When will Ray Stevens become part of the Country Music Hall of Fame? That provocative question perpetually mystified fans and colleagues of the native South Georgia singer until a surprise March 2019 press conference where WSM deejay Bill Cody signaled Stevens’ inclusion as part of the Veterans Era category. According to revised Hall of Fame rules in 2010, Stevens was first eligible for induction in 2002, 45 years after he first achieved national prominence on Bill Lowery’s Atlanta-based Prep label. Also elected were Brooks & Dunn in the Modern Era and former RCA Victor President Jerry Bradley in the Non Performer designation.
In a 63-year career that shows no signs of garnering mildew, the creatively restless songwriter-pianist has accumulated scores of crossover hits —comedy, country, pop, adult contemporary, R&B, gospel — and produced, arranged, or played on Nashville sessions for Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and Waylon Jennings. “Ahab the Arab,” “Gitarzan,” “The Streak,” “Shriner’s Convention,” and “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” poke fun at tedious convention, yet the shrewd entrepreneur refused to be pigeon-holed as a novelty artist, instead routinely questioning issues of a more serious nature as evidenced by “Mr. Businessman” and “Everything Is Beautiful.”
Buddy Kalb — the Atlanta writer responsible for a staggering 132 Stevens tunes going back to 1976— and passionate expert Jerry McDaniel originally surfaced in my previous Examiner.com “Jeremy’s Country Music Notes” column to elucidate Nashville’s reluctance to salute Stevens. McDaniel, who maintains a Ray Stevens Music Journey blog with tons of discography information, particularly conveyed why his favorite artist, right wing politics cast aside, was deserving of Hall of Fame status. Whether that Examiner feature played a role in the venerable organization selecting Stevens at the culmination of the twenty-tens is unknown, but it’s a gratifying feeling nonetheless.
The Jerry McDaniel Interview
How did you become a Ray Stevens fan?
I became a fan of Ray’s at some point in 1987. My grandfather and I used to travel to a local pizza place on the weekend, and there was a jukebox there. He found a song with what he considered a strange title, “Mississippi Squirrel Revival.”
My grandfather played it, we liked it, and so we’d always play it whenever we’d go there. One weekend we were at a store, and he remarked that he had heard a song on the radio early in the morning by Ray called “It’s Me Again, Margaret.” So we started browsing through the cassette tapes.
My grandfather ended up buying He Thinks He’s Ray Stevens, Surely You Joust, Greatest Hits and Crackin’ Up. Those four cassettes are what I grew up on…as far as Ray Stevens material goes.
But to make a long story short…a jukebox and my grandfather are how I became a Ray Stevens fan.
Why is Ray a natural fit for the Country Music Hall of Fame?
Because of his success and impact with country music audiences throughout the years. Every artist will have pockets of people who aren’t fans…even singers who are put on pedestals and are counted among the country music elite have their share of critics.
In the case of Ray Stevens, his success with invoking comedy into a large percentage of his country recordings and the sales achievements he has obtained through the years puts him on the same playing field with a lot of his peers.
Public acceptance has often been geared toward comedy when it comes to Ray Stevens, considering the bulk of his ’80s and ’90s successes were in the “country comedy” market.
Let’s shed light on Ray’s vocal, instrumental, arrangement, publishing, and music video prowess.
Ray’s voice has layers of R&B in it at times. An excellent example is the funky R&B of “Freddie Feelgood [And His Funky Little Five-Piece Band”]. Ray scat-sang and vocally imitated drums, bass, trombone, and trumpet!
Believe it or not, Ray’s unforgettable version of “In the Mood” was performed by a band of chickens. He was not the first artist to perform a song imitating animal sounds, but I believe Ray is the only artist who had a major hit with that kind of recording.
Ray’s impression skills are under-rated. He doesn’t do that many anymore but at one time he would do impressions of actors such as John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and George “Gabby” Hayes. Singers like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, the world-famous disc jockey, Wolfman Jack, were also Ray’s specialty.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Ray over-dubbed his voice multiple times, in various harmonies, basically singing against his own voice. “Sunset Strip,” “All My Trials,” and “Never Ending Song of Love” are three songs that exemplify this quirky approach.
Ray Stevens, Pianist
Ray played piano on numerous recording sessions in the ’50s and ’60s for other artists on the Mercury and Monument labels. He plays a lot of piano on many of his own songs and utilizes the piano as the central instrument in his concerts. In spite of all that, the general public doesn’t consider his piano playing, but it is exceptional.
He doesn’t showcase his piano playing that much as a solo instrument…except if a song calls for a lot of piano like “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow.”
He also can mimic Ray Charles [“Hallelujah, I Love Her So”], Floyd Cramer [“Last Date”], and Jerry Lee Lewis’ style of playing note for note. A good Jerry Lee example is on the 1974 single, “The Moonlight Special”, where Ray plays a Jerry Lee-type toward the end of the recording.
For those who don’t know, the song is a dead-on parody of The Midnight Special television program…complete with a Wolfman Jack impression throughout!
Ray Stevens, Arranger
One of his talents is as an arranger…he has often taken songs recorded by other artists and performed them in entirely different ways. On the 1975 Misty album he covers a lot of material, mostly pop and jazz standards.
As a single, “Misty” reached the pop Top 20 and the country Top Five while reaching the runner-up spot in the United Kingdom. It won a Grammy for Ray’s arrangement. Ray often refers to it as his “Best Arrangement of the Year”.
Ray displayed more of his arranging skills covering other artists’ songs on his R&B tribute album from 1978, There Is Something on Your Mind.
Decades later, Ray put his touch on the songs of New Orleans. New Orleans Moon came along in 2007 as a wonderful salute to the citizens of Louisiana…specifically, flood ravaged New Orleans.
The following year Ray released a touching, cute, and unpredictable album of Frank Sinatra covers. Playing on how out of left field it sounded for funny man Ray Stevens to tackle Sinatra songs, the album was humorously titled Ray Stevens Sings Sinatra…Say What?? He also continues to produce all his recordings to this day.
Ray Stevens, Song Publisher
Ray is also a song publisher. He publishes approximately 98.9 percent of his own recordings via Ray Stevens Music. Ray’s company was responsible for the final single released during Elvis Presley’s lifetime, “Way Down.” Sammy Kershaw had a couple of hit songs that Ray published: 1992’s “Cadillac Style” and 1994’s “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore.”
A 21st century example is “Bad Angel,” performed by a superstar trio featuring Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, and Jamey Johnson. Written by Ray’s daughter Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson, “Bad Angel” was nominated for several major awards.
Ray Stevens, Music Video Pioneer
Ray was very innovative in selling Comedy Video Classics on TV and in print advertisements for a full year in 1992 before it was released to retail stores. With sales totaling over 500,000, Ray set a benchmark for home video sales that likely influenced other artists. Indeed, home video output exploded during the early and mid-‘90s.
Two other similar home video projects resulted in quick succession: Ray Stevens Live! and Get Serious! Ray issued these on his own label, Clyde Records, because as he once put it, the record labels didn’t want to take the risk of trying something different.
Ray adapted to YouTube by the culmination of the aughts. He distributed a video for “We the People” which obtained more than 2,000,000 views in a month’s time — it now sits at over 5.5 million views. Another example is “Come to the USA,” which has garnered more than 9.5 million views.
YouTube is especially beneficial to artists like Ray who aren’t on a major record label and typically have no support from radio or TV video channels. A big reason for Ray’s success on You Tube is the topical nature of his contemporary releases, mostly in the political vein. The fact that they’re all mostly humorous enables them to go viral at a more rapid rate.
Ray has become one of the new faces on local PBS stations across the country via his half hour television series, Ray Stevens CabaRay Nashville. This fall he’ll be having the grand opening of his entertainment complex, CabaRay. These current endeavors by Ray demonstrate an artist forever restless — physically and creatively.
Do you have a ballpark figure on Ray’s sales achievements?
If you count up all the singles, albums, and home videos that have been certified half a million in sales or more, the estimated total would be approximately 20,000,000.
For instance, the “Ahab the Arab” single sold a million copies in 1962. “Gitarzan” was another million-seller seven years later. “Everything Is Beautiful” sold over three million copies in 1970, ultimately winning a Grammy.
Comedy Video Classics — containing all-new music videos — at last count was triple platinum via direct marketing [300,000-plus copies sold] and double platinum in retail stores [200,000-plus]. I may have those numbers switched around, but I know he sold an incredible amount of those home videos in 1992.
Just how widespread was “The Streak’s” impact?
“The Streak” was enormously successful, as its sales were in excess of five million worldwide. The single soared to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in the blink of an eye and remained there for three weeks. In addition, it was a major crossover hit, doing incredibly well worldwide.
It was released late in March of 1974…and then a “miracle” happened that aided in its commercial success.
On April 2, 1974 during the 46th Annual Academy Awards, a streaker by the name of Robert Opel ran across the stage behind host David Niven. That notorious incident became the talk of Hollywood and those who watched the show.
All of a sudden, Ray’s song starts to take off. Many critics from the past and those who didn’t do the research like to say the song appeared one minute and was gone the next, or they say the song was written in response to the Academy Awards streaker.
But as Ray often said, he had the song written weeks before the Academy Awards telecast had enabled the topic to reach mainstream America in such a profound way.
The song likely would have become a good sized hit based on the popularity of the streaking fad, but it certainly helped that a streaker crashed the Academy Awards right around the time the single had been released.
Which Ray Stevens songs warrant his inclusion in the CMHF?
Throughout his career, Ray has put his imprint on practically all the major styles of music. His body of work runs the gamut. He has recorded a gospel album, and a highlight is “Turn Your Radio On”, a 1972 country Top 20 hit.
Going beyond that, there’s the softer side of Ray Stevens — the side that often gets overlooked by the comedy and the social commentary songs he has recorded.
Ray, all in one concert, can sing a song as wild as “Smokey Mountain Rattlesnake Retreat” and then launch into a reflective song like “Safe at Home” before coming full circle by singing any number of his current politically-themed or hardcore country songs.
One of the finest recordings from Ray — but not a hit — is a song called “Don’t Laugh Now” from 1982. Ray wrote the song, and it’s about a man who’s in love with a woman…but he’s afraid to tell her. She only sees him as a comedian.
“Ahab the Arab,” “Mr. Businessman,” “Gitarzan,” “Everything Is Beautiful”, “The Streak,” his innovative bluegrass version of “Misty,” and “Shriner’s Convention” are certainly enough to merit CMHoF inclusion.
What kept Ray out of the CMHF until 2019?
Politics played a big part. He’s got the sales, impact, creativity, talent…durability comes into play as well. As I’ve often said, there is a stigma that exists with artists who are viewed in a one dimensional way.
Most people see Ray as a comedian. But even comedians have been elected to the CMHF, including Grandpa Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, Whitey Ford, Minnie Pearl, and Rod Brasfield. The first two are by and large known for their comical recordings and banter while the last three were strictly known for stand-up comedy.
I think it was a combination of the voters not looking beyond the comical aspect of Ray’s career. In other words, they didn’t take him seriously. Some voters may also have held his earlier success on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts against him.
Ray has received various accolades. He is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and the Christian Music Hall of Fame. But considering the CMHF has elected comedians in the past, it’s baffling why Ray was repeatedly overlooked.
The late Jerry “Guitar Man” Reed was inducted in 2017. With the election of the Guitar Man pretty much all of Ray’s closest musical friends — Chet Atkins, Ralph Emery, Minnie Pearl, Capitol Records’ country A&R chief executive Ken Nelson, Monument Records founder-songwriter-producer Fred Foster — are in the CMHF — and even those that are associated with him in some way — Brenda Lee, Roger Miller, Harold Bradley, the Jordanaires — are members.
As a longtime fan I wish 2017 had been the year that he became a CMHF member especially since that was his 60th anniversary as a recording artist — Ray’s first professional recordings for Prep, a subsidiary of Capitol Records, were unleashed in 1957 [i.e. “Rang Tang Ding Dong (I’m the Japanese Sandman)” b/w “Silver Bracelet”]. I am genuinely happy that acknowledgment by the CMHF happened in Ray’s lifetime.
The Buddy Kalb Interview
Both recent high school alumni in the late ‘50s, you and Ray first collided under the tutelage of Atlanta music impresario Bill Lowery. How do you feel about the CMHF’s repeated refusal to elect your lifelong pal?
No one has ever known how to categorize Ray Stevens or what chart to put him on. Ray has done pop, rock, country, middle of the road, adult contemporary, gospel — he is unique. He has never tried to be anything but entertaining and sincere. If he had been exclusively country then he would have been in the CMHF long ago.
I’m not sure why people and organizations in Nashville apart from Music Row have failed to embrace Ray but decades ago when “The Streak” was number one and had sold over four million singles, Cal Smith’s “Country Bumpkin,” which had sold far less product, was selected Song of the Year by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music over “The Streak.” Ray Stevens has always aimed his songs and career at the fans — not the organizations. He is just like the lyric he composed for “Everything Is Beautiful:” “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.”
[Author’s Note: “Having a ‘Mississippi Squirrel Revival’ with Side-Splitting Songwriter Buddy Kalb” is the Gentle Giant’s most comprehensive conversation to date, so don’t go anywhere until you check it out. And if you wanna experience a sweeping interview with Kalb’s partner in rhyme, head on over to “Streakin’ Through the Hits with Witty Wordsmith Ray Stevens”].
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