Nashville Cats: Salute to Ray Stevens

During a career of more than fifty years, Ray Stevens has never aimed songs at the pop or country market-even though he has had great success in both. He never sat down to write or record a song thinking it had to be funny or serious-even though he’s had plenty of both.

His objective, he said, was to create a song people liked. “I didn’t know there were any rules, but obviously there are,” Stevens explained. “Most of my life, I’ve not had a plan. I would cut whatever I thought was the most commercial-whether it was comedy or a straight song.”

This lack of planning led to Stevens’s career as an across-the-board renaissance man: He has had success as a songwriter, vocalist, music publisher, record producer, label owner, and network TV show host. But it was his talents as an instrumentalist that led the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to celebrate Stevens in an installment of its quarterly series, Nashville Cats.

“What people sometimes forget is that Ray Stevens is a musician,” said program host Bill Lloyd. “His skills as a pianist, vocalist, musical arranger-and his ability to pick up nearly every instrument-always add something to the mix.”

As a studio player who also became a popular star, Stevens has held a rare position in the Nashville musical pantheon. “We’re stretching the parameters of the Nashville Cats series today,” Lloyd said. “The series has always been about musicians behind the singers, the sideman to the stars who didn’t always get the spotlight. Today’s Nashville Cat has had the spotlight on him since he was a teen-ager. He’s 71, and it’s still shining on him. Everybody knows Ray Stevens.”

The multi-talented pianist is best known for his distinctively colorful wit, as displayed in the hits “Ahab the Arab,” “The Streak,” “Gitarzan,” “Shriner’s Convention,” “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” and many others. “I’ve gotten lucky in areas besides comedy,” Stevens said. “But a lot of people just know me for writing comedy songs, and that’s fine.”

Born Harold Ray Ragsdale in Clarkdale, Georgia, Stevens grew up listening to such country stars as Eddy Arnold, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and Hank Williams. What he didn’t hear, at least on the radio, were comic songs or comedians. “Back in those days, comedians weren’t as well promoted as they were in later years,” he said. “We just heard what was on the radio, and we didn’t hear many comedians because comedians didn’t make records in those days.”

Stevens’s mother encouraged him to study piano, and as he began playing more, Stevens remembers having what he termed “an epiphany”-that moment when he understood the harmonic and melodic possibilities of the piano beyond reading and playing notes. “Most musicians have that brainstorm at one time or another,” he said. “Quincy Jones once said, ‘Hey man, there ain’t but twelve notes.’”

After moving to Atlanta with his parents, Stevens received support from top music industry figure Bill Lowery, a deejay turned music publisher and record label owner. Lowery signed Stevens to a music publishing contract; around the same time, Lowery also discovered future stars Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, Tommy Roe, and Joe South. “Bill was a true gentleman and really an icon in this business,” Stevens said.

The first song Stevens took to Lowery was “Silver Bracelet.” Only seventeen years old, Stevens cut the demo on a piano at his high school. With Lowery’s help, Stevens recorded the song for Prep Records, a subsidiary of Capitol Records, and the single received airplay in the Atlanta area. “I was still in high school; boy, you talk about being a hero- whoo!” Stevens said with a laugh.

Stevens toured with Jerry Reed as his guitarist. But he stayed in school and went on to college and studied music at Georgia State University. Soon afterward, he recorded his first novelty song, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” based on a hit TV series. However, as the song climbed the charts, the TV show’s production company threatened to sue for copyright infringement, and the record label pulled the song from release.

At that point, Mercury Records executive Shelby Singleton, who’d seen Stevens perform in Atlanta, offered him a job in Nashville in the label’s A&R department and side work as a session pianist. Stevens signed with Mercury and released “Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills,” his first Top Forty pop hit. Later, he played organ on Joe Dowell’s #1 pop hit, “Wooden Heart.” The same day, Stevens cut his first Top Ten hit, “Ahab the Arab.” His reputation for creating popular novelty songs grew with pop hits “Santa Claus Is Watching You,” “Harry the Hairy Ape,” “Gitarzan,” and “The Streak.” Stevens never felt confined by his success with comic records. “Any way you can get a hit record is fine with me,” he said.

As a session player, Stevens described himself as “a utility player.” He often contributed piano or organ, but he would play other instruments as needed. For example, program host Lloyd played two Elvis Presley songs in which Stevens and session musician Charlie McCoy contributed trumpet parts. Stevens sessions also included playing in support of R&B singers Brook Benton and Ruth Brown. Stevens also did some sessions in New York, including working with singer Dusty Springfield on a hit song produced by Shelby Singleton.

At this point, Stevens performed on weekends and worked in the recording studio on weekdays. As if writing and recording his own hits and playing keyboards on other sessions weren’t enough, he began working as a producer and arranger as well. His work included mid-1960s cuts by Skeeter Davis for RCA and by Dolly Parton, when she recorded for Monument Records, before she became a star. Both songs, pointed out program host Bill Lloyd, were pop-influenced arrangements reminiscent of early1960s girl-group recordings.

In 1969, Stevens moved to Monument Records, where his solo career took off. He continued to cut novelty pop hits, but he also started releasing country songs. He began with the first recording of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” which a few months later became a bigger hit for Johnny Cash. Stevens figures his song didn’t become a big hit for a reason: “I just don’t have that image, ‘I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.’ That’s not Ray Stevens. Johnny Cash can get away with that.”

Stevens had much better success with “Everything Is Beautiful,” a Grammy-winning #1 pop hit, which he cut three separate times to make sure he came out with the best possible recording. “I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted it to sound like,” he said. “Back in those days, I’d get very excited in the studio, and I’d track them too fast. In that case, I’d listen to what we did and think, ‘Nah, it’s too fast.’ So I cut it again and again.”

In the 1970s, Stevens had several country hits, including “Turn Your Radio On,” “Misty,” “The Streak,” and “Shriner’s Convention”-continuing his knack for both comic and non-comic successes. He also cut a version of Glenn Miller’s big band hit, “In the Mood,” done by chicken-clucking voices and billed as Henhouse Five Plus Too. It also reached the Top Forty.

In recent years, Stevens has remained as eclectic as ever. Besides more comic songs, he has recorded a tribute to Frank Sinatra and another to New Orleans music. He continues to produce album and video packages, including a recent collection, We the People, that has twenty-two songs and several videos.

Stevens ended the program by taking requests while playing the theater’s Baldwin piano, serving up “Everything Is Beautiful,” “Turn Your Radio On,” and others.

Before moving to the piano, Stevens was asked, if he ever takes time to unwind, considering his prodigious output. “Most people think unwinding consists of lying on a beach somewhere and doing nothing,” Stevens said. “That’s very boring to me. I don’t want to do that. If I want to unwind, I’ll go in the studio and do something there. To me, that’s relaxing.”

-Michael McCall