July 16, 2009

Ray Stevens: Clean-cut, clean-shaven, clean comedy...

This vinyl album of Ray Stevens came across my eyes...I'm typically on the look for vintage albums and pictures of Ray and when I come across any, I save them. I came across this one earlier today and immediately felt like writing a blog entry about it. I don't even own this album but judging by the song titles listed on the front it must be a release from 1975 or 1976 at the latest...interestingly, three of the songs that are spotlighted on the front of the album are usually not the songs the public at large thinks of. "Indian Love Call" was a hit for Ray in 1975 while "Bridget the Midget" was a hit in early 1971, largely popular in the United Kingdom. The fact that the 1971 song is listed first on the album cover makes me assume the album originates over-seas. The way the songs, based on the information on the front of the album, the way they seem to cut-off at 1975 make me think this album was issued in 1975 or 1976. I'm curious how "many more" songs are on the album, though. It lists five songs and has "and many more" afterward. If I had seen this image a few days ago I would have made commentary about it in my "Compilation upon Compilation" blog entry because this is another example of how Ray's deep catalog of songs was constantly being re-issued over and over by a lot of record labels, mostly foreign and independents.

Photobucket In some circles "clean-cut" can be seen as a blessing as well as a curse. It depends. In pop music, being clean-cut usually doesn't win you praise or acclaim from the rock crowd. The rock crowd tends to pride itself on rowdy behavior...edgy personalities...anti-commercialism...and the list could go on. Being clean-cut in the mainstream could be considered career suicide because of how the public at large, well, the record buying public that record companies pay attention to, views clean-cut images. It's been said that Ray's clean-cut image was the reason why he didn't have a bigger hit with "Sunday Morning Coming Down" in 1969 but Johnny Cash hit #1 with it in 1970. This is also, it's been said, why Ray rarely sings what one would call a "typical country song" because he doesn't necessarily have the reputation or image of being a hell-raiser or an alcoholic.

However, being clean-cut can also be a blessing. It enables a singer or a group to be non-threatening and therefore have wide appeal or mass appeal as family friendly. This sort of acceptance usually, but not always, but usually allows the act to become profitable. The word "profitable" is like a disease in the world of rock music. Commercialism is frowned on...rock singers and rock musicians seem to have this "inspirational" bent. They feel that a song has to be lifted from real life...being inspired from something real and factual. The very idea of a songwriter "making up a story" appalls most rockers, I think.

Photobucket Not quite clean-shaven here but this particular 1987 album is Platinum. Of course, the album picture is a mock-up of Bonnie and Clyde. Note the bullet holes decorating the album, the cassette version that I have lacks this touch. I assume everyone knows this, but a "hit" in mobster/gangster talk means to order someone's death. So, Ray and the female portray Bonnie and Clyde...a great tie-in with a Greatest Hits album. The album featured liner notes from Ronnie Pugh of the Country Music Foundation. The version of "Ahab the Arab" is from 1969. Depending on the label you'll either get the 1962 original recording on Mercury Records or you'll get the up-dated 1969 version on Monument Records with the audience in the background from the Gitarzan album.

The liner notes for the 1987 hits album doesn't make note of "Ahab the Arab" being a re-recording. The author writes as if the original recording is on the hits album because he mentions 1962 as the year it was a hit. The reason I bring that up is because in the early '90s I discovered the actual 1962 recording of the song...it sounded nothing like the 1969 version I grew up listening to. Oh, the lyrics were the same, but Ray's voice was different. It wasn't what I was used to hearing. What this means is I spent several years assuming the recording on Greatest Hits was from 1962 because the liner notes weren't detailed enough.

So, as I've said many times, I went backward in my Ray Stevens fandom. I became a fan in the mid '80s after hearing "Mississippi Squirrel Revival" for the first time and as I got older I started finding and buying older songs Ray recorded, at the same time buying whatever contemporary albums he recorded to where I have a nice collection of items.

Photobucket Now, Young Love is a song that was a big hit for Sonny James in the late '50s. It was a hit around the time Ray was just starting his recording career. Those familiar with the song will no doubt recall how bouncy and swaying it was...that is, the Sonny James version. The Ray Stevens version was the complete opposite. In Ray's hands, the song was changed from a bouncy sing-a-long to a direct love ballad complete with bluesy musical accompaniment. Ray's version charted country in the early part of 1976, the last single Barnaby Records issued on Ray prior to his moving to Warner Brothers.

Photobucket Even though this was a Top-20 country hit for Ray in 1971, a lot of people today wouldn't recognize Ray's vocals because of how hushed and pleasant the recording sounds. This isn't to say that Ray's songs aren't pleasant...it's just that there's a sound most people come to expect and this arrangement throws people off. It starts off slowly...then during the chorus the music and singing all swell up to create the church choir effect...then after another verse and a repeat of the chorus the song ends, softly. Turn Your Radio On became the name of his gospel album as well. From that album came a pair of Top-10 Easy-Listening hits, "A Mama and a Papa" and "All My Trials".

I feel most of Ray's comedy songs are clean...well, all of them are. There's some that are intentionally low-brow and some that are quite sophisticated. The funny thing is, the low-brow comedy tends to be the most popular...it's like the sophisticated comedy, the satire, goes over a lot of people's heads. Along with this kind of division amongst comedy styles you have fans/listeners who kind of give a thumbs up or thumbs down rating depending on the style of humor on a Ray Stevens recording. Those who lean toward low-brow humor...the yuk-yuk, southern comedy...they tend to not favor the comedy of songs like "Bionie and the Robotics", "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", "Gourmet Restaurant", or "Workin' For the Japanese" just to name a few. On the other hand, those who lean toward the songs I just listed seem to look down on the low-brow humor of "It's Me Again, Margaret", "The Streak", "Hey Bubba, Watch This", "Used Cars", or "The Booger Man". He's recorded a lot more low-brow comedy than high-brow so there's more to list in the low-brow category.

Depending on who you ask, Ray is hilarious or offensive. I'm not making it up...hard to believe, isn't it??

It really comes down to an individual's taste in humor, which kind of hand-cuff's comedy. Some people, with no sense of humor or a peculiar one at the very least, could sit poker faced during a Ray Stevens album and go "what's so funny?" or "oh, is that suppose to be funny?". A lot of this reaction stems from political correctness, though. A lot of Ray's comical songs from the past and even some from today feature ethnic or stereotypical characterizations...and those who feel those kinds of characterizations are harmful, mean-spirited, etc etc are the ones who find Ray offensive...but that's just an interpretation. I have never believed for a minute that Ray intentionally and purposely attacks minorities or any social group. I feel that it doesn't matter...whether Ray is spoofing a German, a Russian, the Japanese, the Arabs, or southern people commonly referred to as rednecks, no matter what the ethnic, geographical, or social group is, the driving force is the comedy and the music.

Those who find this area of humor offensive, so be it...but the thing I've always felt was wrong is those who do not like this style of comedy, the humor they label "offensive" and "politically incorrect", those who are offended want to tell others what's funny and what isn't...and again, that brings us back to how comedy and humor is an individual thing. What's funny to one person isn't funny to the next...social groups shouldn't be dictating how humor is presented, viewed, or written because the result becomes a violation of free speech and freedom of expression. If one feels pressure to alter the way they write and think simply to please some social group, then that's all wrong.

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