story is told to us in song by the always entertaining Ray Stevens in a recording known as "Harry the Hairy Ape", a novelty recording that hit the Top-20 on both the pop and R&B charts. This 1963 single was Ray's third Top-40 pop hit in America following 1962's "Ahab the Arab" and 1961's "Jeremiah Peabody's Green and Purple Pills" and it was his fourth Top-40 single overall. He had a few other chart singles along the way, "Furthermore", "Funny Man", and the original "Santa Claus Is Watching You", but these great recordings didn't rise into the Top-40 in America. However, "Funny Man" did reach the Top-40 in Canada, going all the way into the upper half of their Top-20.

Historians like to keep chart statistics separate from country to country and from music format to music format, etc. etc. but as a fan I don't do this sort of thing. I combine all of the statistics on Ray's single and album releases both here in America and overseas. By approaching things from that angle I feel it gives a much better representation of Ray's body of work than when one splits hairs and examines which radio format, what geographic locale, or what age group his music is playing to.

"Harry the Hairy Ape" hit in the summer of 1963 and within the song there's a reference to a hurricane fence, a slang term for a common everyday chain link fence. There's also mention of a dance craze called mashed potato. As mentioned, the single hit the Top-20 on both the pop and R&B charts...placing higher on the R&B charts by the way. Like a lot of Ray's earliest novelty recordings this one contains frenetic vocalization which was almost a novelty attraction itself. Also, the song wasn't a fixture at his concerts as time went by so it didn't have the ability to become instantly familiar to the generations of fans to come. It's a bouncy novelty song that also serves as a satirical look at rock and roll music as seen through the eyes of a more conservative America but this revelation isn't made aware until the song's final chorus. My introduction to this song came with the 1987 cassette from Mercury, The Best of Ray Stevens. This particular project had originally been released on vinyl in 1970. That 1987 cassette re-issue is where I heard Ray's early '60s recordings for the very first time. "Harry the Hairy Ape" was originally released on the 1963 vinyl album, This Is Ray Stevens, on Mercury Records. Ray re-recorded the song in 1969 for his Gitarzan album. This re-recording is often placed on the various compilation releases that have been issued since 1971 instead of the 1963 original. Licensing fees, I assume, play a role in why the 1969 re-recording appears more frequently on compilation albums rather than the 1963 original.

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