Criminally, singer Ray Stevens isn’t in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although he had his biggest hits on the pop charts during the 1960s and 1970s, Stevens has always considered Nashville to be home.
Renowned, long-time disc jockey and television personality Ralph Emery considers the musician to be “a creative genius,” and he isn’t the only individual holding that sentiment (Chet Atkins said the same thing on a 1980 tribute special).
Although labeled a novelty artist, Stevens isn’t so easily pigeon-holed. Witness a funky R&B number like “Bridget The Midget,” the message of the gorgeous pop song “Everything Is Beautiful,” the gospel swing of “Turn Your Radio On,” or the country lament found in Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” And yes, this underrated songwriter wrote the first two.
Changes in ’80s radio forced the musician to market his singles towards country stations, and this move paid off in grand fashion. With more emphasis on witty songs, Stevens continued to have hits with “Shriner’s Convention,” “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” “It’s Me Again, Margaret,” and the still-relevant “Would Jesus Wear A Rolex.”
During the past 20 years, Stevens wisely invested in creating music videos for many of his hit songs. Several years were spent in Branson or on the road, but the past decade has seen the singer return to his musical roots. He now releases up to two albums per year on his own Clyde Records, including the unexpected Ray Stevens Sings Sinatra…Say What?? and the lovingly crafted tribute to New Orleans, New Orleans Moon.
I recently sat down with the singer and versatile pianist for an extensive conversation focusing on his entire career. If by some token of misfortune you missed Part Two of this interview (titled “An interview with singer and legendary songwriter Ray Stevens: Behind the music), you’re at the right place, as it can be accessed by clicking on the above link.
The chat continues below as Stevens recalls how he came to write and record one of his most famous songs, a laugh-inducing “The Streak.” We also dive into his back recording catalog, the story behind the bestselling release Comedy Video Classics, and his idea of the perfect day. Don’t forget to visit his official website for all the latest Ray Stevens news.
The Ray Stevens Interview, Part Three (Conclusion)
“The Streak” (1974)
I was on an airplane flying from L.A. to Nashville, and there was a little article in the back of a news magazine about a college student in California who took off his clothes and ran through a crowd naked. They called it “streaking.”
I got home and wrote the song, went in the studio and cut it, and sure enough, it turned out to be a big fad. I guess there were 30 or 40 records released on streaking during that period, but mine was the one that made it. It’s my best-selling record (No. 1 Pop, No. 3 Country).
Most of ‘em weren’t very good; they were just trying to capitalize on the hot topic of the day. I think I had a little more time to put more effort into the songwriting, and I came up with a better piece of material.
“Would Jesus Wear A Rolex” (1987)
It was a good song written by Margaret Archer and Chet Atkins. If there was controversy about that title, I didn’t hear about it. It was very timely, released in April 1987 when the televangelists were getting a lot of heat for being with hookers. They caught one of them taking church funds and using it for his personal gain.
I performed the song twice on The Tonight Show. I remember being very nervous. I don’t perform it today as a general rule, only occasionally.
[Author’s Note: During one of the performances, Stevens’ microphone dropped, but he quickly picked it up without missing a beat. He received much applause from Johnny Carson and the audience at the song’s conclusion.
In addition, “Would Jesus” would become the artist’s last significant chart hit, nearly making the Country Top 40 at No. 41, until the surprise reactionary tune “Osama – Yo’ Mama” in 2002].
“Marion Michael Morrison” (1989)
Buddy Kalb wrote that. I was always a big John Wayne fan. The lyric was very creative, and I thought, What a good song, and it was.
[Author’s Note: The song incorporates many John Wayne movie titles (including ‘Singing Sandy,’ ‘The Fighting Seabees,’ and ‘Big Jake’) and a definitive chorus (“Here’s to you, for all our battles that you fought and won; a true American hero, a straight-shootin’ son of a gun, here’s to you, Marion Michael Morrison”).
This sentimental song appeared on Stevens’ 26th studio album, Beside Myself, in July 1989. Surprisingly, the composition was never released as a single, although the pianist got a terrific audience reception when he performed it on the popular television variety show Hee Haw].
“Mama Sang Bass” (1997)
I called J.D. Sumner and asked him to come help me. He sang “Mama’s” part. We did Nashville Now, and he dressed up like a woman. We had a lot of fun with that song.
It appeared on the Hum It album in September 1997. I thought it would be funny to dress up like Whistler’s Mother on the album cover, because she’s tired of all that whistling.
[Author’s Note: “Mama Sang Bass” was a comic, complete overhaul of Johnny Cash’s hit 1968 single, “Daddy Sang Bass,” written by the talented Carl Perkins].
J.D. Sumner was a legend in gospel music. At the helm of J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, the bass singer backed Elvis Presley on record and in concert from 1971-1977. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sumner has the lowest recorded bass note in history, which he achieved at the end of Elvis’ “Way Down,” published by Ray Stevens Music].
How much of your recording catalog do you own?
I don’t own any of my songs prior to 1964/1965. Around then I started publishing and writing for my own company. Record companies have always taken it upon themselves to put together these compilation albums.
Case in point: in 2005 Collectables Records put out some of my original Barnaby albums from the early ‘70s. They likely got in touch with Barnaby’s licensing agency and made a deal. I don’t pay any attention to them. They don’t consult me, and my thoughts are, “Just send me the royalty check!”
I think there are some royalties that got overlooked. There’s an audit going on right now (a blanket deal for a number of artists), and I think they’ll find some royalties that didn’t get paid. We’ll see.
Are you interested in getting your original albums from the ‘60s and ‘70s reissued?
If it wasn’t a big hit, there’s no need for the song to come out now. I’ve re-recorded some of the more successful ones (I don’t think you can’t tell the difference), and they are on various albums I have on Clyde Records.
I wouldn’t pursue trying to obtain them, unless I had a special situation that presented itself down the road where I wanted to do that. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time.
You eventually built the Ray Stevens Theatre and performed twice a day, six days a week for 1,600,000 fans. What was that experience like?
I built the theatre in Branson, Missouri, in 1991, and it was a very big undertaking. I worked my theatre for six months per year for three years. It wore me out, and I had to get away from it for awhile. Consequently, I rented the theatre out to other people.
I went back and worked there in 2004 and 2005, but in 2006 I decided to sell it to RFDtv. I had a great time in Branson when I returned for six weeks at the Welk Theater some four years later.
How did you come up with the idea of the Comedy Video Classics in 1992?
It was just luck; I thought, Well, let’s give it a shot. Most families in the United States had just bought a VCR, and the hardware was becoming available to everybody at an affordable price. They needed something to play on it, so voila, here we are.
We sold millions of ‘em, and it was a very successful thing. Another milestone formed that year was Clyde Records, my record label. Clyde enabled us to sell the video directly to the fans using an 800 number. I plan to keep using the label as long as I’m still here.
As far as doing another similar DVD project, I don’t know if the market would support it right now. If I thought we could sell any, I would. I think it’s changed. I still make videos; matter-of-fact we shot one on April 8th. It will go on YouTube and iTunes.
We’ll probably compile a project in the near future, featuring my recent videos, and see how we can market it. It’s the way to go right now, but we’ll see how it develops.
How have you adapted to the Internet and music downloading?
You gotta go with the flow. I get advice from people who understand the technological Internet media more than I do, and I listen to their advice. I don’t yet understand computers. I got a bunch of ‘em, but I get other people to use them for me.
There aren’t any record stores anymore. The Internet closed them down because people think music oughta be free, so they download it for free. Consequently, record stores and a lot of the record companies are out of business. It’s not right, it’s stealing, but so far they haven’t figured out how to police it.
The jury’s still out. You don’t see a lot of money from that exposure. Maybe the rewards come through a different door as far as people becoming familiar with the artist on iTunes, Amazon, or YouTube. Therefore, they will buy tickets to a show. A lot of my music is downloaded by the fans.
Is there such a thing as a perfect day?
I truly haven’t thought about a perfect day. I have a lot of days I really enjoy, so I guess those are the days I’m in the studio. I love to be in the recording studio. And I really don’t have any hobbies, except for one. I like to build things. I’m a frustrated architect.
What are your plans for the remainder of the year?
First of all, Spirit of ’76 is the sequel to We The People, and it came out on April 12th. We’re distributing it via Allegro Music (based in Portland, Oregon), and it’s on Clyde Records. I’m appearing on several Fox News talk shows throughout June to promote it, including The O’Reilly Factor and Huckabee, hosted by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
I’ve never really been on the late night shows, except for Johnny Carson. I’m not a big fan of the current late night shows, except for Jay Leno. I was tied up in Branson with my theatre when I had an opportunity to do his show, but I’ve talked to him on the telephone.
Nowadays I’m really having the time to get in the studio, and I love to do that. For awhile, I guess I was on the road too much. There were too many distractions. I curbed my touring schedule in the past few years to devote more time to recording, but I’m planning on touring more later.
The Encyclopedia of Comedy Music (featuring 100 songs from the 1940’s to the present day) has kept me really busy.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! An interview with Stevens’ partner in rhyme, Buddy Kalb, is also available. “From Atlanta to Nashville’s Music Row…” offers an extremely rare look into Kalb’s enormous songwriting contributions to Stevens’ oeuvre, including “Mississippi Squirrel Revival.”
Exclusive Interview: One of Stevens’ contemporaries, Grammy-winning artist B.J. Thomas, is on record as saying, “Memphis was a great city back when Elvis was alive. A very electric, fun place to be…” Responsible for such AM pop standards as “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” and “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” Thomas experienced an intrinsic and ultimately lucrative relationship with Memphis, “Suspicious Minds” songwriter Mark James, vastly underrated producer Chips Moman, and funky studio crew the Memphis Boys during the late ‘60s. In “Back When Memphis Was Electric,” Thomas revisits all these subjects with typical understated grace and also sheds light on getting to sing with none other than the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself.
Further Reading: Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other’s work immensely. However, Elvis swore off watching The Tonight Show on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a “fat and forty” joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words 40 years ago? A viewing of the original televised clip and accompanyingTonight Show transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate “What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis” for the lowdown.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: Country singer T. Graham Brown found major success on Capitol Records in the late ’80s with hit songs such as “Hell and High Water,” “Don’t Go To Strangers,” and the upbeat, groovin’ ode to an elusive girlfriend, “Darlene.” From moving to Nashville to sing demos, being dropped by Capitol after Garth Brooks became the next headline, kicking his alcohol addiction, battling bipolar disorder, ultimately writing the redemptive “Wine Into Water”, and performing at the illustrious Bridgestone Arena tribute to George Jones, “Drowning in Memories with a Country Song’s Best Friend,” the most extensive interview of Brown’s esteemed career, is coming up in the rear view mirror.
Exclusive Interview: John Denver will forever be remembered as the consummate singer-songwriter. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious entertainer possesses an incredible body of work with such landmark recordings as “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Back Home Again,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Annie’s Song,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” all staples of early ’70s AM radio. After a bit of gentle prodding, Chris Nole decided to revisit his memorable relationship with the singer on the commemoration of his 70th birthday. Stick around as Nole discusses how he came to join Denver’s band, what it was like to have a single rehearsal and then debut in front of thousands of fans, Denver’s homespun sense of humor, celebrating Thanksgiving on the road, fishing in Aspen, their final conversation, and much more.