November 18, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 24...

We're now up to what I called the super-hot controversial album from Ray Stevens that hit the market in 1987. The twenty-fourth studio album from Ray was titled Crackin' Up. Now, for those who read Part 23 and didn't go searching for what I'd be writing about, I'll fill the blanks in this blog entry.

Crackin' Up hit amidst a nationwide scandal that was going on in the religious community. A number of televangelists, a name for preachers who used television broadcasts to reach millions of people, were embroiled in various scandals throughout the latter half of the '80s. Some of the scandals made national headlines while some remained locally driven. The studio album was released in June 1987 while it's first single, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?", initially hit in the spring of the year but experienced the bulk of it's commercial success throughout May and June. The single itself wasn't a commentary on any sex scandal or other tabloid-style item but it did question the ethics and motivation behind a lot of televangelists who shamelessly behaved vastly different from their sermons. Several of the lines in the song point to the overall attire seen on many famous televangelists whereas the bulk of the song asks a lot of questions about how would Jesus conduct himself in a modern world given the hypocrisy of those preaching his words and the expensive jewelry dripping from religious leaders, both nationally and locally. When the various religious sex scandals were breaking all over the country, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" suddenly found itself roped into that controversial story even though the basic message of the song had more to do with hypocrisy than any specific sex scandal. The song was being discussed by syndicated newspaper columnists and Ray appeared twice on The Tonight Show and performed the song. The columnists that were name dropping the song were tying the song's message of televangelist material wealth hypocrisy to that of hypocrisy in general. The song's writers are Chet Atkins and Margaret Archer. Chet often commented that the song was written long before the televangelist scandals but yet it would be those very scandals that inevitably caused the song to become a hit. "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" would reach the Top-50 on Canada's Country Singles list and in America it came ever so close to reaching the Top-40 on the Country chart. The single did become a Top-20 Sales hit, though!

Crackin' Up would go on and reach the Top-30 on the Country Album chart more or less on the strength of "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" since the two follow-up singles didn't reach the charts. "Three Legged Man", from the pen of Shel Silverstein, was one of the follow-up releases. This recording is a comical tale about a woman who is stolen away from a man who wears a peg leg. I could go into more details but it would spoil the hilarity for those who haven't heard the song before. I will say it contains a trio of laugh out loud sound effects as we hear of the misadventures of the chase that ensues. A third single release, the much more satirical "Sex Symbols", is a parody of the unlikely duo of Willie Nelson and Julio a few years earlier. Although Ray doesn't do a Willie Nelson impression he instead offers a Julio impression. The song is performed as a 'duet' between Ray and Julio as they sing and talk about the high life and how it feels to be sexy and popular with the women. In the song a recurring gag is the listing of celebrity sex symbols...Julio refers to legitimate sex symbols while Ray offers a list of celebrities not necessarily thought of as 'sex symbols'. It's a cute recording, I think, and one that he used to perform in concert a lot in a parody of a ventriloquist act. He performed the song on a later home video release that I'll write about in a couple of blog entries from now. As mentioned, neither single release reached the Country charts.

Remember in Part 23 of this Golden LP Series I mentioned that a critic or two called this an R-rated album and that it was unsuitable for children? That statement refers to a review I came across a few years ago while scouring the internet for vintage stories on Ray Stevens. I was looking through 1987 news archives and came across a review that commented that Crackin' Up had adult humor and lyrics saturated with double-entendre and wasn't a safe album for the entire family. Basically the critic was lamenting that Ray chose to use a more broader style of comedy on this LP and aside from a couple of zany recordings the overall flavor of the LP was, in the opinion of that critic, not suitable for the entire family (emphasis on children). This is a very funny album in a long list of funny albums from Ray Stevens and I obviously disagree with anyone who labels this as an R-rated, adults only kind of LP. "Cool Down Willard" has some fun with the former weatherman on The Today Show, Willard Scott. Ray sings about the women in his family having huge crushes on Willard to the point where the Grandmother adopts a wild new look in the hopes that Willard will come knocking on the door.

Ray covers "I'm My Own Grandpaw" and it's funnier than the original by Lonzo and Oscar in my opinion. If you've ever heard the original it's performed, to my ears at least, as a run on sentence with hardly any pause for musical accompaniment or comic effect. I assume this was done on purpose so a listener wouldn't actually be able to have much time to sit and think about the lyrics. Ray's version includes pauses, music interludes, and a much more lively vocalization. I think the original became a huge hit due to the clever writing and the convoluted story where, I imagine, listeners in the late '40s continued to request the song over and over just so they could attempt to comprehend the family tree being described. The song, as mentioned, was performed originally as a run-on sentence and maybe by deliberately performing the song that way the artists and label knew it would cause repeated requests from radio listeners or repeated plays on jukeboxes to understand the lyrics completely. In those days jukebox plays, single sales, and radio requests factored in more heavily than actual radio airplay when it came to determining the popularity of a song.

"Doctor, Doctor Have Mercy on Me" is a satirical comment on the medical profession as Ray sings about the notorious experiences many people have when visiting their local doctor's office. It's uncommon for a patient to arrive and see their doctor within the span of 10 minutes. Even if you show up early, the doctor is still running late. "The Ballad of Cactus Pete and Lefty" is a comical tale about a gruff voiced homeless drifter and his pet sidewinder, Lefty, who travel the Southwestern portion of America in search for wealth. Cactus tells various comical stories of his adventures with Lefty, all with an obvious comical punch line. Lefty is 'heard' through a series of rattler effects, reacting to many of the tall tales that Cactus spins. I'd only seen Ray perform this song once and it was on an episode of The Riders Radio Theater, a show that used to air on The Nashville Network hosted by the cowboy group, The Riders in the Sky, based on their public radio show. Woody Paul, if my memory is right, operated Lefty on the TV show.

Elsewhere on the LP we have "The Flies of Texas Are Upon You" which, as you can tell, has a title based on another phrase, 'The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You'. In Ray's recording we hear about a guy who falls in love with a woman whom he thinks has a lot of money based upon the way the woman described her father's business. To Ray's horror he ends up being a garbage collector rather than a rich businessman. "Gourmet Restaurant" is a satirical comment on just about any upper-scale, fine dining experience when it's happening to someone clearly out of place there. Ray's character takes things literally and is surprised when he's given food that's on fire and raw. The album's closing track, "The Day That Clancy Drowned", is a none too subtle account of a worker in a brewery who slips into a vat of alcohol and eventually drowns...but not before having the time of his life in one of the most hilarious send-offs a worker could have.

Coming up next in the Golden LP Series we take a look at a second compilation project released on Ray in 1987. This time around the song selections were more contemporary but there were still classics being represented as well.


  1. I'm enjoying your survey of Ray's albums. While the RCA and MCA has some great material, I think his pre-RCA work is his best overall. If I go to pull an LP to play on the turntable, it is almost always from that "era" rather than the later material.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I started this basically because it's the Golden Anniversary of "Ahab the Arab", marking 50 years since it's 1962 release, and so I decided to take a look at every studio album Ray's issued since 1962 with a few extra compilation LP's thrown into the equation.


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