November 12, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 22...

Welcome to Part 22 of the Golden LP Series. In this installment we take a look at the twenty-second studio album from Ray Stevens, 1985's I Have Returned.

To put it bluntly, this is a very funny LP. It is also one of the more adventurous in that it contains quite a few long comical tales...there are at least three recordings that have a run time of more than 5 minutes and yet there is one recording that's just a little over 1 minute believe it or not. This brief recording, "Thus Cacked Henrietta", revives the chickens that appeared on 1976's "In the Mood". This time around instead of performing a jazzy clucker of a recording the chickens do an about face and cackle the familiar strains of the opening to a classical piece known as Also Sprach Zarathustra, heard by millions as the theme song in the late '60s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. After the chickens and their friends finish up their opening performance we hear Ray sing about "Hugo the Human Cannonball". In this song Ray sings about a circus performer based on real life human cannonball, Hugo Zacchini, and an exaggerated tale of the extreme highs and lows in the life of any human cannonball. The song uses dark humor as it depicts the down side of human cannonballs and the notion of what could happen if the trajectory is wrong and instead of hitting the net the performer'd have to hear the song to find out more! "Vacation Bible School" is about the mischief kids can get into while away during a bible school retreat. The main crux of the song deals with the aftermath of a preacher who, during a sweltering summer day, fills himself up on lemonade that he doesn't know is spiked.

The vinyl version of I Have Returned came into my possession in the summer of 2006. I bought it at a local flea market. I had the cassette copy for years but it was fun coming across the vinyl copy...most people don't realize that vinyl albums would have the main cover shot on the front but then on the back of a vinyl album you may have a secondary picture of the artist that typically doesn't get much publicity and so it becomes almost exclusive to the vinyl album. I'll post an image of what the back of the vinyl album looks like further down the blog entry for those who don't own a copy. Earlier I mentioned that several songs ran more than 5 minutes. "The Haircut Song" is one of those recordings. The song is about a man who has several run in's with barbers who end up giving him terrible haircuts. The idea behind the song came from a stand up comic named Mike Neun who received co-writer credit. The album version features Ray's adventures with three barbers while the single release cuts out the second barber visit entirely. Apparently the running time was a bit too long for radio stations. The single hit in September 1985 and eventually made it's way into the Country Top-50. A month later, I Have Returned hit the Country Album chart. Although not released as a single, "The Pirate Song" would be discovered in the following years and it would become one of his popular recordings as a result. That particular song was a parody on Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance with Ray performing the roles of the pirate captain and a feminine pirate who detests the pirate lifestyle entirely. The song is officially titled "The Pirate Song (I Want to Sing and Dance)".

The back of the LP shows Ray, in his General MacArthur attire, looking at a map and trying to figure out exactly where he's "returned" to. The front of the album as you see above shows a serious pose of Ray and company wading through the water in a tableau reminiscent of the famed image of MacArthur and his army arriving off the shores of Leyte in the Philippines during World War Two. The back cover shows that the army waded ashore to a well populated modern-day beach. The credits state that the photography took place in Gulfport, Mississippi. There were other pictures taken during the photo shoot and some of them appear on a photo web-page devoted to the images taken by Slick Lawson. If you're familiar with album credits then you'll recognize Lawson's name as it appeared on just about every Ray Stevens album for at least 2 decades. Here's one of those images. A second single release, an updated recording of "Santa Claus Is Watching You", came along in the winter months of 1985. The single came complete with a picture sleeve of Ray, dressed as Santa, peaking from behind a Christmas tree. The song would be made into a music was Ray's first music video production. The song had originally been released as a single in the early '60s and was along the lines of a children's song. Ray retained the song's title and it's chorus but rewrote the verses entirely. Instead of it being a children's song it now carried a more adult flavor as Ray warns his wife to not be unfaithful since Santa's watching and knows who's being good or bad. The music video takes it a step farther by having the wife's other man turn out to be, you guessed it, Santa Claus! Ray contributed a second holiday song to the music world the same year...he wrote and performed "Greatest Little Christmas Ever Wuz" and it was included on a various artist's collection of Christmas music titled Tennessee Christmas that MCA released.

A third single release arrived in January 1986, the hilarious story of a wrestler and the unfortunate encounter Ray has with him. "The Blue Cyclone" had been around awhile, first recorded by Glenn Sutton, one of the song's writers, and it was issued as a b-side on one of his singles in early 1979, but it's Ray's recording that became the most widely known by far. Timing plays an important role in comedy, any comic will tell you that, and when you marry topical comedy with music a very different kind of timing is even more vital. 1985 had been considered the year of the wrestlers. It was the year the Wrestle Mania event was first put together and so what better way to comment on the wrestling phenomenon than with a laugh out loud, cartoonish story of a hulk of a wrestler who literally beats a person senseless not once, but twice! So, in this case, the timing played a critical role and "The Blue Cyclone" climbed it's way into the Country Top-50 in the early months of 1986. Earlier I mentioned that radio stations wanted a shorter version of "The Haircut Song"...well, "The Blue Cyclone" in it's original form ran at least 10 minutes!! It was broken into two parts on the album. Obviously this recording was way too long and so an edited copy was made for radio stations which trimmed down those 10 minutes or so into a compacted recording that ended up being a little more than 6 minutes. This was still much longer than the average country music recording but yet if you were to cut more out of the song then you'd lose even more of it's humor and so I suppose that's why it remained the way it was and it didn't get edited down further.

The edited copy left out a lot of the detailed information surrounding the build up to the encounter with the wrestler. There were additional lyrics added in to perhaps retain some of the timing of the story. The edited copy would appear in an upcoming compilation album from MCA while the full length recording would continue to be found only on I Have Returned. Other songs found on this LP include "Armchair Quarterback", "Kiss a Pig", and "Punk Country Love".

The LP hit the Country Album chart in mid October of 1985. The album climbed up the chart briskly but it didn't fly up the chart by any stretch of the imagination. The album continued to climb up the charts week after week throughout the rest of 1985 and into 1986. It would make it's way into the would continue to climb up the Top-10 until for one week in March of 1986 it held the #1 spot on the Country Album chart!! After it's one week stay at #1 it would remain on the charts until the fall of ' total it spent almost 1 full year on the Country Album chart, October 1985 through September 1986.

In the summer of 1986 Ray was selected by the readers of Music City News as Comedian of the Year. Without a doubt, Ray's decision to go ahead and market himself as a novelty singer in 1984 was paying off big time. Nobody, including critics and fans alike, could have predicted that he'd have back to back Top-5 Country Albums devoted entirely to novelty songs, with one of those albums going all the way to #1, but yet that's what happened. Sales of his albums had increased...he'd charted frequently with his albums but he was much more of a singles artist...but the move to MCA in 1984 changed all of that. It seemed as if there was more emphasis on album sales. His inventive photo shots were a visual hook on his first series of albums for MCA.

Studio album twenty-three arrived in the late summer of 1986...and we'll take a look at this comedy album in the next Golden LP Series installment. Have your swords and lances ready!!


  1. Hi! I'm the guy on the right holding the rifle. Nice to see the history of this album.

  2. I'm the kid on the beach behind the guy in the red shirt. 1st Dollar I ever earned. Wasn't really sure what was going on at the time other than dad directing the landing craft and having to hang out with some woman that wasn't my mom.

    Thanks for the history.

    1. Wow, I just noticed that link to Slick Lawson's page. That's my dad in the photo on top of the AAV with Ray. He's credited on the back of the album for Landing Craft.


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