Singer and songwriter Ray Stevens remains a busy man in the second decade of the 21st century. With a long and varied recording career that began in the late 1950s, the singer unleashed The Encyclopedia of Comedy Music, a mammoth 100-song box set featuring songs going all the way back to Stevens’ childhood up to the present day.
Stevens can be seen on RFD-TV’s weekly Ray Stevens’ Nashville or in person touring America. Fans get to hear their favorites including “Gitarzan,” “Everything Is Beautiful,” “Unwind,” “Ahab The Arab,” and “Shriner’s Convention,” to name but a few. In fact, the legendary musician wrote every one of those hit singles. Some were serious, while others were utterly hilarious.
Folks may not realize it, but Stevens started out as a pop singer with R&B leanings. For the first 12 years of his career, country radio ignored him, even though he constantly recorded with the esteemed Nashville A-Team. Today he is best known for his novelty recordings, and he is a master of that genre.
Stevens kindly agreed to share his memories about many of his hit novelty and serious singles in an exclusive behind the music conversation.
But first, if you missed Part One of my interview with Stevens, catch up by visiting: “Ray Stevens: Still Trying To Figure Out What He’s Gonna Do When He Grows Up.” In it, the musician speaks about growing up in South Georgia, his lean years in Atlanta on Prep Records, his friendship with “Guitar Man” Jerry Reed, record production, why he enjoys Nashville, and playing trumpet on an Elvis Presley recording session.
The Ray Stevens Interview, Part Two
You’ve had many singles in your long career. Is there one you were especially disappointed about that didn’t become a major hit?
“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” by Kris Kristofferson. I didn’t have the image to sell that lyric. People didn’t picture Ray Stevens having a hangover on Sunday morning.
Kris is a super nice guy. Back in those days, Kris was just getting started. That was one of the first records he got on one of his songs. Johnny Cash and Kris were big buddies, and John later had a monster hit on it a year later.
Did you pass up recording a song that became a monster hit for another artist?
I originally passed on “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” in 1969, so they gave it to B.J. Thomas. I thought “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” would be a big hit, and I’d just finished recording it.
I knew if I cut “Raindrops,” I’d have to postpone “Sunday Mornin.” I didn’t want to do that because I was afraid somebody else would cut it and release it first. That was one of the dumbest things I ever did, but there you go.
Sometime I play it live. I’ll tell the audience, “Here’s a song that I turned down,” and I’ll get out my ukulele and start playing the opening chords. The crowd always goes, “Ohhhh.”
I’m curious about the origins of some of your hit recordings. Let’s start at the beginning of your career…
“Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” (1960)
Bill Lowery was the publisher, and I was the writer. That song was taking off like a big hit and would have been, but the King Features Syndicate had their lawyers send us a letter saying we had to pull it off the market and that we didn’t have the right to use their character in a song.
It never had a chance to really blossom. I guess they were trying to protect their property. I don’t blame them, but I think they were a little short-sighted, but who knows. That was the only time I had any trouble like that.
[Author’s Note: ‘Sergeant Preston’ was an adventure series that delighted viewers every week with its tales of a Canadian Mountie and his trusted sled dog who fought bad guys during the 1890s North-West Gold Rush. It originally began on radio in 1938 and continued its highly successful twenty-year run on television and in comic books].
“Ahab the Arab” (1962)
I wrote it the night before the session in desperation. I had a session scheduled for 10 p.m. I had my material picked, but I didn’t like any of it. We cut it first on the session, and it came out that spring and became my first big hit (No. 5 on the Billboard pop chart) on Mercury Records.
I played piano and sang it. Shelby Singleton was my producer at the time, and he was wide open to any ideas I had.
“Freddie Feelgood (And His Funky Little Five Piece Band)” (1966)
I wanted to make vocals that sounded like instruments. I don’t remember anybody I can specifically point to having heard or inspired most of those sounds on my records. Perhaps subconsciously I did hear something, but to this day I don’t recall anyone else doing it except me.
[Author’s Note: “Freddie Feelgood” was released as a single in June 1966, and it is a fine example of R&B recorded in a city where country music is king. Surprisingly, it barely entered the pop chart at No. 91. Stevens’ electric piano is a highlight of the track, notwithstanding his amazing impersonations of a “funky little five piece band.”].
“Mr. Businessman” (1968)
I wrote that in 1968, and it’s still relevant today. I do it onstage, and I dedicate it to Bernie Madoff [laughs].
[Author’s Note: “Mr. Businessman” was a departure for the singer when released as a single in July 1968. A serious pop song that examines “the suits” who are only in the game for the money, the number vaulted Stevens back into the Top 30 after he had spent several years producing and arranging other artists, including Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton].
Bill Justis was a saxophone player, good musician, arranger, and friend of mine who had a big hit called “Raunchy.” One morning during breakfast, we were in L.A., and he said, “I’ve got a great title for you, and you oughta write it.”
I wrote “Gitarzan,” and I gave him a piece of the song for the title idea. Billy Sanford played the guitar and a great drummer named Jerry Carrigan was on drums. It came out on Monument Records and became a big hit.
[Author’s Note: Indeed, it was Stevens’ biggest hit since “Ahab” six years earlier, hitting an impressive No. 8 on the pop chart in March 1969].
“Along Came Jones” (1969)
I was a huge fan of The Coasters, so I covered their original version. It was another pretty big hit that came from that same album, Gitarzan.
[Author’s Note: Featuring a cool sax solo and Stevens’ inimitable impersonation of “Sweet Sue” (Help! He’s grabbin’ me! Here we go again, tying me up, same routine. He’s throwing me on the railroad track! Ohh, here comes the train!) “Along Came Jones” was another Top 30 hit for the comedy titan].
“Everything Is Beautiful” (1970)
It’s my best-known song (No. 1 on both the Pop and Adult Contemporary charts, plus Top 40 country). I was signed to host Andy Williams’ summer variety show, Andy Williams Presents Ray Stevens, on NBC in 1970.
I wanted a song that could be used as the theme for that show, so I chained myself to the piano. Three days later, I came up with “Everything Is Beautiful.” I perform it at all my shows today.
“America, Communicate With Me” (1970)
The follow-up to “Everything Is Beautiful,” it very well could have been my first political record. I’ve always been interested in current events and the policies of our country. I kinda halfway paid attention to politics during my early years, but the older you get, the more you realize it’s very important to pay attention to who gets elected. They can ruin the country.
“Bridget the Midget (The Queen of the Blues)” (1971)
I just wanted to do a song with little voices, so I did it. I love R&B. Now that you ask, I’ve never thought of doing a straight-up R&B album.
[Author’s Note: A wild R&B ditty with pounding piano and bass, “Bridget” was a resounding, unexpected success in the UK, a No. 2 success story. Lines such as “Well she may be small, just two feet tall, but if you give her half a chance she’ll pin you to the wall; she’s a little show-stopper, you’re gonna have a ball, she can sing, she can dance, she can really do it all” easily indicate Stevens’ gifted songwriting abilities].
I wrote it in Sydney, Australia; I was over there for three weeks, and I was tired of being in Sydney. A lot of people seemed to like it, and I think it was a good song [Author’s Note: A mini masterpiece that more folks should discover, “Nashville” was unfairly neglected by record buyers when released as a single in June 1973, only going to No. 37 on the country chart. “Nashville” truly proclaims why the city is a music mecca, and as the lyric says, “My heart keeps going home to Nashville, that’s the only place for me”].
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! “Here He Comes, Boogity Boogity, There He Goes…” is up next. In the finale of the Ray Stevens interview, the pianist extraordinaire dishes the dirt on some of his most popular latter-day recordings, including “The Streak,” “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex,” “Marion Michael Morrison,” and “Mama Sang Bass.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Jordanaire Ray Walker recorded and performed in concert with nearly every country artist imaginable, including Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and Buck Owens. Of course, rock and roll fans recall the Jordanaires’ work with Rick Nelson and Elvis Presley. In a 2011 article written by this writer, the genial bass singer recalled what it was like to sit front row center during an Elvis recording session. Things got pretty crazy when the “Alabama Wild Man”, Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers. Visit the following article, “Bass Maestro Ray Walker Evokes Sizzling Nashville Nights With Elvis and Jerry Reed,” for the complete lowdown.
To connect via social media with journalist Jeremy Roberts, visit Twitter (@jeremylr) orFacebook.
Exclusive Interview: One of my proudest moments as a working journalist was getting to spend an hour conversing with the late American treasure Merle Haggard about his storied career. In “Still Holding His Mud: A Day in the Life of ‘Struggling’ Guitarist Merle Haggard,” the ink slinger waxes nostalgic about learning to play both the fiddle and guitar as a poor but blessed nine-year-old Bakersfield kid in the aftermath of World War II, if he still has those crucial instruments gathering dust in a closet somewhere, raising a Fender Telecaster maestro at the dawn of the 21st century, actually receiving inspiration for a song while sauntering towards a London concert stage, his patented songwriting formula, losing anonymity, and whether stage fright can be conquered.
Further Reading: “Some people just see Bobbie Gentry as this girl from the Mississippi backwoods or delta. She was brilliant when it came to writing and her creative self.” The mother of Jim Stafford’s first child, the “Ode to Billie Joe” chanteuse was astounded to learn that a fellow singer-songwriter could have such a nefarious recording and publishing contract that yielded paltry royalty checks to boot. In April 1978 the sophisticated siren debuted a fresh Las Vegas engagement entitled “Southern Nights” at the Aladdin Hotel. Gentry first laid eyes on her soon to be third husband, who was chosen to open each elaborately staged show, during rehearsals. You’ll have to click here for the finale of the heretofore untold story.
Further Reading No. 2: The Pointer Sisters effortlessly blended sweet, gospel-laden harmonies on a plethora of pop nuggets during the ’70s and ’80s including “Fairytale,” “I’m So Excited,” “He’s So Shy,” and “Slow Hand.” Based on a true story about Anita Pointer’s illicit affair with a married KSAN radio deejay in San Francisco, the jilted country saga within “Fairytale” apparently connected with listeners, becoming the Pointer Sisters’ second hit. To acquire further insight on how it opened doors for the harmonically gifted quartet by securing them a spot on the the illustrious Grand Ole Opry, spurred in part by a faithful Elvis cover, consider investigating a newly written article exploring the matter entitled “Inside ‘Fairytale,’ the Pointer Sisters’ Defiant Country Kiss-Off Covered by Elvis Presley.”
- Further Reading No. 3: Cherokee Cowboy Ray Price was an undisputed titan of 20th century country music, melding an indomitable synthesis of hardcore honky tonk and Western swing that kept the charts bursting for over 30 years. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, and a host of contemporary performers clearly owe a huge debt of gratitude to Price. One of his performances that inexplicably slipped under the radar is “Rose Colored Glasses,” released at the height of the suave troubadour’s career in 1965. A special feature, “Deep Country Cut of the Day…,” explains exactly what you’ve been missing.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: “Hello Mary Lou” artist Rick Nelson’s youngest child, Sam, had a complicated relationship with his dad. While he recognized that his famous father loved him, they rarely had a chance to see each other due to drawn out, often nasty divorce proceedings. Just when it seemed like things were getting back to relative normalcy, Rick was inexplicably gone forever. Sam was only 11 years old. Now manager of his grandparents’ estate and a fine musician, Sam has broken his silence to remember what it was like to grow up the son of a deceased rock ‘n’ roll star in the touching “Too Scared to Fly: Sam Nelson’s Musical Odyssey to His Legendary Father.”
*****For more high-profile interviews, thought-provoking features, and stunning photography delivered straight to your inbox, CLICK HERE to receive your free subscription to Jeremy Roberts’pop culture column. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thank you.
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2011. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Do not copy or paste the article text—please share the URL instead. Headlines with links are also acceptable. Posting any links on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.