January 24, 2017

It's a Ray Stevens Birthday...

Hello one and all...today is the birthday of our fearless Entertainer, Ray Stevens. Born in Clarkdale, Georgia as Harold Ragsdale on January 24, 1939 the Georgia-born talent eventually became known all over the world as Ray Stevens. Music, one could say, has long been the life of Ray Stevens, too. His first recordings came along in 1957 on a small label called Prep Records. In my previous blog entry I made mention of the fact that 2017 marks Ray's 60th year in the music business...and he turns 78 today. Yes, if you do the math it's a fascinating tidbit of information. It means that 60 of Ray's 78 years on Earth have been spent in the music industry in some form or another. Given such a youthful start in the industry and being talented as a piano player (among several other instruments) it didn't take long for his presence on recording sessions to become something of a habit. He enrolled in Georgia State with the idea of studying music but during his college years he remained active as a recording artist on a series of record labels (Capitol, NRC, and eventually Mercury). A series of recordings from Ray hit the market...everything from love ballads aimed at teenagers to rhythm and blues...one obscure recording during this period happened to be an off the wall effort called "Cholly Wolly Chang", a blend of Hong Kong culture set to rock music. Ray's early recordings (1957-1960) can be found on CD but you'll have to dedicate yourself to finding the various CD's available that contain those early recordings. There is a CD from just a couple of years ago that includes the obscurities from that period and it's called Ahab, Jeremiah, Sgt. Preston and more...The Early Ray Stevens. The CD hit in 2014 and it's available on AMAZON. The site states that there's only 7 copies left and so if you're a devoted fan of Ray Stevens but haven't heard some his recordings from 1957-1960 then get that CD as soon as possible!!

As mentioned in the previous paragraph Ray recorded for a series of labels under the guidance of Bill Lowery. Prior to Ray's debut on vinyl in 1957 he had become something of a local celebrity thanks in part to radio station WGPC. In his memoir, Ray Stevens' Nashville, he recalls the time that he was promised a slot on the radio station on the condition that he find a female co-host. The radio program was described by Ray as a kind of sock hop and his role was simply to play rock music and rhythm and blues songs currently on jukeboxes nationally and locally. For those curious you can read the memories of the co-host, Mary Dale Vansant, by clicking this LINK. The link takes you to Albany High Times and their page devoted to that sock hop radio program she and Ray hosted. He began recording for the NRC label in the middle part of 1959 following brief stints on Capitol (1958) and Prep (1957). A recording for NRC in 1960 nearly became a national hit...a novelty called "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon". The single began appearing on the national radar and had climbed a special chart called Bubbling Under the Hot 100. This chart listed specific single releases that had began to break all over the country but hadn't obtained the sales requirements necessary to move onto the "big chart" as they called it. Ray had to take his recording off the market (well, NRC did) after the copyright holders of the Sgt. Preston character objected to the use of their property in the recording.

Ray's first Hot 100 hit arrived in 1961. For those that don't follow music popularity charts the Hot 100 is the name of the chart that lists the best-selling songs across the country in all formats. Chart methodologies have come and gone since then but in 1961 the chart was still largely being based on sales. The higher the sales the more likely pop music stations would play the song...and the airplay exposure, in theory, would increase sales even more. Ray often recalls that his near-hit with Sgt. Preston inspired him to try novelty songs and see if that would do the trick and get him national attention. Prior to that next release, however, he switched record labels. He departed NRC for the much more commercially successful and mainstream label, Mercury. Still living in Georgia in 1961 his debut for Mercury happened to be a novelty song...with a title that tested the memory of many disk jockeys and listeners and, also, tested their breathing control, too. The song's title?? None other than "Jeremiah Peabody's Polyunsatured Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills". The song is appropriately abbreviated by many of us fans and we refer to it simply as "Jeremiah Peabody's Green and Purple Pills". The single hit the Hot 100...and climbed into the radio-driven Top-40! It opened the door...but the follow-up, "Scratch My Back", failed to scratch the charts, sad to say. The song is highly entertaining as is it's B-side...his version of "When You Wish Upon a Star". Ray moved to Nashville, Tennessee in January 1962...and he began a lengthy association with Shelby Singleton. Ray eventually became an A and R man for the label. In this role he found songs for artist's to record, assisted in production of the recordings, and as a session musician he played on other artist's records. One of his first sessions at Mercury included his recording of "Ahab the Arab". The song turns 55 this year. On the same day he also played on the recordings of "Wooden Heart", a song recorded by Joe Dowell and the massive Leroy Van Dyke hit, "Walk on By".

"Ahab the Arab" became a million selling Top-5 pop hit and it crossed over to the Rhythm and Blues chart and in the summer of 1962 it made him a star overnight as the saying goes. The song inspired an assortment of properties. His music publishing company had the name Ahab Music Company (BMI) until the mid 1970s when it changed to the more business-sounding Ray Stevens Music (BMI). Ray has several music publishing outlets but the bulk of the songs are published under Ray Stevens Music. The camel in "Ahab the Arab", Clyde, became the name of his personal record label in 1988. In 1991 he opened up a theater in Branson, Missouri. The design was inspired by the desert imagery mentioned in "Ahab the Arab" and throughout the venue one could see imagery that could've come directly out of Arabian Nights or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Clyde the camel became his logo. Clyde Records gained it's first taste of profit in 1992/1993 during the VHS explosion in Ray's career. After the major record labels refused to finance/promote a home video from Ray titled Comedy Video Classics he took matters into his own hands and released the VHS on his own label, Clyde Records. This home video led to other home video releases...sold directly to customers through television commercials and print advertisements. By the mid 1990s he had sold more than 3,000,000 home videos through direct marketing. Comedy Video Classics, Ray Stevens Live!, and Get Serious! are landmarks in home video marketing. Clyde Records became something of a stand-by for Ray throughout the '90s and 2000s. If he happened to not be signed to a major label but wanted to release new music for the fans he'd simply release the music through mail-order via his fan club and later, after the fan club dissolved, he'd sell his music through his own website.

Some of the career milestones for Ray Stevens include record, single, and home video sales of a combined 20 million. 2 Grammy awards: a 1971 win for "Everything is Beautiful" and a 1976 win for "Misty". 3 Gold Singles: "Gitarzan" (1969), "Everything Is Beautiful" (1970), and "The Streak" (1974). Numerous Gold and Platinum albums and home videos (throughout the '80s and '90s). The fan-voted Music City News Country Awards honored Ray as Comedian of the Year for 9 consecutive years (1986-1994). In 2012 he released a 9-CD box set, The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music, a beautiful salute to comedy and novelty songs both past and present. Ray performs his versions of many, many, many novelty songs made popular by other artists plus he offers some of his own recordings, too. He hosted a summer television series for Andy Williams in 1970. In the latter half of 2014 he started hosting Ray Stevens' Nashville on the RFD cable channel. The series ran on RFD for a season and a half. In late 2016 the series became associated with PBS and this month (January 2017) it started popping up on scattered PBS stations across the country. The program's title has changed to Ray Stevens' CabaRay Nashville

In 2009 Ray added another dimension to his career...he began to release music video content on-line...specifically on the video hosting site, YouTube. At first he issued music videos from his past but in late 2009 he released a new recording, "We the People", and it's music video took off in a tremendous way. He became hot on the internet...releasing a string of music video content taking jabs at the Obama Administration and becoming a headliner at several Tea Party and Conservative events. Oh yes...saying that he added political humor to his career in 2010 is a huge understatement...the YouTube music videos he released during that time period, 2010-2013, became viral video sensations. Nearly all of them have obtained more than a million unique views (some topping more than three million!). At some point this year (2017) Ray's entertainment venue, CabaRay, is set to open. It's still under construction on River Road in Nashville. His television program, according to some reports, is eventually going to start taping at that venue and he's moving his offices and recording equipment from his longtime studio in Nashville to the CabaRay venue.

Happy Birthday to the one and only Ray Stevens!! May he forever remain creative, compelling, unpredictable, and entertaining!! Here's also hoping his television series comes to a PBS station in my area! Check your local PBS stations and see if you are receiving the program!

January 1, 2017

Ray Stevens and the New Year: 2017...

Happy New Year to all of you fans of Ray Stevens!! Much like in year's past I usually start off each new year with a blog entry centering around the past, present, and future in the career of Ray Stevens. Of course I don't spend too much on the future due to the fact that you can't predict the future...especially when it concerns the unpredictable Ray Stevens...so, let's take a look at some songs celebrating anniversary milestones...

The milestone that I want to focus on the most in this specific blog entry centers around 2017 marking the 60th anniversary of Ray's debut on records. Oh yes...you read that correctly...2017 marks Ray's Diamond Anniversary in the music business. Admittedly those early recordings (1957-1960) carry a regional/local flavor without the later polished production values that became synonymous with his recordings but everyone has a starting point...but in saying that it doesn't mean that those early recordings are no good or not entertaining...they just happen to be recordings without a whole lot of production put into them.

The recording that's singled out as his first commercial release arrived in 1957 on the Prep label, a subsidiary of Capitol Records. Given my weakness for wordplay Ray's Diamond Anniversary revolves around a song called "Silver Bracelet". The song, penned by Ray, is all about a trinket that high school kids carried around with the name of their boyfriend/girlfriend listed on it. In the recording you'll hear the heavy use of rhythm and blues and backup singers that dominated a lot of Ray's single releases in the late '50s. Although the song is all about a "Silver Bracelet", something positive and uplifting in a young relationship of the time, you can't help but sense that there's a hidden concern of upcoming break-up due to the line "oh, don't ever lose my bracelet...my Silver Bracelet...". A fellow fan of Ray Stevens that I've known of, on-line, for 10 years or longer posted a video montage clip of "Silver Bracelet" on YouTube back in April of 2011. I've been on-line since 2002...back then I happened to be on a Web-TV...I didn't get onto a personal computer until sometime in 2005 or 2006. So it's hard to tell exactly at what point I first interacted, on-line, with this person but it's been nearly 10 years. Here's the video he put together of "Silver Bracelet" in 2011...

The B-side of "Silver Bracelet", for those curious, is a novelty recording. Although not necessarily laugh out loud funny or bizarre it's an offbeat recording...and in those days music critics and radio DJ's collectively referred to those kinds of recordings as being 'novelty' rather than 'serious' or 'thought provoking'. The B-side is "Rang Tang Ding Dong (I'm the Japanese Sandman)". As mentioned Ray's early recordings featured a heavy dose of rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and frenetic arrangements and vocalizations indicative of the era in pop music overall. Ray's early recordings can be found on a CD titled Ahab, Jeremiah, Sgt. Preston and more... The Early Ray Stevens on Jasmine Records. I gave a lot of space to that particular CD during the lead-up to release and on release day back in 2014. You can find that CD at Amazon and other on-line retail outlets.

Having a year marking your Diamond Anniversary as a professional recording artist is amazing enough but 2017 will also mark the re-launch of Ray's television program. Previously airing on RFD-TV as Ray Stevens' Nashville the program is being re-launched on PBS this month as Ray Stevens' CabaRay Nashville. As mentioned in a couple of previous blog entries there's a PBS affiliate in my area that has Ray's television series listed on their site but there's not been any information posted on it's debut date. The publicity for the program states that it's to start airing on PBS, nationally, starting in January 2017. I'm anxiously awaiting for the moment to arrive in which his television program begins to air. He produced more than a season's worth of television programs for RFD-TV. His production cycle happened to be all his own, too. Rather than taping 26 episodes a season and then having those episodes rerun to fill a 52 week calendar year, as is the norm all across commercial television, Ray's series would air first-run episodes for 13 weeks. This would then be followed by 13 weeks of repeats. Then, at week 27 in the television season, when almost all of the television programs would be entering their 26 week long rerun period, Ray would emerge with 13 first-run episodes...and those episodes would then repeat to fill out a 52 week calendar year.

Returning to the past again...2017 marks anniversary number 55 for good ol' "Ahab the Arab"...the 1962 hit from Ray Stevens in which he built a much bigger career. For Ahab not only became a Top-10 pop and Rhythm and Blues hit it would eventually lead to logo's and career trademarks for Ray over the next 5 decades. "Ahab the Arab" is the song that made Ray Stevens 'a star overnight' as the saying goes. Although Ahab wasn't his first comical or first novelty recording it became the song that at long last created national awareness for Ray and sent him to places outside the regional areas of the South (Ray was born in Clarkdale, Georgia as Harold Ragsdale on January 24, 1939). The Ahab recording became a million selling hit and his second Top-40 pop hit for Mercury Records following 1961's "Jeremiah Peabody's Green and Purple Pills".

An album turning 20 this year, Hum It, from 1997 features 9 comical recordings and one seriously infectious homage to the Old South...notable among those recordings happen to be "Too Drunk To Fish", the official music video from 1997 became a hit on YouTube more than 10 years later...November 2009 marks it's YouTube debut; "Virgil and the Moonshot", a send-up of NASA and coinciding with all the hype and celebration surrounding the Apollo-13 movie...the 1997 music video hit YouTube in May 2011; "Mama Sang Bass" is a parody of the Johnny Cash country music classic "Daddy Sang Bass". Ray's recording features J.D. Sumner in the vocal role of Mama. The song is about hormonal imbalances. The non-comical but still upbeat recording found on Hum It is "I'll Be in Atlanta". It paints a picture with words concerning a fictional but modern-day twist on the lives of Rhett, Scarlett, Ashley, Prissy, Melanie, Frank and all the rest as it's as much a salute to the classic film, Gone with the Wind, as is it a salute to the Dixieland music sounds of the South. The music arrangement is definitely Dixieland inspired.

Later this month Ray Stevens reaches 78...on January 24th. As time gets closer to that date I'll be posting a birthday blog entry...and perhaps by then we'll have more detailed information about his re-launched television series and it's PBS airing. As always I'm looking forward to what the new year holds in store in the career of Ray Stevens. Perhaps a much anticipated CD, one that's to feature a specific music genre that he spoke about nearly 5 years ago, is to be forthcoming this year!?! He spoke of a CD in the works a couple of years ago and even issued a music video of one of the songs from this forthcoming CD as a teaser but so far a full-length CD of music hasn't emerged. Is 2017 going to be the year it arrives?? Stay tuned...