August 18, 2019

Ray Stevens: The Road to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Part Four...

Welcome to Part Four of this blog mini-series as I spotlight Ray Stevens' Road to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The year is 1968 and Monument releases their fifth single on Ray in January...a unique offering titled "Unwind". This single credits both Fred Foster as well as Ray Stevens as producers...Ray also wrote both sides of the single. By unique offering I'm referring to the blending of tempo heard throughout the performance. The recording starts off with Ray in frenetic mode detailing all of the things he's got to do throughout the course of the working day and then as his descriptions near the hour of 5pm his vocalization has decreased in tempo to where he sings about winding down once he arrives home and the vocalization has long since shifted from frenetic to mellow but then, following a brief vocal break as the instrumentation plays, the tempo begins to pick back up and the frenetic vocalization resurfaces as the new workday is underway...and the routine plays itself out...but, once more, Ray winds down his vocalization as it draws closer to the end of the workday at 5pm. In the career time-line of Ray Stevens "Unwind" is typically the single that bridges the gap between the various phases of his career. By this I mean it's a single that frequently shown up on various greatest hits and best-of albums released on Ray Stevens even though it wasn't as widely known as his follow-up single...but if you base a 'hit' as a single that makes an appearance on a popularity chart then "Unwind" certainly qualifies. In part three I mentioned how "Freddie Feelgood" (from 1966) returned Ray to the national Hot 100 pop chart for the first time in three years...that single also appeared on the pop singles chart in Australia. "Unwind" reached midway up the Hot 100 here in America in early 1968 and in Canada it reached their pop music chart, too, peaking the Top-30. The B-side of "Unwind" is a devastating ballad titled "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". Monument followed up this hit single with a song from Ray dripping in social commentary...a pointed look at the corporate elitists...a song partially inspired by a business deal gone bad involving Ray.

It's often been reported about by historians, journalists, and mentioned by Ray in interviews that early in his career he was taken advantage of, briefly, by opportunists that mishandled his money through unwise investments and when he decided to take a look at his earnings he seen how lousy those in charge of his finances happened to be. As a result of the mishandling of his finances and a general negative feeling overall he came up with "Mr. Businessman"...a single that burst onto the music landscape in the summer of 1968. Production by Ray and Fred Foster this self-penned vocal outrage dealing with corporate America's amoral attitudes, misplaced priorities, and the bottom line was a startling contrast to the bluesy love ballads, easy-listening renderings, and novelty songs he'd long been noted for. The single features single note piano key strikes at the beginning of the song...as the tempo rises the key strikes get more stinging and more keys are added into the performance...as more and more instrumentation is added into the performance the piano blends into the background. It's a great hook and in concert whenever Ray starts to play those familiar piano strikes there's an obvious enjoyment that flows from the audience. Commercially "Mr. Businessman" was a very big hit...it reached the Top-30 on the Hot 100 and, ironically enough, the single had even more impact in Canada where it hit the Top-10. Perhaps it's not an irony...I'd say that the subject matter Ray sings about in the song is almost universal...there's good and bad businessmen and businesswomen all over the world.

The success of "Mr. Businessman" ultimately spawned the release of a vinyl album. In those days record companies often preferred to release singles...and if an artist had accumulated a series of hit singles then the record company would issue an album featuring those single releases, their B-sides, and several other recordings to fill out the collection of songs. This means that a lot of vinyl albums of this era were usually filled with one or two recordings that had been released as singles...and most of the time the album was named for one of those hit singles...while the rest of the album contained songs that were not commercially driven and sometimes an album would contain whatever the artist or producer felt like placing there...knowing full well that albums were purchased by the most loyal of consumers while a single was designed to cater to a general audience. In country music the record companies would release a vinyl album named for the hit single but then the remainder of the album wouldn't be explored by the record label for future single releases. There are a lot of country albums of this era with 10 or 11 songs but only one of those would be the single release...to say the album was looked upon with contempt is putting it mildly. Anyway...Monument Records issued their first studio album on Ray titled Even Stevens in the fall of 1968 on the heels of "Mr. Businessman". The album was produced by Fred Foster and Ray Stevens. It features 10 recordings in which Ray was the songwriter on 8 songs, a co-writer of one, while a tenth song was written by another writer. Ray also arranged every song on the album except two of them.


I created that collage a couple of years ago...or it could have been last year...anyway it's me attempting a similar pose from Ray Stevens as he appears on the Even Stevens album of 1968. The back of the album shows Ray seated in front of a music stand. The album comes with liner notes authored by Tupper Saussy. By the way Tupper is the one responsible for the only song on the album that Ray never had a hand in writing or arranging: "The Earl of Stilton Square". Tupper wrote and arranged the song. One of the television shows from this era, Get Smart, had a popular catchphrase...well, the show had several, but to borrow just one of those phrases... 'would you believe??' that Even Stevens never made an appearance on the Billboard 200 album chart!! If that wasn't ironic enough...Ray himself became a businessman but this was out of necessity given how little faith he had in someone else looking after his finances. He was once quoted as saying that nobody's going to look after you but you and so he reluctantly had to become more involved in the business side of the music industry. He eventually hired a manager, though, by the name of Don Williams...not to be confused with the country singer of the same name.

In the meantime the B-side of "Mr. Businessman", for those curious, is the album's seventh song, "Face the Music". Ray wrote the B-side but the music arranging is credited to Louis Nunley. Monument released "The Great Escape" as a single in the fall of 1968 backed with a phenomenal ballad called "Isn't It Lonely Together?". The A-side followed the social commentary vein and it charted on Canada's version of America's Hot 100...but in America the single Bubbled Under the Hot 100. A third figure emerged prominently in Ray's career during the making of Even Stevens and that figure happened to be Jim Malloy. He's credited as the production assistant to Fred and Ray on the 1968 album in addition to being the engineer's assistant. The engineer of the album was Charlie Tallent. The album itself was recorded at Bradley's Barn (a studio owned by legendary music producer Owen Bradley). In early 1969 Monument released a single on Ray that, according to Ray's interviews and his recollections in a memoir, that Fred Foster was completely against.

The single in question had the unusual name of "Gitarzan"...a word that Ray credits to Bill Justis, which as you can see, combines guitar with Tarzan. A title like that led Ray into creating a story about Tarzan, Jane, and their chimp forming a rock and roll jungle band. Ray also credited the rhyming dictionary in guiding him, line by line, in the song's construction. The song is filled with internal rhymes and end rhymes as well as pseudo-rhymes where sound-a-like words follow each other even though they're not identical rhymes. According to Ray's recollections Fred told him that if this song became a hit then Ray would have complete creative control on his next project. "Gitarzan" became a gigantic hit...in America and internationally...and throughout the first half of 1969 the massive popularity of the novelty song eventually brought certifications of a Gold record by the RIAA. In those days a gold record was indicative of sales of over a million copies. The single hit the Top-10 on the Hot 100, the Top-10 in Canada, the Top-10 in Australia, and the Top-10 in New Zealand. It made the charts in other international markets, too, but I decided to limit it to three additional countries for this blog entry. As you can see in the credits the producers are Ray, Fred Foster, and Jim Malloy. In addition to being a co-producer Jim returned as engineer assistant as he had been during the previous album from Ray in 1968. Songwriting credits go to Ray and Bill Justis...credited under his birth name of Bill Everette. The song's B-side, "Bagpipes-That's My Bag", was written by Ray and produced by both Ray and Fred Foster. For whatever reason Jim Malloy isn't credited...but obviously this is more or less due to his not being a part of the B-side's production. Monument issued their second album on Ray, Gitarzan, in the late spring/early summer of 1969. The album features liner notes from talk show host, Merv Griffin. Upon the release of the album from Monument Records they issued a new single...Ray's version of "Along Came Jones"...and while it didn't hit the Top-10 or sell millions of copies it nevertheless reached the Top-30 on the Hot 100 in America and the Top-30 in Canada in addition to it charting in Australia's Top-20. The original recording of the song had been a hit 10 years earlier by one of Ray's influences, The Coasters. The B-side of "Along Came Jones" happened to be another cover of a Coasters hit, "Yakety Yak". There are those that have often remarked that Ray's version of "Along Came Jones" is the funniest...and a lot of it has to do with the additional material that Ray brought to the song. The original from The Coasters lacks the falsetto cries of Sweet Sue as she's being tortured by Salty Sam...and the original also lacks the sinister laugh from the villain. Those are things that Ray brought to the song. The back to back novelty hits and the album itself labeled Ray a novelty singer...even though some may never have recognized him as being anything but a novelty singer in spite of the recorded evidence proving otherwise...some think "Mr. Businessman" is a funny song. Go figure!

In addition to all of this well deserved and long overdue success Ray had been enjoying lately he became acquainted with pop entertainer Andy Williams by the latter half of 1969. Earlier I mentioned that Ray hired a manager named Don Williams...well, he happens to be one of Andy's brothers...but I don't know what came first off the top of my head. I don't know if Ray and Andy got acquainted first and it led to Don becoming Ray's manager or if Ray hired Don as a manger before becoming a business associate of Andy's. Whatever came first Andy Williams began to have some influence in Ray's career around this point in time...and perhaps not a coincidence Ray began making infrequent appearances on Andy's television series. When "Gitarzan" became a massive hit earlier in the year Fred Foster, as mentioned earlier, made Ray a friendly bet that if it became a hit then on the next project Ray would be given complete creative control over. Fred lost the unofficial bet and so Ray and co-producer Jim Malloy set out to work on his next project for Monument Records...and it was a beauty of an album...which I'll go into more detail about in Part Five of this mini-blog series!!

August 17, 2019

Ray Stevens: The Road to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Part Three...

Welcome to Part Three of my mini-blog series spotlighting moments in the career of Ray Stevens as we get somewhat closer to Ray's official Country Music Hall of Fame induction in October...the election took place back in March of this year. We have a couple of months still to go...the rest of this month and all of September and into mid October. I left off in Part Two covering the single that Mercury Records issued on Ray in the fall of 1963, "Speed Ball" / "It's Party Time". Thanks to the internet a lot of Ray Stevens fans were treated to a super rare recording titled "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" that Mercury issued on acetate backed with "Don't Say Anything" in the final weeks of 1963. An acetate release is meant for limited plays due to the brittleness of the material and they're most often used for testing a song prior to it being put on vinyl. Apparently Mercury decided to go with another song for commercial release given that the first single release on Ray in 1964 came along in March and it was a novelty titled "Butch Babarian" backed with the love ballad that previously accompanied the unreleased "Pin the Tail on the Donkey": "Don't Say Anything". There's some interesting history surrounding Butch...it, too, initially appeared in test format in December 1963 (an acetate) and was broken in two parts. On the acetate recording Ray sings "flip the record over to hear part two". The acetate has the song spelled 'Butch Barbarian'. There are pressings of the single in which the title is spelled "Butch Bubarrian" and then there's pressings where it's spelled "Butch Babarian".

The song's title is a pun on the alcoholic beverage, Busch Bavarian. When I heard the song for the first time in the early 1990s I had no idea of it's inspiration but then years later I heard an audio clip of one of the Busch commercials and it led off with almost the exact kind of intro that we hear on this recording.

I don't know the reason for the altered spellings on the various pressings that Mercury Records issued but I do know that the label issued another pressing with a picture sleeve of Ray seated at the piano. The B-side of that pressing is noted as being a Longer Version. The copy meant for airplay clocks in at two minutes, fifty six seconds while the longer version runs four minutes, three seconds. The full length version is on YouTube as is the acetate which includes a lot of lyrics that didn't make it to the commercial recording. The acetate exists in Part One form but Part Two has never been uploaded (the one that uploaded Part One doesn't have Part Two). The edited copy for airplay isn't on YouTube. Well, now, after sorting through all of that wouldn't you know it...this particular novelty single didn't reach the charts when the commercial version hit the market in March of 1964. Mercury followed this with "Bubble Gum the Bubble Dancer" in July...not exactly a novelty song...but the unusual title gave it a novelty flavor. I'm not saying the flavor of the bubble gum is a novelty...but you know what I mean. If you're not sure what a bubble dancer is/was then the inspiration for the overall song's title might be lost on some. This single existed several years prior to the arrival of what music historians refer to as bubblegum music...so I don't think it's a case of tying the song's title in with the music craze. The song's B-side is the vengeful ballad "Laughing Over My Grave". If you recall from the previous blog entry I mentioned that Ray entered an unusual contract in that Mercury Records would release recordings on him while Monument Records utilized Ray's proficient prowess as a session musician, producer, and arranger. In September of 1964 Ray made his way to New York City to work as a music arranger on several songs recorded by Dusty Springfield. The recordings that Ray arranged would appear in single releases by Dusty in 1964 and 1965. Ray arranged several other recordings that remained as album tracks and weren't issued as singles. Those familiar with her recordings these are the titles that Ray worked on as music arranger: "Live It Up", "Guess Who?", "Now That You're My Baby", "If Wishes Could Be Kisses", "Here She Comes", "I Wanna Make You Happy", and "I Want Your Love Tonight". Mercury Records, in the meantime, didn't immediately follow-up "Bubble Gum the Bubble Dancer"...but they eventually released a follow-up and it arrived in January 1965 in the form of "The Rockin' Teenage Mummies". Now, admit it, who doesn't get a great big smile on their face when you see a song title like that?? It, too, was a novelty song as you could tell...backed with the ballad "It Only Hurts When I Laugh". The release of this single marked a slight change in the production credits. The single releases on Mercury Records on Ray dating back to 1961 had all been produced solo by Shelby Singleton but starting with "The Rockin' Teenage Mummies" Jerry Kennedy was credited as co-producer along with Shelby Singleton. These novelty records that Mercury was releasing on Ray throughout late 1963 and into early 1965 weren't reaching the national charts but they made appearances on what the industry refers to as regional charts which can be described as surveys of single releases that are popular in select cities across the country but hadn't met with the same success on a national level.

Regardless of the lack of national chart placings Ray was continuing to build a name for himself behind-the-scenes...and all the while Mercury was issuing novelty songs on Ray he was hard at work as a music arranger on serious recordings by other artists. In February 1965, for example, one of the songs he arranged for Ronnie Dove was released, "One Kiss For Old Times Sake", which became a Top-20 pop hit. This was backed with a song arranged by Bill Justis titled "No Greater Love".

Ray was heavily involved in the early recording career of Ronnie Dove and if you search various single releases you'll find Ray's name listed as music arranger. The singles were released on a label called Diamond Records and most of the songs were recorded at Fred Foster Sound Studio. Some of the other single releases that Ray arranged for Ronnie Dove include: "A Little Bit of Heaven", "Kiss Away", "I'm Learning How To Smile Again", "Dancin' Out of My Heart", and several more. Now, based on my research over the years, I found evidence of Ray being credited as the music arranger for 16 songs recorded by Ronnie Dove between the years 1964 through 1968. 10 of those were released on commercial singles as either the A or B side while the other 6 recordings were album tracks. Something of note is "Kiss Away" being written by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton. Ronnie's recording became a Top-40 pop hit as well as a Top-10 Easy-Listening hit in the fall of 1965. In between the releases of Ronnie Dove's "One Kiss For Old Times Sake" in February 1965 and "A Little Bit of Heaven" in May 1965, Mercury Records released what, at the time, was thought to be their final commercial single on Ray...the novelty "Mr. Baker the Undertaker" backed with another novelty, "The Old English Surfer". The popularity of surfer music in 1965 is my guess as to the creation of this wacky novelty B-side. It's a bizarre story of an Englishman that plays the violin while riding the ocean's choppy waters on a surfboard. As mentioned this 1965 single ended his professional association with Shelby Singleton and Jerry Kennedy as well as, for now, Mercury Records, and from there Ray became more associated with Monument Records founder, Fred Foster, and Ray soon found himself being credited on Monument releases.

In July of 1965 Monument issued a single on a relatively unknown recording artist by the name of Dolly Parton. She had been recording since 1959 but hadn't had any breakthrough success. This single, "Happy, Happy Birthday Baby", backed with "Old Enough to Know Better", were both produced by Ray and released on Monument. It was her second single release on Monument...her first single release didn't feature any involvement from Ray. The story goes that Ray felt that Dolly was suited more toward pop/rhythm and blues and if you listen to Dolly's single releases on Monument that Ray produced, well, you'll hear the direction he felt she should be guided in. In the meantime Ray was gearing up for something of a musical re-invention...deliberately focusing on serious works of music rather than novelty songs (although that side of him had never completely vanished). In November of 1965 Ray issued his debut single for the Monument label...the marvelous "Party People" from the pen of Joe South. The B-side was another invigorating recording titled "A-B-C". These records, if played along side his previous single releases at Mercury, should cause any listener to immediately notice the major shift in his sound. His voice was a bit deeper...in places it was throaty and aggressive...and the music itself seemed just a notch above what he was doing at Mercury even though by no means am I suggesting his Mercury efforts were lousy or anything.

As we move into 1966 the year got underway with the second single release that Ray produced on Dolly Parton: "Busy Signal". Ray not only produced the song but he wrote it as well. Ironically the B-side, "I Took Him for Granted", was produced by Fred Foster and there's no credit given for the music arrangement. That single was, more or less, immediately followed by "Don't Drop Out" backed with "Control Yourself" in February 1966. Ray produced and arranged those two songs but for the remainder of Dolly's stay at Monument Records the production duties would be taken over by Fred Foster. Dolly eventually moved to RCA Records and became part of Porter Wagoner's stage shows, his massively popular television series, and this major exposure led to her eventual super-stardom. Ray, on the other hand, issued his second single on Monument in March 1966...the rocker "Devil May Care". This was backed with the lovely "Make a Few Memories"...both songs from the pen of Joe South...and both produced by Fred Foster. Earlier I mentioned that Ray didn't entirely abandon novelty songs...and in the summer of 1966 Ray issued "Freddie Feelgood and His Funky Little Five Piece Band" backed with the ballad "There's One in Every Crowd". Freddie returned Ray to the national Hot 100...briefly...but the single release marked the first credit given to Ray's publishing company, Ahab Music. All of Ray's single releases on Mercury and the first several for Monument were credited to Lowery Music. Ray would publish, with few exceptions, all of his own recordings from this point forward. Ray remained busy as a session musician throughout the rest of 1966...two notable recordings he was involved in...Ray was the organist on the B.J. Thomas hit, "Billy and Sue", and he did the string arrangements for Bobby Bare's legendary hit, "Streets of Baltimore". In the spring of 1967 Monument released Ray's fourth single for the label titled "Answer Me, My Love" backed with the uptempo "Mary, My Secretary". Monument didn't issue another commercial single on Ray for the remainder of the year...but in January of 1968 things started to get very interesting...so keep a look out for Part Four of this mini-series!!

August 11, 2019

Ray Stevens: The Road to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Part Two...

Ray Stevens, while at Mercury Records, became what is known in the music industry as an Artist and Repertoire man...someone that goes over recordings with artists, finds songs for artists to record, and perhaps rehearses the artist prior to the recording session. Those are just some of the more vague things a person in that occupation does. As you can see by looking at the image off to the left Ray was still an active recording artist as well. Let's back up a few months, though...following a late 1960 Christmas release on NRC titled "White Christmas" backed with "Happy Blue Year" Ray eventually found himself signing with the Mercury label in 1961. He still lived in Georgia at the time of his signing and would drive to Nashville for recording assignments throughout 1961. The first single that Mercury released on Ray was also his very first chart appearance on Billboard's national Hot 100 chart. He had previously appeared on the national lists a year earlier, in 1960, if you recall from Part One of this series...he bubbled under the Hot 100 with "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon". The debut single for Mercury, however, reached the Hot 100...not only did it reach the Hot 100 it eased up into the Top-40 area of the Hot 100. It's at this time I should point out, for those that don't know, that the pop music singles chart consists of 100 songs. Technically any song on this list is a 'hit'...however, as time went by and the music industry developed and became gigantic, focus began to zero in on the first 40 songs on the Hot 100 and once the phrase 'Top-40' was coined it became something of an unwritten rule that a song isn't a 'hit' unless it charts within the first 40 slots of the Hot 100.

I, for one, have long felt that having an unwritten rule such as that does a disservice to music and recording artists, in general. The work that goes into the making of just one recording, let alone an entire album, requires a lot of hard work, detail and attention...but yet if a recording or an album goes onto the market but doesn't sell hundreds of thousands of copies or if single releases from an album doesn't receive much airplay, if any, society in general has more or less been trained to regard that recording or album as a failure, as inferior, and something to ignore because it didn't rank on a popularity chart. I think that kind of thinking is crazy. The more 'popular', indicative of whatever single or album is getting the most airplay or the most sales, would determine it's ranking on the charts and over the course of time the art of recording music became a popularity contest rather than it being something that offers artistic expression whether the end result proves to be popular or not.

As you can see from the image above Ray's debut single for Mercury Records is a novelty song. The full title being "Jeremiah Peabody's Polyunsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills". Do you find yourself singing the song's title when typing it out? I do...that's how I remember not to forget any of the words in the title! As I've mentioned in blog entries past I shorten the song's title to "Jeremiah Peabody's Green and Purple Pills". The novelty song approach tended to be the calling card for Ray...the last single from Ray that gained some national attention happened to be comedic...and so he continued that trend with this recording in 1961. It reached the Top-40 of the Hot 100 in the late summer/early fall of 1961. It's B-side, "Teen Years", is a ballad reflecting each teen year of a child's life as they reach adulthood. As hindsight almost always comes into play whenever one writes about past events it's been said by other writers/bloggers and those that write about music history that the song's unusually long title is a novelty all to itself. The entire song's title, also, had to be written on the paper sleeve on the actual vinyl single. You've all seen the paper sleeves...they're small and round to begin with...and to have the task of typing the song's complete title on the single release must've been a challenge. Mercury managed to do it which is all the more impressive given the lack of the kinds of computer graphics in existence nowadays.

In October of 1961 Mercury issued "Scratch My Back (I Love It)"...this is a funny song, more amusing, even though it wasn't probably designed to be comical. I can't help but grin as I listen to Ray relate how soothing and invigorating it feels when he's getting his back scratched...with the subtitle 'I love it' is repeatedly delivered in various harmonies from Ray. It's B-side is his nice cover of "When You Wish Upon a Star"...the same song associated with the Walt Disney company. Ray's recording of the song remains a B-side exclusive...it's never appeared on any albums. The first three single releases from Mercury, by the way, also featured the same art work and photo of Ray...with the obvious differences being song titles and credits. "Scratch My Back", nor it's B-side, reached the Hot 100. In January of 1962 Ray Stevens moved from Georgia to Nashville, Tennessee. As a resident of Music City, USA he could participate on many recording sessions, which he did, and he also established himself as a jack-of-all-trades in the recording studio. He worked under the guidance of Shelby Singleton. It's been reported for decades, and I'm passing it along here, that during a single day in the recording studio Mercury Records utilized Ray's talents on three recordings that became mega-hits. One of those recordings being "Wooden Heart" by Joe Dowell...the other being Leroy Van Dyke's recording of "Walk on By"...and the third being his own recording, "Ahab the Arab". The latter was released in June of 1962 and this is the song that I hinted at in the last blog entry...the single that caused Ray to become a 'super-star' overnight. The single was, of course, a novelty song and it ultimately became his highest charting single up to that time...reaching the Top-10 on the Hot 100 as well as the Top-10 on the Rhythm and Blues chart. The enormous success of the single provided Ray opportunities to appear on television and radio programs that he otherwise wouldn't have been scheduled but funny things happen when a recording artist has a 'hit'...those in the media tend to suddenly acknowledge your existence.

The success of the single provided Mercury the avenue in which to release a full length LP; as was commonplace back then practically every record label would issue singles on a recording artist and if the single or a series of singles proved successful in the label's eyes then they'd release a full length LP containing the songs that had been released as singles plus several album tracks...sometimes the album tracks would surface as future singles but often they'd remain on albums heard only by the most dedicated of fans. The feeling being that only the dedicated of fans would purchase an entire album of songs from one artist...while a general audience is more likely to purchase the single. "Ahab the Arab" tells the story of an Arab and his love for harem woman named Fatima...one of the women in the Sultan's harem...and throughout the song Ray tells of how Ahab and Fatima are in love with one another behind the Sultan's back. Ahab rides the dunes of the desert on a camel named Clyde. Ray has often spoke of the song's origins and how it's based upon the imagery seen in the film, The Sheik, as well as the books on Arabian culture...often cited is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The character names, as explained by Ray, come from various inspirations. Ahab is selected due to it rhyming with Arab (when pronounced Ay-rab rather than Air-ub). Fatima was a brand of cigarettes while the camel's name, Clyde, was inspired by Ray seeing Clyde McPhatter walking around in the recording studio one day. Clyde McPhatter, according to interviews I've read and heard from Ray and from passages in his memoir, was one of Ray's musical influences. Mercury edited the original recording of the song...cutting out a third verse...for time reasons. Ray, in later interviews, remarked that he was crushed when told that in order to potentially get airplay for the song it needed trimmed down. Whenever you see the 1995 music video of the song it includes the missing lyrics not included in the single release from 1962. The song's B-side, "It's Been So Long", is a delightful ballad...one of his more soulful of that time period. The success of Ray's first single releases led to Mercury releasing the LP titled 1,837 Seconds of Humor. The album contained almost all of the recordings found on the first three single releases on Ray by Mercury (missing was "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "It's Been So Long"). Some of the other songs on the album were: "Popeye and Olive Oyl", "PFC Rhythm and Blues Jones", "Saturday Night at the Movies", and "Julius Played the Trumpet". There were a lot of songs on that album specializing in pop culture satire which you can tell by some of the song titles. Those that didn't really care for rock and roll music had deep hatred for Elvis Presley...and when he was drafted into the military it tickled a lot of people's funny bones. Those that appreciated the things Elvis did for the music industry and those within the industry that liked this new kind of music also lent their contributions, in song, to the idea of a rock star being drafted into the military. Ray's song, "PFC Rhythm and Blues Jones", tackles the concept of a musician being in the military...in this case it's a rhythm and blues singer who goes by the name of Jones. It's explained that Jones would much rather be back home fronting his rhythm and blues band instead of dodging bullets from the enemy in some foxhole.

Mercury Records issued a further single on Ray in the fall of 1962...this time the love ballad was on the A-side and the comedy song on the B-side. However, the A-side come across as a novelty because it was unusual in it's delivery. As long time fans should already know but I'll explain for newcomers: a lot of Ray's songs in this time period that were intended to be taken seriously were often casually labeled 'novelty' by music critics due to the construction or vocal phrasing being different from what was being heard on radio. Novelty or off-beat were the common descriptions of Ray's serious recordings of this time period even though they were intended to be taken seriously. So, "Furthermore", his fourth single for Mercury, starts out with high falsetto from Ray delivering a scat singing introduction as music plays in the background. The delivery itself crams a lot of lyrics together in strings of what appears, to the ear, as run-on sentences but they're complete sentences but sung fast. It's a love song for sure...but given the performance it's described as off-beat. He re-recorded the song decades later as a slow, bluesy ballad. The B-side of the 1962 original is "Saturday Night at the Movies".

In the winter months of 1962 Mercury released the original recording of "Santa Claus is Watching You". Ray would re-record this song in 1985, with almost an entire set of different lyrics, which was accompanied by a famous music video; and he re-recorded it a second time in 1997. The 1962 original is a cute Christmas novelty...and it reached the Top-50 of the Hot 100. I like the original recording but I love the 1985 re-recording/partial re-write. The Christmas release remained a single exclusive until it began appearing on compilation albums. It should be noted that there's a lengthy recording of 1962's "Santa Claus is Watching You" and there's also an edited version for radio stations that clocks in a little over 2 minutes. The unedited recording is a little more than 3 minutes. You can find an audio clip on YouTube of the unedited 1962 recording by using the search phrase: Santa Claus is Watching You (1962). It was uploaded by a user named verycoolsound. Once you hear it and once you hear the edited version (the edits are noticeable) you'll wonder to yourself the reason why the editing took place...but again one only has to think back on the time period (early '60s) and how pop songs were typically quick and rarely ran longer than 2 and a half minutes whether it be a ballad or an uptempo recording.

As the calendar flipped to 1963 and as Ray was becoming more and more involved in the recording process with his session work and overall duties in the Artist and Repertoire department of Mercury he began to expand his workload...if only in terms of music arranging and other technical aspects of the recording industry. The first single release on Ray from Mercury in 1963 was "Funny Man" backed with "Just One of Life's Little Tragedies". Ray experienced some success in Canada with "Funny Man" as it reached the Top-20 of their pop music chart while on America's Hot 100 it peaked outside the Top-40. Mercury issued their second LP on Ray with the title being This is Ray Stevens. The overall flavor of the album was an almost even mix of comedy and serious recordings and it wasn't as pop culture heavy as the previous LP in 1962. "Harry the Hairy Ape" became a hit for Ray in the summer of 1963...it's all about an ape that wants to be a rock and roll singer...and how his entertaining ways leads to his becoming a recording artist following an encounter with a disc jockey. This novelty single became a Top-20 pop hit in America as well as a Top-20 Rhythm and Blues hit. On Canada's pop music chart it reached the Top-30. Ray's talents as a songwriter had long been on display. He wrote all the songs found on his first two albums. He and Margie Singleton wrote a song titled "My True Confession" which became a big hit for Brook Benton in the summer of 1963...so Ray not only found himself on the charts as a singer-songwriter of his own material but he was on the charts as a co-writer of the Brook Benton hit. Brook's hit was produced by Shelby Singleton (as was all of the songs found on Ray's first two albums) and it was arranged by Bill Justis. Brook was a major recording artist on the Rhythm and Blues as well as the Easy-Listening chart...the latter being a format devised in the aftermath of rock and roll...radio stations played songs from pop music artists who appealed mainly to adult audiences instead of teenagers. On the Hot 100 Brook's recording reached the Top-30 but in the Easy-Listening format it skyrocketed into the Top-10...it repeated this same Top-10 success on the Rhythm and Blues chart in 1963 as well.

Ray entered into a unique situation around this time period. I've never known the specific details but I've been able to come up with somewhat vague information stating that Ray signed a deal with Monument Records in 1963 as a producer/arranger/session musician while still under contract with Mercury Records as a recording artist. This meant that Ray would still issue recordings for Mercury Records but for Monument he was signed as a behind-the-scenes artist. The final single release from Mercury in 1963 on Ray happened to be "Speed Ball" backed with the ballad "It's Party Time". The A-side was another novelty hit...reaching the Hot 100 for several weeks...while reaching the Top-30 on the Rhythm and Blues chart. The B-side wasn't released on any album. I'm hoping that the first two chapters in this mini-blog series is helping go a long way at showcasing just how varied Ray's music career happens to be. In Part Three I won't be as story-telling as I probably come across in this blog entry...for in Part Three I'll be bringing into focus Ray's career as a music arranger and producer for other artists in addition to the recordings being issued on Ray by Mercury Records...so be on the look out for Part Three soon!