Singer-songwriter Ray Stevens remains a driven artist in the second decade of the 21st century. With a long and varied recording career covering novelty and political skewering that ignited 62 years ago as a member of recording impresario Bill Lowery’s Atlanta stable of artists that also numbered future stars Jerry “East Bound and Down” Reed and Joe “Games People Play” South, the experienced piano man initially tried his luck as a blue-eyed soul, combination pop purveyor.
Five lean years later Stevens finally hit paydirt in Nashville courtesy of producer Shelby Singleton, notching the Billboard Top Five novelty song “Ahab the Arab” on Mercury Records. Today he is best known for further comedy recordings like “Gitarzan,” “The Streak,” “Shriner’s Convention,” and “Mississippi Squirrel Revival.” He unequivocally mastered the novelty genre decades before “Weird Al” Yankovic unleashed “Eat It.”
But the multi-hyphenate artist isn’t so easily pigeon-holed. Witness the funky R&B pastiche of “Bridget the Midget,” the barnstormin’ accusatory found in “Mr. Businessman,” the inclusionary message of the lilting pop tune “Everything Is Beautiful,” the gospel swing of “Turn Your Radio On,” the impassioned country lament found in Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” or Stevens’s drastically revamped country pop rendition of the jazz standard “Misty.”
Country radio ignored him until 1969, even though he recorded prolifically with the esteemed Nashville A-Team session cats and has called Music City home for over 50 years. Renowned country disc jockey and television personality Ralph Emery is on record as considering the musician to be a creative genius, and he isn’t the only individual holding that sentiment — “Mister Guitar” Chet Atkins said the same thing on a 1980 tribute special. And believe it or not, Stevens actually sat in on an Elvis Presley recording session as an uncredited trumpeter and produced a wet-behind-the-ears Dolly Parton.
Changes in ’80s radio format forced the musician to shrewdly market his singles towards country stations. The hits kept on coming as Stevens seized the impact of the visual medium by sanctioning videos for the hilarious “Shriner’s Convention,” “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” “It’s Me Again, Margaret,” and the still-relevant “Would Jesus Wear A Rolex.” Stevens maintains a devoted YouTube following, with new right wing political comedy videos posted on a regular basis.
Conspicuously absent from the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2019, the bearded 80-year-old singer records prolifically, hosts the PBS musical variety series Ray Stevens CabaRay Nashville, and tours America whenever the mood strikes him.
Not content to wallow in the past or bask in his accomplishments, the twice Grammy-winning artist graciously agreed to tentatively stroll down memory lane in an exclusive, all-encompassing behind the music conversation. Free as the breeze and always at ease, here’s Ray Stevens.
Where did you grow up?
I spent the first ten years of my childhood in Clarkdale, Georgia, and the next seven years in Albany. My daddy worked for the Coats & Clark Thread Mill Company in both cities. I loved living in Georgia, and it’s a great state. I saw Louis Armstrong perform at Albany State College on Radio Springs Road. He was probably the first famous individual I saw in concert. Unfortunately, I never did get to meet him.
Who were some of your musical influences?
Oh gosh, everybody. I’m not gonna point to one influence. I just love music in general. I’ve been a fan of all different kinds of music since I can remember.
I do love the Coasters’ records, and the guys that made them happen were Mike Stoller and the late Jerry Leiber. They wrote and produced most of their hits. I’ve never met them, so you’re one up on me there.
Do you remember hearing yourself on the radio for the first time?
I think I was in Atlanta around 1957 when I was just 17 years old. The disc jockey announced me as “Ray Peterson,” a pop vocalist who had major hits with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” “Corrine, Corrina,” and “The Wonder of You,” also a bestselling live single released by Elvis. The deejay’s mistake was disappointing to a young kid like myself.
The song was called “Silver Bracelet.” Bill Lowery published it, I wrote it, and he got me a recording deal with Capitol, who put me on their then-subsidiary label Prep Records.
Ken Nelson, who produced a lot of Capitol Artists, was a friend of Bill’s. He probably called Ken up and said, “I got a smash here,” and Ken said, “Well come on up here and cut it.” Back in those days it was a lot looser than it is today.
Bill was a big man, very influential, very fun to be around, always up, always laughing. He was also an extremely intelligent person who encouraged all the talent around Atlanta to write, record, and sing. We had a home to go to with him to get help and direction when we were starting out.
Was there a moment when you thought, ‘I could make a living out of this?’
I’m still trying to figure out what I’m gonna do when I grow up. I never arrived at some sort of epiphany, I just sort of slid into it, you might say. I never had a flash of inspiration; I kept doing it, and it turned out this way. If truth be known, I’m still trying to figure out if I’m funny, too. I never pushed being the class clown.
One of your buddies was “The Guitar Man,” Jerry Reed.
He was one of the guys I grew up with in Atlanta. He was also part of the Lowery stable; we had a little band together in the late ’50s. We didn’t have a name. We both sang lead vocals. I was on piano, he was on guitar, there was a drummer, bass player, and saxophone player. We would go out and play fraternity parties at Georgia Tech, dances, whatever. That was as big as it got.
Jerry was totally committed to the guitar, one of the best guitar players in the world. A real musician and a great writer, not one of these guys who buys a lot of PR. I thought he was a clown, and I liked his funny stuff.
I recorded with him in the studio, but we didn’t sing together. On many sessions I played piano, he played guitar, and we would do background voices [Author’s Note: Stevens performed the self-penned “Sunshine” in the 1979 television movie Concrete Cowboys starring Tom Selleck and Reed, who also accompanies his longtime pal on guitar].
We were friends until the end. I saw him right before he died. He lived on a golf course in Franklin, Tennessee, called the Crockett Springs Country Club. I was at his house talking one day, and he wasn’t feeling well then due to emphysema.
Buddy Kalb: Jerry Reed was one amazing guitar player and a great songwriter. His real name was Jerry Hubbard. Jerry was an outgoing, funny, always laughing, manic kind of guy. He was pretty much what you saw onstage. Just a fun person to be around. We were all together there in Atlanta with Bill Lowery, although I was never in Ray and Jerry’s band. They played around Atlanta a lot. On weekends they appeared on disc jockey Ray Kinneman’s WTJH radio show to promote their stage shows held at the East Point City Auditorium [Kalb penned “Mississippi Squirrel Revival” and well over a hundred additional tunes for Stevens, remaining a close confidant].
Is it true you played with Elvis Presley?
Yes. I played with Elvis just one time at RCA Studio B in Nashville. That was the only time I ever met him. I don’t remember the songs, but Charlie McCoy and I played twin trumpets, kind of a Mexican-sounding thing. Heck, I don’t have a good memory.
[Author’s Note: Stevens sat in with Elvis at the tail end of the sizzling superstar’s Grammy-winning How Great Thou Art album sessions on May 28, 1966. He played on two decidedly retro pop tunes ultimately unleashed as B-sides, Clyde McPhatter’s “Come What May” and Leiber and Stoller’s “Fools Fall in Love”].
Another interesting Elvis connection: Layng Martine, Jr., a well-known songwriter among the Nashville songwriters, wrote Elvis’ final single before he died, “Way Down.” Layng was a member of my publishing company.
How many musical instruments can you play?
I’m basically a keyboard player, so if it’s got a keyboard on it, I’ll give it a shot. I played a lot of organ in the early days. I can make a few chords on guitar, but that’s about it. I played acoustic guitar on “Honky Tonk Waltz” when I appeared on Ralph Emery’s Pop! Goes the Country in 1976, although I always used to carry a mandolin on the road to do that song.
As you know, I played a little trumpet with Elvis. I overdub a few drum licks here and there on a session, but I’m not a drummer by any means.
How do you approach writing a song?
I’ve written at least 300 songs. And no, I don’t remember the first song I wrote, but I guarantee you it was bad. I was barely a teenager then.
I wish I had time to write all the time, but I do when I can. Ideas come to you no matter where you are or what you’re doing, but you have to make notes and later on get in a quiet spot and figure out what’s next. That spot is usually at my home, so I get at the piano and work it out.
I don’t really ever look for a collaborator, but sometimes it happens that way. We’ll kick it around, go our separate ways, and meet back again with what we’ve come up with and combine our thoughts sporadically, so to speak. Either of us can write the words or the music, it doesn’t matter.
Have you considered working with an outside producer?
I’ve had other producers in the past, but I’m a hard guy to produce. Most of the time I just produce myself. I’m too strong-minded, I have my own ideas, and I don’t want to mess with their ideas. I think I know what works. I would work with a producer if I thought his ideas were good enough, sure.
Have you ever ventured outside of Nashville to record?
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, I recorded in Atlanta. I recorded once in New York [Feb. 1958], but I didn’t like it. That doesn’t mean the city’s a bad place to record, just that I wasn’t used to it. Most of my recording has been done here in Nashville. Today I have a couple of studios on Music Row. It’s really the best place to record because the musicians you can hire are so good.
Is there a single you are especially disappointed about that didn’t become a major hit?
“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” [No. 81 Pop, No. 55 C&W, Sept. 1969]. I didn’t have the image to sell Kris Kristofferson’s lyric. People didn’t picture Ray Stevens having a hangover on Sunday morning.
Kris is a super nice guy. Back in those days, he was just getting started. That was one of the first records Kris got on one of his songs. Johnny Cash and Kris were big buddies, and John 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 with “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” .
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 20-year run on television and in comic books].
“Ahab the Arab” 
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 on Mercury Records [No. 5 Pop]. 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)” 
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: A sterling example of R&B recorded in a city where country music is king, “Freddie Feelgood” inexplicably barely registered on the Billboard pop chart at №91. Stevens’ electric piano is a highlight of the track, notwithstanding his amazing vocal impressions of a “funky little five-piece band.”].
“Mr. Businessman” 
I wrote that 50 years ago, 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 marked departure for the singer when released as a single. A serious, unrelenting pop song examining “the suits” who are only in the game for the money, “Mr. Businessman” vaulted Stevens back into the Top 30 after he had spent several years producing and arranging other artists like 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 it. It came out on Monument Records and became my biggest hit [№8 Pop] since “Ahab the Arab” some six years earlier.
“Along Came Jones” 
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’s inimitable Sweet Sue impression — ”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” 
It’s my best-known song [№1 on both the pop and adult contemporary charts, plus Top 40 country]. I was signed to host Andy Williams’ summer variety show on NBC, Andy Williams Presents Ray Stevens. 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” 
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)” 
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 the Midget” was a resounding, unexpected success in the UK, stalling just shy of the top spot at №2. 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” obviously 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 awaiting rediscovery, “Nashville” was unfairly neglected by record buyers, bottoming out at №37 on the country chart. “Nashville” 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”].
“The Streak” 
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 C&W].
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” 
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 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 “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex” twice on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I remember being very nervous. I don’t perform it today as a general rule, only occasionally. I’ve never really been on the late night shows, except Johnny Carson. I was tied up in Branson with my theatre when I had an opportunity to do Jay Leno, but I’ve talked to him on the telephone. I’m not a big fan of the current late night shows.
[Author’s Note: During one of the performances, Stevens’s microphone dropped, but he quickly picked it up without missing a beat. He received tremendous applause from Johnny Carson and the audience at the song’s conclusion. “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex” would become the artist’s last significant chart hit, nearly making the Country Top 40 at №41, until the surprise reactionary tune “Osama — Yo’ Mama,” unleashed in the aftermath of the catastrophic Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack].
“Marion Michael Morrison” 
Buddy Kalb wrote that. I was always a big John Wayne fan. The lyric was very creative. I thought, ‘What a good song.’ And it was.
Buddy Kalb: John Wayne is my favorite actor, always has been. When I lived in Kansas City, sometimes I had to drive between there and Des Moines going up Interstate 29. When you do, you drive past an exit that is for Winterset, Iowa, where John Wayne was born.
One day I was driving the car and thinking about John Wayne when I went through there. “Born in the little town of Winterset” was the first line. I was thinking, ‘Gee, all those motion pictures he made had great titles and the characters that he played were so iconic.’
So I got the idea of writing a song that was full of John Wayne movie titles and character roles [e.g. The Fighting Seabees, Big Jake, the “Singin’ Sandy” protagonist from Riders of Destiny]. It fell together pretty quickly. I’ve had a lot of compliments on it from many John Wayne fans down through the years.
[Author’s Note: The sentimental song’s definitive chorus goes like this: “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.” The tune appeared on Stevens’ 26th studio album, Beside Myself. Surprisingly, the composition was never released as a single, although Stevens got a terrific audience reception when he performed it on the popular television variety show Hee Haw. The rest of Buddy Kalb’s conversation, “Having a ‘Mississippi Squirrel Revival’ with the Side-Splitting Songwriter,” can be read in its entirety if you click on the preceding link].
“Mama Sang Bass” 
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. 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 comically complete overhaul of Johnny Cash’s hit “Daddy Sang Bass,” written by the talented Carl Perkins. Sumner was a legend in gospel music comfortably at the helm of the Stamps Quartet. The bass extraordinaire backed Elvis on record and in concert in the 1970s. 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’s “Way Down,” incidentally 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!’ [laughs].
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 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 four years later.
How did you come up with the idea for the popular Comedy Video Classics VHS 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, the over saturation of the market makes it tricky. For the longest time I didn’t think we could sell enough to break even. In 2009 I began making exclusive political videos for the Internet, and the 13,000,000 and counting combined YouTube views really blindsided me. Three years later we compiled a DVD entitled Ray Stevens Internet Video Hits featuring the best of my YouTube videos.
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 Spotify, 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, and what are your hobbies?
I really don’t have any hobbies, except for one. I like to build things — I’m a frustrated architect. 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 that environment. For awhile, I guess I was on the road too much. There were too many distractions keeping me from the studio. I curbed my touring schedule to devote more time to recording, but I’m planning on touring more.
Having a ‘Mississippi Squirrel Revival’ with side-splitting songwriter Buddy Kalb
“I don’t even know if I’d be in the record business if it wasn’t for my friendship with Ray.” Supreme songwriter Buddy…
Why is Ray Stevens not in the Country Music Hall of Fame?
When will Ray Stevens become part of the Country Music Hall of Fame? That provocative question perpetually mystified…
******************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!********************
Exclusive Interview: One of my proudest moments as a working journalist was getting to spend an hour conversing with 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.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Blind pianist Ronnie Milsap, who ruled country radio during the late ’70s and ’80s with soul-influenced jewels ranging from “Any Day Now” to “Stranger in My House”, had a bona fide boyhood idol in the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and even got to play on the studio recording of “Kentucky Rain.” Before the gracious, technological-leaning artist became a household name, he was a struggling rhythm and blues minded singer who uprooted his family from their Atlanta home at the instigation of American Sound Studios producer Chips Moman. In case you’re wondering whatever happened to the Country Music Hall of Famer since “All Is Far in Love and War” nearly went Top Ten in 1992, consider venturing towards “Country Soul Titan Ronnie Milsap Preps New Duets Album and Tour Dates.”
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