Ray Stevens - Biography
Although best known for unhinged country novelty records like “Ahab the Arab,” “Gitarzan” and “The Streak,” singer-songwriter Ray Stevens also has a distinguished résumé as a producer-arranger for such artists as Patti Page, Brook Benton and Brenda Lee. While he’s famed as the Comedy King of Music City, Stevens also excelled in poignant statements like his 1969 international chart-topper, “Everything is Beautiful,” a pop-country masterpiece that typified his unflagging versatility and skill. Such attributes allowed Stevens to place singles on the country and pop chart for three decades to come.
Born Harold Ray Ragsdale on January 25, 1939 in Clarksdale, Georgia, Stevens was learning to play piano by age six. He grew up enthralled by the music of Lefty Frizzell and Ernest Tubb, and eventually, Stevens began paying particularly close attention to the whimsical R&B of The Coasters, whose “Charlie Brown” and “Along Came Jones” combined hot music with satirical lyrics. Stevens didn’t waste any time chasing down a musical career, first hitting Nashville when he was just 17-years-old. He recorded his debut single there, “Silver Bracelet,” for Capitol’s subsidiary Prep Records, and made it a point to strike up an acquaintance with legendary guitarist-A&R man, Chet Atkins. Back in Georgia, Stevens was leading his first band, The Barons, and went on to study musical theory and composition at Georgia State University.
Stevens returned to Nashville, and even though his next release, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” was shelved after the producers of the same-named television show protested Stevens’ failure to get permission for its use, he went on to land a deal with Mercury Records. His 1961 novelty, “Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills,” made it into the Pop Top Forty and, along with 1962s follow-up, “Ahab the Arab,” Stevens established himself as a rising star when the disc ultimately rose to the Pop Top Five. Subsequent releases “Harry the Hairy Ape” and “Santa Claus is Watching You” sold decently but didn’t replicate the success of “Ahab.” During this period, he was also doing production and arranging jobs, and even recorded with Elvis Presley, when Stevens was serving a fill-in Jordanaire.
A move to Fred Foster’s Monument proved wise—already home to Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Tony Joe White, Foster actively nurtured offbeat talent and Stevens was a perfect fit. By the late 1960s, Stevens was back in the pop charts with “Mr. Business Man,” a cover of “Along Came Jones” and the Top Ten hit “Gitarzan.” His 1969 version of Kris Kristofferson’s moody “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” was his first country chart entry. Shortly after that, “Everything is Beautiful” became a monster hit, reaching #1 Pop, denting the British Top Ten, breaking the Top 40 Country, and earning Stevens a Grammy for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male. His U.K. popularity remained strong in the early 1970s, when “Bridget the Midget” reached #2, and back home, Stevens kept busy recording—his “Turn Your Radio On” went Top Twenty—and appearing on the Music Country TV show.
After the bare-bottomed college campus craze of ‘streaking’ began making headlines, Stevens cooked up “The Streak,” his biggest hit yet—it spent three weeks at the top of the Pop chart, and bolted into the Top Three on the country chart. It was also a #1 in Britain, and eventually sold over five million copies, firmly establishing Stevens as America’s premier novelty songster.
Never predictable, Stevens followed this success up with an atmospheric version of Errol Garner’s jazz classic “Misty,” a Top Fifteen Pop hit that also brought him a second Grammy, this time for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists. Monument was on the verge of collapse by 1975, and Stevens switched to Warner Bros Records, where his cover of the Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful” reached the country Top 20, followed by the Top 30 single, “Honky Tonk Waltz.” Stevens then returned to stone zany mode, releasing a chicken-cluck trimmed version of Glenn Miller’s swing standard, “In the Mood,” under the name Henhouse Five Plus Too, before moving to RCA for the Top 10 country send-up, “Shriner’s Convention.”
At MCA in the 1980s (and Curb during the ’90s), Stevens began making videos that were as visually wild as his guffaw-inducing lyrics, resulting in vintage Stevens nuggets like “I Saw Elvis in a UFO,” “Working for the Japanese” and “The Pirate Song.” His Ray Stevens Comedy Video Classics sold some 300,000 copies and earned him Billboard’s Top Music Video of the Year. Stevens continued to gain attention in the 21st century, taking advantage of web outlets like YouTube to showcase videos for new songs like “If 10 Percent is Good Enough for Jesus, it Ought to be Good Enough for Uncle Sam.” In 2010, his politically-themed novelty song and video “We the People”—which lambasted President Obama’s health-care reform proposal—was adopted as an unofficial anthem by the grassroots activist Tea Party movement.