January 10, 2010

The Warner Brothers Era

Touching base upon a specific time frame in the career of Ray Stevens I want to journey back to the late 1970's when Ray's music home was Warner Brothers. Down through the years, either for financial reasons or otherwise, there was not much catalog repetition from Warner Brothers when it came to Ray Stevens. I don't know if it was a contractual decision...some artists may not want previously released material available and if they sign a contract stating so then that's the way it'll be. Also, some labels pick and choose which alumni they'll continue to release material on. It used to be second nature for labels to issue albums on artist's that had long since left their label. Sometimes this still goes on...usually if the artist is no longer living a record label will celebrate the artist's birth or remember their death with music releases. As an inquisitive fan of Ray Stevens it had always puzzled me why a lot of compilation releases didn't feature many Warner Brothers recordings. If any were included it was one or two songs at best...there was no real spotlight on his late 1970's songs for almost two decades.

This all changed in 1995 when Warner Brothers issued three special collections of Ray Stevens material. Cornball, Do You Wanna Dance, and The Serious Side of Ray Stevens. In reality, 99% of the songs on the three collections were serious...so it was a bit ironic to title one of the collections as such. These 1995 collections were my introduction to a large amount of material that Ray Stevens recorded in the late '70s. At the time I didn't own any vinyl albums as I do now...so I nearly wore out the 1995 cassette tapes. I didn't own a CD player at the time either, believe it or not! CD's cost too much in comparison to cassette tape. If I had a CD player of course, I would've bought the CD versions instead. Anyway...

Ray's tenure on Warner Brothers is often highlighted by two novelty songs. The first being "In The Mood" in which he clucked the performance in the vocals of a chicken. This recording isn't just a cluck or two...there are a lot of chickens clucking along in different harmony. A cow also lends a moo or two along the way. To the casual listener it may come off as a cheaply made recording that didn't take much effort but if you actually dissect the performance and realize a lot of effort and over-dubbing went into it you may walk away with more respect for the work that went into the performance and respect for Ray's creativity in the recording studio. The recording was released under an alias of all things: The Hen-House Five Plus Too. There was a time when people didn't really know it was Ray Stevens and would genuinely credit the fictional group as the "artists". I even heard a radio DJ refer to the performers by the fictional name instead of crediting Ray, the real person behind the song.

"In the Mood" in a lot of ways continued a concept, or a pattern, that was happening in Ray's career of covering pop-standards or covering pop songs in general. Prior to "In The Mood", Ray had enjoyed two back-to-back country hits in 1976. "Honky Tonk Waltz" became a Top-30 entry while Ray's debut on Warner Brothers was "You Are So Beautiful", a single that hit the country Top-20, and was a recent pop hit for Joe Cocker at the time. These two singles were taken from his debut album for Warner Brothers, Just For the Record. The album also featured his version of "Can't Stop Dancing" which would become a hit for the pop duo, The Captain and Tennille. Ray wrote and published the song as he did mostly every song he's recorded.

"In The Mood" had become a commercial single in late 1976, somewhere along the lines of the month of December, and so it didn't exactly reach it's peak until early 1977. It was one of those rare occurrences of a single hitting due to it's unique nature...which is one of the traits of a novelty song. It was a Top-40 pop and country hit in America and pop hit in England. It was released under Ray's name in England but in America it was continually referenced to the Hen-House Five Plus Too. Two is intentionally mis-spelled as "too" on the official single. If you scroll down the right hand side of the blog you'll see a picture sleeve for the single with the illustration of chickens.

Throughout the rest of 1977 and through 1978 in hindsight Ray's albums weren't promoted heavily. I did some research and looked through some news archives and found that there was barely any write-up's or any publicity focusing on any of Ray's singles or albums during that time period. As a consequence not much is chronicled and in terms of sales it's as if the albums didn't exist. Feel The Music was the lone album from 1977. It was a departure of sorts because it consisted of experimental sounds and a mixture of all kinds of genres. "Feel The Music" is a song that's inspirational and it features a grandiose chorus which is necessary for the message being delivered. "Get Crazy With Me" features a funky sound...I want to say that the arrangement is meant to sound far-out and crazy. "Junkie For You" is a wonderful bluesy ballad using clever lyrics in a love song that substitutes what a junkie is viewed as by society and he turns the word around to a positive meaning saying that he's addicted to a woman in every way and just her sight makes the man tremble and shake...in excitement. The album also features the slow love ballad, "Daydream Romance", and the bouncy single "Dixie Hummingbird".

In 1978 Ray issued two albums. Be Your Own Best Friend and There Is Something On Your Mind. Aside from my blog and perhaps a few others you won't really see much about these Warner Brothers albums on-line as far as blogs are concerned. Fortunately those 1995 collections that I wrote of earlier in this entry have become available as MP3's and can be purchased on-line...so for those interested in Ray's under-rated Warner Brothers era seek out those collections for yourselves. "Be Your Own Best Friend" became a Top-40 country hit in 1978 but that was the only single release of the year, strangely enough. The album contains several wonderful performances including "L'amour", "You're Magic", "Comeback", "Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right", and a re-recording of "You've Got the Music Inside". The second album from 1978 was a salute to classic R&B artists and it featured Ray's versions of the songs from that era like "One Mint Julep", "Money Honey", "Talk To Me", etc.

Ray closed out his association with Warner Brothers in 1979 following the surprise success of you guessed it...a novelty song. This time around Barry Manilow served as the subject matter. "I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow" is a satiric look at the sound/songs of Manilow while at the same time is fully entertaining at the same time without coming off as a "let's see how many Manilow references I can squeeze into the song". Dale Gonyea wrote the song and it hit the Top-50 on the pop chart and the Top-20 on the Adult-Contemporary chart. The single was later put on a compilation album that Warner Brothers specifically released to promote the song. The album, The Feeling's Not Right Again, contains songs that Ray had recorded during his first three years at Warner Brothers: 1976, 1977, and 1978 with the addition of 1979's "I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow".

After the release and success of that single, Ray departed the label for RCA Records.

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