Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The 2 Hour Ray Stevens Interview...

On August 1st Ray Stevens was the special guest on WSM radio's Intimate Evenings series hosted by Eddie Stubbs. The show aired for 2 hours and was available for on-line streaming but for those who didn't hear it here's a run down of some of the things that went on...

The show took place at the Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

The program opened up with "Jeremiah Peabody's Green and Purple Pills". Eddie introduced Ray and the two of them spoke about the song becoming a chart hit in 1961 with Ray bringing up that he'd been recording and releasing songs for several years prior to his arrival on Mercury Records but none of his releases had reached the national charts until "Jeremiah Peabody" came along. He made mention that his earliest recordings made local radio station charts but didn't break out nationally. Ray spoke of his 1960's single, "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon", and how it led him to write "Jeremiah Peabody" given how the Sgt. Preston single (a novelty song) had racked up more sales than any of his previous releases to that point. Ray, around this time in the interview, also spoke of his desire to get back out on the road much more than he's been lately. A running joke throughout most of the first hour of the program had Ray playing the part of an artist desperate to do any kind of show...constant reminders of how available he is often found their way into the interview.

Eddie, a couple of times throughout the program, remarked on how packed the venue was and that they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate all of the people who stopped in to hear Ray speak about his experiences in the music industry and hear tidbits about the songs he's written or recorded. Eddie asked Ray about the gospel songs he's recorded and this led into Ray speaking about his dad's favorite song being "Turn Your Radio On". Ray spoke of his days under the guidance of Bill Lowery and about the years he spent working on local radio programs in Georgia with Joe South, Jerry Reed, Billy Joe Royal, and Tommy Roe. Ray spoke of how Nashville has changed so much since the early '60s and commented that the easy-going, open-doors attitude of late '50s and early '60s recording studios is what enabled him to get his foot in the door. Ray remarks that his Sunday school teacher was instrumental in getting him in contact with Bill Lowery.

Ray recounts his first meeting with Ken Nelson, of Capitol Records, in the late '50s. Ray had made a demo recording at some point in 1957 which Lowery sent to Ken Nelson. One thing led to another and Ray found himself with a recording contract on Capitol's subsidiary, Prep Records, when he was still a teenager. Although not mentioned in the interview it was also during this time that it was suggested that Ray use a stage name. His birth name is Harold Ray Ragsdale...but neither "Harold" nor "Ragsdale" in the minds of the promotional department at Capitol had a lot of pizzaz and so the decision was made to have him use his middle name, Ray, and his mother's maiden name, Stevens, and from that moment on he would go by the name 'Ray Stevens'.

The conversation shifts to his modern-day recordings with Eddie remarking how incredible it is that at this point in Ray's career he's still highly active and working on multiple recording projects. Eddie only had to mention the phrase "Obama Budget Plan" and it sent the audience into applause and laughter...for the audience was well aware of the song's content and the music video. Eddie also asked about "The Skies Just Ain't Friendly Anymore" and this led into Ray speaking of his recent experience with political songs and mentioning his C-PAC appearance several months ago. The audience laughed and cheered during his humorous quips about the current situation in Washington. Eddie played "The Skies Just Ain't Friendly Anymore" and Ray commented afterward that during the C-PAC event he appeared on a political discussion panel. He remarked that he felt that a good number of the politicians on the panel, in general, perhaps only knew of him by way of the older songs from the '60s and '70s and probably weren't too sure why 'Ray Stevens' was sitting on a political panel discussing such heavy topics as the debt, deficit, and health care. He mentioned that as soon as he started into "The Skies Just Ain't Friendly Anymore" he could feel electricity in the air from the audience...he said that they enjoyed it and got a kick out of it. After speaking a little about the Spirit of '76 Eddie plays "Obama Budget Plan".

Eddie, in all seriousness, asked Ray where he comes up his song ideas...instant laughter from the audience resulted from that question. Eddie plays "It's Me Again, Margaret" and how the song's writer, Paul Craft, had released the song nearly a decade before Ray's more familiar version was recorded. Ray commented on the inclusion of the 'dirty laugh' and he re-created the laugh several times during the conversation surrounding the song. From there Eddie brings up "Misty" and Ray talks about how that recording and it's arrangement came into being. It was during this point in the program that Eddie gave some spotlight on Ray's arranging skills. He marveled at Ray's talents at being able to hear songs play out in his head and know which instrumentation to use and everything else that goes into arranging music. He credits Bill Justis with teaching him how to be a music arranger. Eddie brought up Ray's multi-instrumental talents and the numerous recording sessions for other artists that Ray participated in during the '50s, '60s, and early '70s. Ray said that he used to smoke...but quit in 1969. He also commented that session musicians were paid around $50.00 per session.

Hour 2 kicked off with "Ahab the Arab". Ray gave the history of the song and Eddie commented that during the same recording session as "Ahab the Arab" Ray played on LeRoy Van Dyke's "Walk On By" and Joe Dowell's "Wooden Heart". The recording, according to Ray's recollection, happened in January 1962 and it was released as a single in the spring. Out of the blue Ray mentioned that he was working on a book about his career and life with the help of his songwriting associate, friend, and business partner Buddy Kalb. He didn't give a release date but said that it's in the works!

Eddie named off several of Ray's songs. Eddie and the audience chuckled when he got to "Bridget the Midget the Queen of the Blues". Ray remarked that the single wasn't that big of a hit in America. He felt that it was possibly due to political correctness. It's a possibility because political correctness, in it's earliest stages, was starting to creep into television around the turn of the decade (1970-onward) and as the years went by more and more regulations on what could be seen on TV or heard on the radio became more and more prevalent. Ray, defending the song, commented that he was simply wanting to do a song with the Chipmunk sound effects...this caused laughter from Eddie and the audience...and then Ray commented that it became a big hit in England.

Ray's version of "Oh, Lonesome Me" is played. The conversation then turns to Ray's reputation for zany, comical recordings. Eddie brings up the One For the Road collection and the conversation of travel and being on the road leads to "Hang Up and Drive", a song Ray recorded about people driving and talking on their cell-phones.

Eddie brings up how busy Ray continues to be and this leads into a discussion about Ray's sit-com, We Ain't Dead Yet. The sit-com had a trial run on a former web-page that Ray's people operated called Ray Stevens Backstage. It was a premium web-page and it was up and running for nearly 2 years before it went off-line. Those who were members of this site were able to see a few episodes. I hope a general audience will be able to see the shows one day. They're funny, cute, and unique.

Eddie mentions that Ray won two Grammy awards...one for "Misty" and another for "Everything Is Beautiful". Streaking came up and this led into Ray talking about where the idea of the song came from and how he was able to get a jump on the fad nearly a month before it was all over the national news. "The Streak" was played and by then the program was nearly over. Eddie remarked that the Intimate Evenings series had never featured a performer primarily known for comedy but given that this was something new for the series he wanted Ray to have the honor of being the first comedian to make an appearance should they decide to have other comical entertainers stop by in the future. The show closed with Ray's song, "Thank You", from the We The People collection.

All in all the interview was great! Ray's had a varied career that encompasses just about every aspect of the music business: singing, songwriting, producing, arranging, and session playing. There were some highlights of his career that they didn't get around to discussing such as his You Tube music video successes; his revolutionary home video sales successes in the 1990's; his years in Branson, Missouri and the story behind "Shriner's Convention". I have no idea if the interview will be archived at WSM's web-site or not. I'll check their web-site periodically and see if an audio link becomes available.

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