I don’t write today to celebrate the person in the title of this post per se. Ray Stevens (b. 1939) left the American mainstream 40 years ago and for at least half that time he has devoted his talents to a pandering right wing agenda that is anything but funny, and is now part of the Branson-Nashville entertainment silo that services America’s Trump-loving minority. I was really on the fence about whether or not to do a post about him. But I had nothing else in the hopper this morning, and there are points of interest. When I was a kid, when Stevens was having hit pop records (often with novelty songs) and was a staple of TV variety, I was a devoted fan. Eight years old? Sure, that’s the correct age to properly appreciate Ray Stevens. If you have the mentality of an eight year old, you’re right in the pocket.
Originally from Georgia, Stevens began, writing, recording, producing, and playing on records when he was only 18 years old. He had his first top 40 hit at age 21, with the 1960 novelty song “Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills”, a Lieber and Stoller style comedy rocker about a patent medicine. He had a #5 hit the following year with the better remembered “Ahab the Arab”, which now strikes the listener as unlistenably racist, but which, as a kid, in my innocence I probably played 300 times on K-Tel Records. In 1963 came “Harry the Hairy Ape” which went to #17. Another single he released that year, “Speed Ball” reminds me that today is also John Belushi’s birthday.
In 1969 Stevens recorded “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by a then unknown Kris Kristofferson. His version went to #81, but Johnny Cash heard it and made his own version which went to #1 on the country charts, which ended up being the making of Kristofferson. Stevens’ major hit that year was the novelty song “Gitarzan”, which went to #8! This proved to be Stevens breakthrough period. He appeared on the talk and variety shows of Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Johnny Carson, and Andy Williams.
Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, his peak. In early 1970 this singer-songwriter, best known for country flavored low-brow comedy songs, released the earnest, #1 crossover hit “Everything is Beautiful”. The song was a sensation — I associate it with other positive, idealistic, spiritual songs of the time, things like “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (1969), from Hair and a hit for The 5th Dimension), “United We Stand” (1970 by The Brotherhood of Man), “My Sweet Lord” (1970 by George Harrison), “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (1971, best remembered from the Coke commercial, but also a hit for The New Seekers), “Put Your Hand in the Hand” (1971, by Ocean), “Imagine” by John Lennon, “Day by Day” (1972) from Godspell, and “Top of the World” (1972, by The Carpenters) among others (I’m sure I’ll add to this list. ) Anyway, the monster success of the song led to the artists own short lived The Ray Stevens Show (1970). The show consisted of music and comedy sketches, and had such then-major guests as “Mama” Cass Elliott Lulu, Johnny Cash, Jonathan Winters, Joanne Worley, Don Knotts, The Guess Who, Bill Dana, and a then unknown Steve Martin (then fresh off his stint on the Smothers Brothers show). For whatever reason, though The Ray Stevens Show didn’t click. It only lasted seven episodes.
Stevens himself was far from finished however. In fact he had another #1 hit, returning to novelty songs with “The Streak” (1974), about the public nudity fad (we found this titillating song to be very much in the spirit of Chuck Berry’s 1972 comedy hit “My Ding-a-Ling”.) The STRONG hillbilly flavor of the record (both comically and musically) would characterize most of his music going forward. The following year he hit the top 20 again with an upbeat, country version of the old tin pan alley standard “Misty”. Naturally he was a frequent guest on Hee Haw, and was booked on shows like Dinah!, Merv, and Mike Douglas pretty much throughout the ’70s. His mainstream period may be said to end with the theme song to Hal Needham’s hit 1981 comedy film Cannonball Run.
In the ’80s Stevens began making videos to go with his past and present hits, combining a Jim Varney as Ernest sort of comedy with increasingly calculated efforts to be topical. For example, “Osama — Yo Mama”, released right after 9/11. This is cringe-inducing stuff, to say nothing of more recent musical attacks on targets like Obama, immigration, climate science, Covid prevention measures, etc etc. So, he’s still alive, but to all intents and purposes, I’m comfortable talking about him in the past tense. Once, everything was beautiful; these days, not so much apparently.
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