BOOMER catches up with the famous comedian.
Mention the name Ray Stevens and a string of comedy hits come to mind, songs like “Ahab the Arab,” “The Streak” and “Mississippi Squirrel Revival.”
But Stevens has always moved easily between comedy, pop and country music. His two Grammy wins came for serious songs (1970’s “Everything Is Beautiful” and a 1975 Best Arrangement Grammy for his remake of the classic “Misty”).
Along the way, he’s sold more than 40 million records. In the 1990s he began selling direct-mail videos, building an empire. Today Stevens oversees daily operations at Nashville’s Ray Stevens Music/Clyde Records and reaches millions via the Internet.
His “Come to the U.S.A.,” a recent comedy video about illegal immigration, attracted more than 8.9 million YouTube views. There’s no slowing down for this guy, who has a just-released CD, Here We Go Again, on his new Sony-distributed Player Records label; a new book, Ray Stevens’ Nashville; and a revived touring schedule.
“Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life — that’s the simple explanation for me [doing] what I do,” he explains.
PICKING THE BEST SONG
Regarding his eclectic career, he adds, “I’ve always tried to record what I considered the best song. I had to argue to get a few records released, but they did release them and I was proven right.”
He cites “Turn Your Radio On,” a gospel song that made the pop charts, and “Henhouse Five Plus Two” (with chickens clucking Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”) as examples. “The record company didn’t know what to think about that. The artist wasn’t even listed as me but everybody knew who it was. It was fun to get feedback from radio stations,” he says of “Henhouse.”
“One guy said a listener called him and said, ‘Please stop playing that; every time you play it my dog attacks the henhouse.’ ” The Georgia native who began piano lessons at age 7 studied classical piano at Georgia State University before college was interrupted by his hit single “Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills” (1961). He moved to Nashville in 1962, was hired by Mercury Records as a recording session player and became close friends with Chet Atkins.
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He recalls playing one session with Elvis Presley, admitting that he was “nervous to meet him but he put me right at ease.” Ironically, Stevens’ publishing company enjoyed success for Presley’s last hit, “Way Down.”
“When I moved here, it was called Nashville. It became Music City U.S.A.,” Stevens says of his adopted hometown. “I started out as a fan of rhythm and blues but when I moved to Nashville, I evolved into appreciating country music. It’s [music] all interwoven in my mind.”
He wrote his book “because I thought it might have some appeal and have a place in the history of Nashville. I thought I could shed some light [on how Nashville became Music City].”
ONE OF THE LAST GUYS STANDING
His 2012 The Encyclopedia of Comedy Music CD project, featuring 108 comedy hits, took two years to complete.
Stevens explains, “I’m known for my comedy recordings. I thought I might be one of the last guys standing in this field. I think this music needs to be brought [to peoples’ attention]. When I was trying to get my [comedy] songs played on radio, the argument was comedy songs are here today, gone tomorrow. It kind of hurt my feelings because, to me, a good comedy song will last.”
From 1991 to 2006, he performed at Ray Stevens Theater in Branson, Mo. Stevens, who hosted a summer replacement show for Andy Williams’ TV show, remembers, “Andy Williams was one of the best singers I have ever heard; he was just a pure singer. I’d booked a show to do at his [Branson] theater the year he died . I did the show anyway, and at the end sang ‘Moon River.’ I played a week there but every time I’d sing ‘Moon River,’ I’d get a chill. I’ll never forget that.”
Many of his recent videos include political comedy. Stevens, 76, admits, “At my age, I believe what I believe politically. I’m not afraid to say so but I try to say it in a comedic way. I’m worried about the future of the country and the way it’s being managed.”
Stevens has two grown daughters, Suzane and Timilynn, with his wife, Penny. He advises boomers, “You’re only as old as you feel is a cliché that’s been overused but it’s true in my way of thinking. I think Clint Eastwood said in a movie, ‘a man needs to know his limitations.’ Know your limitations, and if you want to do it, give it a shot.”
For more: raystevens.com.
Audrey T. Hingley is a Richmond-based freelance writer who writes frequently for BOOMER, including last issue’s stories on Tom Wopat and John Schneider of The Dukes of Hazzard and William Sanderson, who played Larry on Newhart. Her website is AudreyTHingley.com.