Bill Miller Interviews the Comedy King of Music City
Edie R. Lambert
Since his first recording in 1957 of Silver Bracelet (a song he wrote and first recorded in his high school cafeteria), Ray Stevens has consistently demonstrated the capacity to write and perform ballads and novelty songs in an eclectic array of musical styles with equal ease and sensation.
The two-time Grammy winner and Music City’s nine-time Comedian of the Year has produced over 70 albums (four of them gold and two platinum), countless major hit singles and a triple platinum video with a repertoire of pop, western, country, rock and Gospel tunes. Everything is Beautiful, Ahab the Arab, Gitarzan, Shriner’s Convention and The Streak are just a few of the Nashville-based hitmaker’s chart-topping original works.
Over the years, the legendary singer/songwriter/producer has worked with such recording stars as Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee, Patti Page, the Jordanaires and Dolly Parton, among others.
He’s appeared in two movies (Concrete Cowboys with Tom Selleck and Murder in Music City starring Claude Akins) and wrote and performed two songs (Cannonball and Just for the Hell of It) for The Cannonball Run starring Burt Reynolds.
From 1991 when he opened the Ray Stevens Theatre in Branson, Mo. until 1993, Stevens entertained nearly two million fans with his bucolic brand of humor, extravagant sets and madcap musical performances.
Beginning May 16, the inimitable Bill Miller taped a series of six weekly interviews with Ray Stevens for broadcast on The Bill Miller Show, a weekly syndicated radio program heard in over 100 U.S. markets and Webcast on www.rwpr.net featuring American classics, adult standards and celebrity interviews.
Here, provided courtesy of Bill Miller, are excerpts from his entertaining exchange with the effervescent Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer.
Bill: Our guest is the man who made the words, “Don’t Look Ethel” famous. I’m one of those disc jockeys who looked forward to getting anything from Ray Stevens. We just put it on the air without screening it because we knew it was going to be funny. You have a lot of fans across this great country of ours, Harold Ray Ragsdale.
Ray: That’s right. When I made my first record, the producer, Ken Nelson at Capitol, didn’t like my name and changed it. He was famous for doing that. He changed Jerry Reed’s name from Hubbard. He changed Sonny James’s name from Loden. He liked zippy names, but I told him he’d make my mother mad if he changed my name so he said, “What was your mother’s maiden name?” And I said,” Stevens,” and he said, “That’s it.”
Bill: There’s a myth that you were a DJ at 15. Is that true?
Ray: Yea. I was in high school in Albany, Ga. at the time, and a station manager called. He wondered if I’d be interested in hosting a three-hour show on Saturdays aimed at kids. He wanted a girl to co-host so I got a friend, and we did three hours a week for a couple of years.
Bill: I’ve got a scenario for a mad scientist with his boiling cauldron. His intent is to make a Ray Stevens clone, and the recipe he’s come up with is a little bit of Homer and Jethro, some Spike Jones, a dab of Roger Miller, a snippet of Sheb Wooley, some Stan Freeburg, maybe a little bit of the Statler Brothers and some Jerry Reed.
Ray: Sounds like you’ve got a pretty good recipe there though I’m very flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence with those folks.
Bill: You shunned the word genius a moment ago, but some of the things you’ve done are so off the wall – like a bunch of clucking chickens doing In the Mood. Are those chickens still singing?
Ray: If I can still make the sounds.
Bill: You’ve got a new album – New Orleans Moon. It brings to mind grits and red beans and rice and those fabulous beignets. What prompted you to put this album together?
Ray: I have a getaway house in Gulf Shores, Ala. not far from New Orleans. In all the hurricanes in the last few years, my house got hit every time. So I feel a sort of empathy with the folks in New Orleans.
I met a Gulf Coast resident, Chuck Redden, who’s a great songwriter, and he and I wrote some songs together. He came up with the idea for a song called New Orleans Moon. We put that together, and I thought it was timely to do an album about New Orleans so I recorded all the old standards that refer and relate to and were made famous in New Orleans.
It was really a labor of love. I took my time with it, really spent a lot of time, and I’m just really proud of it. The title song is the only new song on the album. But the others sound like new songs because I haven’t heard them in so long that I don’t think I was influenced by previous recordings.
Bill: It’s being released July 10 – right? Where can folks get it?
Ray: The distributor that we just signed with has access to all the usual suspects including ITunes, eMusic and Rhapsody. Then of course there’s my Web site, which is www.raystevens.com.
Bill: What led to the prelude?
Ray: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans was one of the songs I wanted to do. I thought if I set it up with a prelude that kind of alludes to the hard times caused by Katrina, the album would have more meaning for the people listening to it.
Bill: You don’t know your influence on culture and society and how people think about certain names, including the Shriners. Wasn’t that song was based on a real experience?
Ray: Yes. I was up all night in a hotel where they were headquartered for a convention one year, and I just knew that I had to write a song about those guys.
I’ve had a great relationship with Shriners over the years. I bought a big Harley Davidson for the show in Branson and decked it all out. It looked like a circus coming to town, and I drove it on stage when I did the Shriners Convention song.
I sold the theatre last year and won’t be able to carry that big thing on the road so I gave it to the Shriners here in Nashville. They’re going to use it to raise money for their children’s hospitals. They’re a great bunch of guys and one of the charities that really give all the money they get to their charity.
Bill: Ray Stevens, you’re a talent that has given us so many different slices of life – Mr. Businessman -- that was kind of a wake-up call for people and their morals.
Ray: Yes, but the older I get, the more I realize it’s a wake-up call that we might not wake up one of these days, and so we better live life as best we can while we have the chance.
Bill: Did you have fun making Along Came Jones?
Ray: Oh yea. That went on the Gitarzan album with Yakety Yak. It was all novelty songs. Today they call them comedy songs. We had a great time making that album out in Owen Bradley’s barn in Mount Juliet, Tenn. It was fun to get up and drive out there everyday and stay all day recording.
Bill: What a guy Owen Bradley was.
Ray: Without Owen Bradley, Nashville would not be what it is today as far as it relates to music.
Bill: I got a chance to interview his brother, Harold. He’s still picking isn’t he?
Ray: Harold’s still playing, and he’s also president of the musicians union here in Nashville. They just inducted him in the County Music Hall of Fame. It was quite an evening.
Bill: Wasn’t Along Came Jones originally a hit by the Coasters?
Ray: Yes, it was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – two of my favorite songwriters. They wrote Yakety Yak and Poison Ivy and all those Coasters’ hits.
Bill: Wasn’t there a Broadway musical based on their work?
Ray: Yea -- Smokey Joe’s Café. I saw it, and it was great.
Bill: Over the years, you’ve been with several labels, including Andy Williams’s Barnaby label. That had to be fun working with Andy.
Ray: It was one of the high points of my career.
Bill: You were his summer replacement in 1970. Was that your big national break?
Ray: It could have been. I’ve been a guest on a lot of shows over the years.
Bill: Did you find it hard to take what you did in the studio and put it on stage?
Ray: I used to have a problem because we’d travel around and do one-nighters and an occasional week-or-two-stint in Vegas. I had trouble producing as well as I wanted to some of the comedy songs that I did onstage because I had ideas for props and things that you just couldn’t travel with. That’s what prompted me to look for a sit-down gig, and we wound up in Branson for several years. Being in one place and not having to pack up and move everything everyday or every other day, I was able to do more productions with more props and more lights and everything else. It was quite an experience. I enjoyed that.
Bill: Have you ever seen a Spike Jones performance?
Ray: I never saw him live, but I’ve seen videotapes of him. I met his sister in Branson a few years ago, and she gave me some Spike Jones videos. I’ve had his records for years. I was a big fan.
Bill: Didn’t you work with Chet Atkins?
Ray: Yes, Chet was a good friend of mine. He’s not with us anymore, and I sure miss him. He was another stalwart in the founding of Nashville as Music City USA along with Owen.
Bill: Was he fun to work with?
Ray: Always, and he managed to pull off a lot of hits in the RCA Victor studio here in town.
Bill: Did you ever work with Roger Miller?
Ray: Sure, I’ve known Roger since the early days. As a matter of fact, Roger was the one who suggested to Don Williams, Andy’s brother, who managed Roger that he should manage me.
Bill: Didn’t you work with Andy Griffith?
Ray: Yea. He’s one of my heroes. He’s fabulous. Speaking of Andy, I was just with George Lindsey, who played Goober on The Andy Griffith Show. They were inducting Sonny James into the County Music Hall of Fame, and they wanted me to sing one of his hits, a song called Running Bear, which was originally a hit years ago by Johnny Preston. Sonny did it with a country arrangement, and it went to number one on the country charts.
I said I’d be happy to do Running Bear, and I called George and asked him to play the part of Little White Dove. He dressed like an Indian maid, and I was Running Bear. We had a lot of fun.
I told Sonny I had a song about running bare, too.
Bill: Streaking was a big fad on college campuses. Did you write The Streak?
Ray: Yes. I had read about it in a news magazine on a long flight. A college student had taken off his clothes and run through the crowd and called it streaking, and I said, “Whoa! What’s this!”
Bill: And another guy did it at the Oscars about the time your album came out.
Ray: Yea, and that didn’t hurt.
Bill: Boy when you came out with Turn Your Radio On, it took me back to the Chuck Wagon Gang. Our Kansas City disc jockeys played that about every third day. I didn’t realize at the time that you’d done an entire spiritual album.
Ray: As a matter of fact I want to do a new one -- not the same songs -- a whole new Gospel album.
Bill: Don’t you have a number of videos in circulation?
Ray: Yes. Several years ago, I produced some videos of some of the comedy songs that I had recorded, and I sold them over cable TV with an 800 number. They were so successful and have continued to sell that I followed up with a video (Ray Stevens Live!) that we taped at my show in Branson, and we sold that on the cable networks. Right now, we’ve got a video called the Complete Comedy Video Collection, which has 20 of the best comedy videos. That’s been very successful.
Bill: They’re available on your Web site?
Bill: Just when we thought we’d heard everything from Ray Stevens, he comes up with a new twist. We’re glad you’re still cranking them out.