August 4, 2014

Ray Stevens: Two for Forty Five...

Yes, it's me once more and it's another fan created blog post about the one and only Ray Stevens. This time I decided to mention a couple of albums from Ray that are 45 this year. Released in 1969, "Gitarzan", became a Top-10 pop hit and a million seller. Utilizing a title given to him by Bill Justis (referenced by his birth name of William Everette in the credits), Ray came up with this story of Tarzan, Jane, and their pet becoming unlikely rock music stars. A novelty album appeared soon after...titled Gitarzan.

The comedy album spotlighted his reverence for The Coasters, especially, and it featured his versions of comedy songs made popular by other performers, too. After finally being able to successfully establish himself as a serious pop music performer a year earlier in 1968 (thanks in part to the Even Stevens album and it's big single, "Mr. Businessman"), the comedy image returned with a vengeance during much of 1969 as the Gitarzan album, the "Gitarzan" single, and it's follow-up single, "Along Came Jones", became big radio and sales hits not only in America but in Canada and internationally ("Gitarzan" made the hit lists of several European countries in 1969). "Along Came Jones" became a Top-30 pop hit...not exactly the million selling phenom as "Gitarzan" but it nevertheless was a popular hit single and one that almost always appears in tandem with "Gitarzan" on a myriad of compilation albums. If you see a compilation album featuring "Along Came Jones", chances are "Gitarzan" is also going to be on that same compilation...usually each song follows the other due to their origination being the same 1969 album.

Ray's version of "Along Came Jones" is particularly notable for it's use of his mimicry of the damsel in distress, Sweet Sue, shrieking and sobbing her way through one predicament after the other...rescued in the last minute by a man referred to only as 'Jones'. The Coasters recording of the song in 1959 lacked this unique touch. If you should hear anyone cover "Along Came Jones" and it include female cries of help and save me, they're technically covering the Ray Stevens version and not the original by The Coasters. The 1969 album became available on CD in the mid 1990's on the Varese Sarabande label. I purchased the CD years comes with exclusive liner notes from the Varese writing staff and the notes are presented in obvious historical context given that it had been more than 25 years since the LP originally hit the market in 1969. The original LP featured liner notes from Merv Griffin and those are obviously more contemporary sounding and more in the moment than the ones provided in 1996 for the CD release. The pictures that appear on the back of the LP make their appearance on the back of the fold out CD cover. The back of the CD, as posted here, lists the songs and the writer(s) and chart information. The CD features the complete 11 track album from 1969 and it tacks on 3 bonus tracks. For the 1969 album Ray re-recorded 1962's "Ahab the Arab" and 1963's "Harry the Hairy Ape". Those re-recordings have long since appeared on many compilation albums (rather than the original hit recordings). The album also features "Sir Thanks-a-Lot", an original, which spoofs The Knights of the Round Table. Also on the album are his versions of "Mr. Custer", "Alley Oop", "Little Egypt", and "Yakety Yak" in addition to the hit singles "Gitarzan" and "Along Came Jones". Also, Monument placed a couple of his 1966 single releases on this album and dubbed laughter/applause over top of the recordings: "Freddie Feelgood" and "Bagpipes- That's My Bag".

Ray filmed a music video for "Gitarzan" in 1995 for his direct-to-home video movie, Get Serious!. The video's been on YouTube since May 2011...

An animated music video of "Along Came Jones" hit YouTube in June of last year. The animated video had been produced for a limited-animation music video collection that originally was released on DVD. Ray later uploaded all of those animated music videos onto his YouTube channel...

After the phenomenal success of the 1969 novelty singles and their parent album, Ray jumped back into serious mode once again and eventually released an under-rated masterpiece called Have a Little Talk with Myself in the latter half of 1969. A lot of time, effort, energy, and obvious talent went into the making of that studio album. You can tell it by the production aspects and the musical styles represented. Take a look at the back of the album, if you have a copy, and take in that lengthy list of musicians and soak up the commentary in the liner notes, which feature quotes from co-producer Jim Malloy and from Ray Stevens himself about the making of the album. The album is notable for the inclusion of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down". The song, from the pen of Kris Kristofferson, represents the first-ever commercial release of a song that ultimately became a major hit a year later for Johnny Cash. Ray issued the song as a single in the latter half of 1969 and it inched along the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks but it unexpectedly reached the Top-60 of the country music chart. In Canada it hit the Top-50 on their country music chart.

Here is a 1970 performance from Ray of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down". The clip features his performance of another song, "You Are My Sunshine". The latter features a different arrangement than what you might expect. The performance took place on his 1970 summer television program. The clip appeared on YouTube in September 2013...

On the 1969 album covers "Help!", "Hey Jude", "The Fool on the Hill", "Hair", "Aquarius", "But You Know I Love You", "Spinning Wheel" can see that the songs of choice were very contemporary. He doesn't really stray too far from the original arrangements, either, but he does select different instrumentation on several. The title track, "Have a Little Talk with Myself", became the second single release. It Bubbled Under the Hot 100 but crossed over to the country charts and peaked in their Top-70.

He covers Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" (it became the third single release from the album early in 1970 and it Bubbled Under the Hot 100).

Bubbling under the Hot 100 is a special chart that ranks singles that are commercially available and have sold in regional markets all over the country but haven't reached the national sales plateau nor gained consistent enough airplay across the country to migrate to the actual Hot 100. A song that reaches #4 on the Bubbling Under chart, but doesn't make it into the Hot 100, has an official peak position of #104. If you ever see statistics that say a single peaked at #115, for example, but you know the Hot 100 only has 100 positions...that #115 means that it peaked at #15 on the Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart.

1969 is mostly remembered, by nostalgic people and historians, as a violent era filled with anti-war protests, celebrated drug usage, the peak of the hippie culture and the boiling point in the mainstream between clashing generations of people on a whole host of social differences. Peace and love, Vietnam, and protests are several phrases that many associate with the late '60s (1969 specifically). Ray turned 30 in January of 1969 and so he was in that age bracket that was largely in the middle of the "youth" vs. the "establishment". 30 isn't old but at 30 you're no longer a teenager or an early 20 something, either, which happened to be the general age bracket mainly driving the counter-culture protests of the time period. One other song Ray covers on the 1969 album is "Games People Play". It's so's from the pen of one of Ray's friends from his early years in and around Atlanta, Georgia in the late '50s...Joe South.

Ray performed the song on his 1970 summer television program and the clip appeared on YouTube in August 2013. It also includes a performance of "Reach Out in the Darkness". Ray never recorded that song, though, it's only available through this performance clip from 1970.

Did you notice the omission of the prophet that can be heard on the studio recording of "Games People Play"? In the studio recording, during the brief instrumental break, Ray can be heard shouting in a heightened state of anguish predicting the world is coming to an end and that we're all doomed. Ray doesn't perform those lyrics in this 1970 clip and I'm sure the reason is because it would break up the serious overtone of the performance. Those that had purchased the 1969 LP and had been familiar with his version of "Games People Play" might have been curious to why the ridicule of the gloom and doom prophets was omitted from the live performance...but it's not too terrible of an omission that changes the dynamics of the song.

I'd simply love it if a record company (major or independent, domestic or overseas) would celebrate the 45th anniversary of these 1969 albums by issuing them on CD as a '2 album on 1 CD' release. I'd love it even more, though, if just the Have a Little Talk with Myself LP finally became available on CD!! I don't ever think it'll happen but there's always wishful thinking.

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