March 27, 2016

Ray Stevens: Face the Music CD review...

This 24 song collection from Ace Records is something of a goldmine for many fans of Ray Stevens that do not have vinyl in their music collections. Over the decades of CD availability there have been releases on the market that have included a stray Monument single or 2 from Ray Stevens but never has their been a collection like this. I consider it great (but there's one major error that can't be overlooked). As the CD's title states this is a collection of Ray Stevens recordings during a 5-year period (1965-1970). 12 A-side single releases by Ray on Monument Records and the 12 accompanying B-side recordings make up the 24 songs found here. The song that gets the honor of being part of the CD title, "Face the Music", is one of the great ballads found on the collection and it originally appeared on Ray's 1968 LP, Even Stevens, and eventually found itself as the B-side of "Mr. Businessman". Ray's 5 year stay on Monument Records represents a period of change, growth, adaptability, irony, career flourish, and as always an aura of unpredictability.

Ray had actually been signed to Monument Records for a couple of years prior to the label issuing their first commercial single on him late in 1965. If I remember correctly from research I did years ago Ray had an exclusive recording contract with Mercury Records but he was free to join Monument Records for non-recording endeavors (producing, arranging, session work). Once the recording contract expired with Mercury Records then Monument was now able to begin releasing commercial singles from Ray at long last.

The debut single, "Party People", arrived late in 1965 backed with "A-B-C". The single didn't reach the Hot fact the first three single releases on Ray didn't reach the Hot 100 (some Bubbled Under). A fourth single, "Freddie Feelgood", did manage to make a Hot 100 appearance in 1966. Ray's novelty songs happen to have to life of their own. Even though statistics say that the song failed commercially (peaking in the bottom five of the Hot 100) it's nevertheless a Ray Stevens classic...more about this later...

Ray's fifth Monument release, "Unwind", became his highest charting single for Monument to date...peaking halfway up the pop chart. The single that really set things in motion came next...1968's "Mr. Businessman". It reached the Top-40 half of the Hot 100. After it's release Ray had suddenly become a 'superstar' and had achieved significant acceptance as a serious pop vocalist rather than being labeled a zany novelty act that DJ's didn't take seriously. A lot of the reason for the lack of success (airplay speaking) of Ray's recordings is due to the lack of acceptance of various radio disc jockey's. I continue to hold the opinion that Ray's songs have a lot of appeal and are highly entertaining but lack of airplay hinders any chance of something becoming a hit song.

A lot of listeners, unfortunately, never really had a chance to hear much of Ray's Monument output simply because radio stations didn't expose the material to potential record buyers. A shame, for sure, but this CD goes a long way at exposing the single releases on Monument Records. Earlier I mentioned that "Freddie Feelgood" has since become something of a Ray Stevens classic in spite of it not actually being 'a huge hit' at the time of it's release. The reissuing of Ray's catalog over a period of 2 decades on a variety of compilation albums has caused many fans to hear obscurities and near-hits tucked away on Greatest Hits and The Very Best Of collections and in their subsequent appearances on compilation CD's a song like "Freddie Feelgood" or "Unwind" have become just as familiar to Ray Stevens fans as "Gitarzan" happens to be.

Speaking of "Gitarzan" I must address a major flaw in this otherwise flawless project. The biggest hit single for Ray during his Monument stay happened to be the million selling Top-10 pop hit, "Gitarzan". The single hit the market in 1969 backed by "Bagpipes, That's My Bag". Unfortunately, bizarre, baffling, and perhaps one could say inexcusable is the major gaff on part of the record company of not doing their research. Rather than having 1969's "Gitarzan" on this CD they instead offer Ray's 1995 recording of the song. It's the audio recording for the official music video which made it's debut on Ray's direct-to-VHS movie, Get Serious!, in 1995.

Yes, you read that correctly. It's puzzling because "Gitarzan" appears on so many compilation CD's and given the work that went into putting this project together you'd think that a release celebrating Ray's Monument recordings would at least feature the original recording of "Gitarzan" instead of placing the 1995 re-recording on there.

The final three recordings on the CD, "Little Woman", "The Fool on the Hill", and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" are a trio of recordings that mark their CD debut. Each song comes from Ray's 1969 LP, Have a Little Talk with Myself, in which the title track is song 21 on this CD. That particular 1969 LP has never been remastered and re-released onto CD.

In the liner notes the author does a remarkable job in showcasing a lot of nostalgic promotional images originally found in music trade magazines of the time and there's a lot of images of the single releases, too. The author of the notes also makes mention of various chart positions of the songs but there are several places within the essay that focus too much on the commercial side of a recording...much is made of the fact that a lot of his singles didn't "make the charts" but there isn't any reason for this given. It's left for the reader to assume that a song that isn't a hit means that it must not have been any good...but that's not the case...

As I touched on earlier a lot of the reason behind a song not making it is due to the airplay, or lack thereof, of any recording. If radio isn't playing a song and exposing it to people then chances are it isn't going to sell...and if something doesn't sell then it can't become commercially successful. Ray's lack of massive airplay was never due to him not being popular as an entertainer and it's never been a case of him not being talented. Simply put, influential radio disc jockeys, I feel, had preconceived ideas about his music or didn't understand his music and therefore disc jockeys didn't support him as much as they could have.

This collection of Monument recordings serves as an introduction to the sounds of Ray Stevens during a highly creative and frenetic time in pop music in general. Balancing the novelty singer vs. pop crooner artistic tug of war is clearly on display here from start to finish. One of his most powerful vocal performances is "The Minority"...just listen to him belt out the lyrics! It appeared on his 1968 album but ended up as a B-side of one of his 1969 releases, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down". The artistic tug of war would continue on into the 1980s for Ray Stevens before he decided to market himself as a country comedian for the next several decades. The results paid off (several Gold and Platinum albums, Gold and Platinum VHS home videos, and numerous awards as Comedian of the Year throughout the '80s and '90s).

Although he had his fair share of serious hit songs by the time his stay at Monument came to a close in 1970 he more or less remained an enigma to music critics throughout the coming decades. Critics and disc jockey's alike never really knowing if he's pop or country...or if he's to be taken seriously or if he's joking around...the thing that gets lost in all of it is Ray's incredible versatility.

If someone has a difficult time labeling a singer as strictly "pop", "country", "comedy", etc. then all that can be said of such an artist is that they're something more than that...they're an Entertainer!

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