RAY STEVENS

Some colossal nerve it took for a guy like Ray Stevens to think he could deliver a raft of childishly silly novelty songs, some bordering on poor taste, then turn 180 degrees with serious, sentimental and sometimes thought-provoking music, teeter-tottering from one type of song to another, achieving success both ways! Sure, many so-called serious artists had one or two humorous tunes in their repertoire. But Ray went off the rails with his strange sense of humor, populating his songs with a comic-strippish cast of characters including a flashy desert nomad, a little lady who wails the blues, a fleet-footed flasher, a yard full of chickens, a teen idol ape and a band with an ape man frontman! In between he protested the practices of tycoon advantage-takers, lamented his weak-in-the-knees romantic tendencies and touched on topics of patriotism, alcoholism and life's daily struggles while insisting the world is a beautiful place.

This one-of-a-kind musical nonconformist was born Harold Ray Ragsdale in the small mill town of Clarkdale, just west of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1939. A fan of all styles of music, he formed a group called The Barons in the mid-'50s, about the time rock and roll was becoming the rage, playing for parties and town events. Immediately after finishing high school he moved to Atlanta, contacted local radio and TV personality Bill Lowery with a demo of "Silver Bracelet," a country-pop ballad he'd written, and within weeks found himself recording, as Ray Stevens, for the Prep label, a subsidiary of Capitol. His ballad wound up on the flip side of his first single, "Rang Tang Ding Dong (I'm the Japanese Sandman)," a cover of a semi-novelty R&B song by The Cellos, whose original on Apollo (penned by the group's bass singer Alvin Williams) became a mid-sized hit that summer of '57, leaving Stevens' version in the dust.

He had one more single release before Prep was scrapped in 1958. Moving to Capitol, his singles ("Chickie-Chickie Wah Wah," "Cat Pants") were gimmicky but very good rock and roll efforts; "School," written by Ray, utilized the "Song of the Volga Boatman" chant to protest the daily grind of going to class. They were clever songs, but there wasn't a hit in the bunch. Lowery had already started his NRC (National Recording Corporation) label (with future stars Joe South, David Houston and Jerry Reed and one bona fide hit, "Robbin' the Cradle" by Tony Bellus) when Stevens came on board with "High School Yearbook a Deck of Cards," a teenage version of "Deck of Cards" (a country hit for T. Texas Tyler in 1948 and pop hit in '59 for disc jockey Wink Martindale) that would have best been left on the shelf.

Ray's third NRC single, "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon" ('King of the Royal Mountie fuzz...'), in the summer of 1960, was a game-changer, a near-hit (it received a decent amount of airplay in eastern and southern cities, at least) taking the humorous approach (including sound effects of northern winds and Ray's husky-dog howls) that would eventually become very familiar to radio listeners. He enrolled in music courses at Georgia State University but dropped out when an offer came from Mercury Records granting him enough freedom to create whatever types of songs he wanted. What resulted was Ray's first top 40 hit, "Jeremiah Peabody's Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills" ('the wonder drug that cures all your ills!'), a novelty tune poking fun at the over-the-top TV drug commercials of the day; it was also, to that point, the longest title in music chart history.

Nashville became home base for Ray Stevens; he played piano on sessions for many pop and country artists and made most of his own recordings there in the years to come. His big breakthrough, the cartoonish novelty "Ahab, the Arab" (pronounced "ay-rab") could have offended many but didn't appear to bring about any reaction besides laughter. Ray's vocal imitations included the song's protagonist ('the sheik of the burnin' sands') speaking in an untranslatable tongue, his camel Clyde (equally indecipherable) and the hysterically-laughing Fatima of the Seven Veils ('with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes and a bone in her nose...'), a listener of the Grand Ole Orpy and reader of Mad magazine. Creativity ran wild, if not exactly on a level with Shakespeare. The single was a top ten smash in the summer of 1962.

"Further More," a rapid-fire breakup song, and "Santa Claus is Watching You," designed to keep kids looking over their shoulders (and featuring an encore performance by camel Clyde replacing Rudolph), rounded out Ray's year. In 1963 he threw off everyone's expectations. "Funny Man" wasn't what its title suggested; the forlorn love song represented a back-and-forth pattern between psychotic and serious that the singer-songwriter was to take for most of his career. A hit came that summer from another source: collaborating with country singer Margie Singleton (wife of Shelby Singleton, a producer at Mercury), he penned "My True Confession," a hit for Brook Benton. Ray resumed his shenanigans with "Hairy the Hairy Ape" (who '...escaped from the city zoo!'), a top 20 hit in July, and "Speed Ball," vividly recounting the adventures of the fastest motorcyclist since the "Terror of Highway 101."

Ray Stevens

The novelties seemingly ran their course over the next two years and Stevens left Mercury for Monument Records, producing some of the label's artists (including teenage newcomer Dolly Parton) and continuing to write songs. He wasn't adverse to tackling outside material; "Party People," a message song by Joe South (a friend from the NRC days), was Ray's first single for the new label in late '65, but by mid-'66 he was back to the three minute audio-cartoon formula with "Freddie Feelgood (And his Funky Little Five Piece Band)," his first single to manage any chart action in three years. There was only one 45 release in 1967 ("Mary, My Secretary") as he focused on writing and producing, consciously putting the amusing antics on the back burner.

Ray's efforts to "go straight" bore fruit with two hits in 1968. "Unwind" juxtaposed a fast-paced '...fight the traffic and the hustle and the bustle of the mob...gotta hurry, can't be late for my job!' with a slowing metronome effect: '...say goodbye to that workday grind, run to you girl and unwind,' a completely different approach from what listeners were accustomed to. "Mr. Businessman," on the other hand, denounced unscrupulous career-driven types ('you can wheel and deal the best of them and steal it from the rest of them...') and landed him back in the top 40. He followed these successes with "Isn't it Lonely Together," though his version was overshadowed by soul singer Robert Knight's cover and a later version by O.C. Smith. He closed the year with "The Great Escape," merging the lighter message of "Unwind" with the heavier protest of "Mr. Businessman."

Apparently satisfied with his acceptance as a serious artist, Ray jumped off the deep end again, lampooning a popular half-century-old character, author Edgar Rice Burroughs' Lord of the Jungle. "Gitarzan" is perhaps the most shrill (with a spot-on imitation of the Tarzan yell and a screechy Jane) and one of the funniest of his recordings, marking a return to the top ten in May 1969; it later garnered him a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male. He followed with a remake of "Along Came Jones," the 1959 Coasters hit written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, adding a wailing "damsel in distress" (his voice) only referred to in the lyrics of the original; the record went top 30 in August.

A lucrative association with Andy Williams began with a few well-received guest appearances on the superstar singer's NBC variety series in early 1970; he signed with Barnaby Records, the label Williams had started for the purpose of releasing the Cadence Records masters (purchased from Cadence founder Archie Bleyer several years earlier) that had recently been expanded to include original artists and material. Stevens triumphed with his joyously schmaltzy "Everything is Beautiful" (the track begins with a childen's elementary school group singing "Jesus Loves the Little Children"), landing his first number one hit in May; he won a Grammy for the song in the same category that had recognized "Gitarzan" the previous year. A few weeks later he hosted a summer replacement series, Andy Williams Presents...Ray Stevens, walking the line between his serious and funny sides. Slapstick skits flourished; singers Lulu and Mama Cass Elliot provided a sense of normalcy as regular performers.

'I'm somewhere in the middle of two extremes...', a line from Ray's politically-conscious 1970 hit "America, Communicate With Me," could also describe his approach to music-making, a zig-zagging uniqueness that fans found fascinating. "Bridget the Midget (The Queen of the Blues)" furthered his flair for foolishness in '71; "All My Trials" (a traditional West Indian song that charted for Dick and DeeDee in '64) and the bubbly, inspirational "Turn Your Radio On" kept things grounded. In 1974 he went to his furthest extreme, satirizing the "streaking" fad of people publicly running nude (and fast, presumably to outrun police). One such streaker crashed the live Academy Awards broadcast on April 2 while host David Niven remained cool and collected; Ray reacted with "The Streak" ('Here he comes (boogedy-boogedy)...'there he goes (boogedy-boogedy)...and he ain't wearin' no clothes!'), hitting the charts less than two weeks later and notching his second number one hit in May.

Other 1970s hits include a remake of Erroll Garner's jazz tune "Misty" (a pop hit for Johnny Mathis in '59) set to a country banjo arrangement; the song was a major hit to the surprise of many and won Stevens his second Grammy, for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist. In 1977 he humorously defiled Glenn Miller's 1939 benchmark hit "In the Mood," chicken-clucking his beak off as The Henhouse Five Plus Too. Perhaps it was the tipping point. Ray Stevens has kept in closer touch with his silly side, spending the latter half of his six decade career recording one wacko track after another.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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Ahab, the Arab Mr. Businessman