May 27, 2019

Ray Stevens: Vinyl at 30...

It's 11:59pm as I begin this blog entry...the final minute of May 26, 2019...and the birthday of a celebrated movie icon, John Wayne. There was a number of on-line celebrations surrounding the birthday but I think the bigger remembrance will happen next month on June 11th. That's the day, in 1979, that he passed it'll mark the 40th anniversary of his passing next  month.

Some 30 years ago Ray Stevens issued an album titled Beside Myself. The album arrived, according to Ray's official webpage, on May 29, 1989 and so we're a couple of days ahead of it's original release date but given yesterday being the birthday of John Wayne I felt it appropriate to give some spotlight to this album. Why? Well, for those that don't have this glorious album, I'll explain that there's a particular song on it that pays tribute to the film career of John Wayne. The song's title, "Marion Michael Morrison", is from the pen of Buddy Kalb. It's the only song on the 10 track album that Ray didn't co-write but being his own music arranger he put his creativity into the execution of the song. It's long been something of a mystery among younger generations and even older ones as to the accurate birth name of John Wayne. There have been writings that state his name at birth as being Marion Mitchell Morrison, Marion Robert Morrison, and Marion Michael Morrison. The song is track three on Beside Myself...and completely different from the two songs that come before and after it on Side One of the album. Musically it channels imagery of the Old West whereas the songs that surround it have a decidedly more jazzy/pop flavor. As of this writing there's been no video surface of Ray performing the song but there's long been written evidence that he sang it on an episode of Hee Haw in 1989. The album, by the way, was his last for MCA Records during his first stay at the label (1984-1989) and it featured a music split of ballads and comedy. Side One features non-comedic, ballad performances while Side Two features comical performances.

Today being Memorial Day it ties into John Wayne's film career as he starred in several films that focused on military conflicts and epic battles. Reportedly the bulk of his films were Westerns set in all time periods but he starred in his fair share of military films. A number of the films and the characters he portrayed are referred to in Ray's "Marion Michael Morrison" recording. "The Fighting Seabees" (1944) gets a mention in the song as does 1942's "The Flying Tigers" (cited as his first war movie), "Back to Bataan" (1945), "The Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949), "The Wings of Eagles" (1957), "The Longest Day" (1962), and "The Green Berets" (1968).

There is a reference to a character named Big Jim McLain in the song. The character is from the 1952 film of the same name in which he plays a member of HUAC, an acronym from the past, which stood for House Un-American Activities Committee. It was devised to investigate anyone in America that came across dis-loyal, subversive, or expressed feelings of fascism and communism. It reached it zenith during the Truman and, later, Eisenhower Administrations as relations between Russia and the United States during that period of time were antagonistic (not unlike today). This period in time is historically referred to as the beginning of The Cold War which led to a Red Scare and the McCarthyism witch hunts. 

In addition to the songs/characters mentioned in "Marion Michael Morrison" there were other war/military films starring John Wayne that weren't mentioned in the song: "They Were Expendable" (1945), "The Flying Leathernecks" (1951), "Operation Pacific" (1951), "The Sea Chase" (1955), and "In Harm's Way" (1965) just to name a few. Something to keep in mind is I'm referencing the John Wayne films that feature branches of the military that utilized mechanized warfare or modern warfare. This doesn't include the number of films in which he played soldiers and leaders of a horse mounted Calvary, for example, nor does it include some of his other Cold War-inspired films such as "Blood Alley" (1955) and "Jet Pilot" (released in 1957 but shot years earlier!) nor a Civil War film from 1969 that he starred in titled "The Undefeated".

I have Beside Myself in vinyl format, cassette format which you can see off to the right, and I have a CD version under a different name, At His Best. The album appeared on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart but none of the commercial singles reached the charts. "There's a Star Spangled Banner", track five, is a full-on Patriotic song that begins with a story of a P.O.W in Beirut and the thing that gets him through the brainwash attempts and torture is his hope of America's military power coming to his rescue and the sight of seeing the American flag waving in the breeze. The song further tells of how the presence of the American flag...the mere sight of it...draws contempt from "fanatical leaders" that plot it's defeat. It's a very stirring performance and one that a lot of fans that have heard it instantly fell in love with. The album kicks off with the harmonica-heavy, bluesy love ballad, "Your Bozo's Back Again", a song upon whose title ties into the cover art seen on the project. The cover art also reflects the fact that music on the album is split between serious Ray Stevens and comical Ray Stevens...and there you see them side by side. Among the comical songs are "I Used To Be Crazy" (track 10) which provides Ray plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills at mimicry. He mimics a couple of iconic celebrities along the way including none other than John Wayne in conversation with Walter Brennan. "The Woogie Boogie" was always funny...and it later became an even funnier music video in 1995 for his direct-to-VHS movie, Get Serious!. The song is about a fictional Indian tribe in Chattanooga (pronounced in the song as 'Chattanoogie'). "Stuck on You" is a comical story revolving around a man's misfortunes after purchasing Instant Wonder Glue and accidentally spilling it. The song from the album that's gotten the most attention and had the longest lasting impact in his career is "I Saw Elvis in a U.F.O.". It became an extremely popular visual performance in concert...with most performances featuring a crew of pink aliens running around on stage (sometimes running in the audiences) and a giant flying saucer hovering above the stage. In Ray's performance of the song on the 1993 VHS, Ray Stevens Live!, he's dressed in a white jump suit as the pink aliens run everywhere and the saucer hovers overhead.

I came across an internet article focusing on John Wayne's appearances in television commercials. I think they're entertaining and you can see a lot of things in the physical performances and the vocal cadences that impersonators and impressionists picked up on and exaggerated for comical effect. If you listen to the commercials with your eyes closed and just listen to him speak you'll realize how uncanny Ray's vocal impression of him happens to be. I've featured articles by writer, Jeremy Roberts, in the past and I'll continue to do so and this is one of those times I've chosen to do can read about John Wayne and the Datril 500 pills, the reaction he received for doing so-called 'lowly' commercial work, and watch commercials for not only for Datril 500 but for those that aired only in California for Great Western Bank. You can read and watch all of that and more in the article by clicking HERE. Off to the left hand side of that page there's a hand clap symbol. If you liked what you've read click that symbol to show that you liked's a sort of thumbs up approval rating but in hand clap form. You can also add comments...and there's also links to other articles he's published that focus on John Wayne's life and career.

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