Born Harold Ray Ragsdale, 24 January 1939, Clarkdale, Georgia
Singer / songwriter / comedian / multi-instrumentalist / producer / arranger / music publisher / TV star / entrepreneur
One of the most popular novelty artists of all time, Ray Stevens is enjoying a remarkably long career in the music business. His brand of humour seems to transcend generations. Ray Ragsdale began piano lessons at age six. Ten years later, in 1955, the Ragsdale family moved to Atlanta, where Ray started working as a DJ and performing in a small combo. It was Atlanta publishing giant Bill Lowery who introduced him to the music business, suggested he change his name and got him signed to Capitol in the spring of 1957. Ray's first record was a cover of the Cellos' hit "Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman)", which came out on Capitol's subsidiary Prep. Bill Lowery started his own record label, NRC Records, in early 1958 and formed a house band that included Ray on piano and Jerry Reed on guitar. The very first release on NRC (001) was Paul Peek's "The Rock-A-Round"/"Sweet Skinny Jenny", which featured the twin pianos of Ray Stevens and the legendary Esquerita. As soon as their Capitol contracts ran out, Lowery signed both Ray and Jerry Reed to NRC. By this time, Ray was studying music at Georgia State University, majoring in theory and composition. Inspired by the novelty songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Ray recorded "Sergeant Preston Of the Yukon" for NRC in 1960. It bubbled under the Hot 100 at # 108 and was a pointer for the future.
In 1961, following the bankruptcy of NRC, Ray signed a contract with Mercury Records and his first single for the label, "Jeremiah Peabody's Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green And Purple Pills", was an immediate success, peaking at # 35 on the Billboard pop charts. This heralded the string of novelty songs that would be his forte for the next three decades. His third Mercury single, "Ahab the Arab" (# 5), won him a gold disc in 1962 and was followed by more minor hits in the same vein, with backing from the finest session men in Nashville (where Ray now also resided). Late in 1965, after two years without a hit, Ray switched to Monument Records, where Fred Foster gave him the chance to work in the studio as a producer and arranger. Among the artists Ray worked with were Dolly Parton, B.J. Thomas and Waylon Jennings. Though he never stopped doing novelties, Ray also recorded very serious material and scored hits with it as well, first with "Unwind" (# 52, 1968) and then with the controversial "Mr. Businessman" (# 28, also 1968), a caustic attack on the morality and lifestyle of American big business. These records (along with some earlier B-sides for Mercury) showed that he was also a fine "straight" vocalist. But it was the novelty "Gitarzan" that returned him to the Top 10 (# 8) in 1969, soon followed by a remake of the Coasters' "Along Came Jones" (# 27).
Appearances on Andy Williams's variety show led to Stevens signing with the singer's Barnaby label in 1970. His first 45 for the company was a philosophical pop song and probably his most famous composition. "Everything Is Beautiful" went all the way to # 1 and won Ray a Grammy for Best male pop vocal performance. The Barnaby period (1970-76) was very successful for him. Not only did he score two # 1 hits (the second one was the topical novelty "The Streak" in 1974, also a # 1 in the UK), but his records now also showed up on the country charts and various European hitparades. Ray also had his own TV show for some time.
An outstanding country adaptation of Erroll Garner's "Misty" (# 3 country, # 14 pop, 1975) won him his second Grammy. Later recordings for Warner Bros, RCA and MCA were still a mix of straight vocals and comedy songs. Bizarre but not unsuccessful (Top 40 in US and UK) was a chicken-clucking version of "In the Mood", which was credited to Henhouse Five Plus Too (Warner, 1977).
"I Need Your Help Barry Manilow" (1979) was his last charting pop single, but on the country charts the hits still kept coming for a few years (f.i. the novelties "Shriner's Convention", 1980, and "Mississippi Squirrel Revival", 1985). In 1988 Ray formed his own label, Clyde Records, named after the camel in "Ahab the Arab". One of his signings was his own daughter, Suzi Ragsdale, a successful songwriter.
In 1991 Stevens opened an entertainment center and resort area in Branson, Missouri, performing there through 1993. Next he started selling video classics of his hit songs through direct TV marketing. The 9/11-inspired "Osama Yo' Mama" returned him to the country Top 50 in 2002. Fast forward now to his latest, controversial album, released in April 2010 : "We the People", a 22-track "patriotic" anti-Obama CD, which is available on Spotify (and six videos also on YouTube, like the title song - now the anthem of the Tea Party movement - and "Come To the USA", "Caribou Barbie", "God Save Arizona" and "The Global Warming Song"). The music is still first-rate ; as for the lyrics, well judge that for yourself. Curiously, there is also a remake of Ray's 1968 hit "Mr. Businessman", the sentiment of which is completely at odds with the unashamedly right-wing spirit of the rest of the album.
At the age of 71, Ray Stevens is back in the spotlight, but the new attention is political rather than musical.
- Official website: http://www.raystevens.com
- YouTube : there are at present (September 2010) some 1870 hits for Ray Stevens. Ahab the Arab (complete version*) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99C06OJ1TnY
* "Ahab the Arab" was originally four minutes long, which virtually excluded airplay in 1962. The released single was edited down to 2:47 and ends, rather foolishly, with Ahab and Fatima doing the twist, while the climax (with a heroic role for Clyde the camel) is yet to come.
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