by Tom Redmond
An interview with Ray Stevens
Ray Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale in Clarkdale, Georgia, a small cotton mill town twenty miles north of Atlanta. At six years old while taking piano lessons, Ray had the realization that music would be his life.
At age seventeen while still in high school, Ray made his first trip to Nashville to record his first track,” Silver Bracelet,” at the now historic RCA Studio "B" for Prep Records. It was during this trip that he met Chet Atkins, who was the head of A&R for RCA and a life-long friendship was formed.
Ray returned to Atlanta finished high school and started college at Georgia State University where he studied classical piano and music theory and composition until his junior year when he left to move to Nashville and pursue his music career. In 1962, Ray recorded “Ahab the Arab” which was his first Top 5 pop chart hit. During this time Ray occasionally sang with the Jordanaires and played on sessions for Elvis Presley and other Country and Pop Icons of the era. Several years later Ray would publish, “Way Down,” Elvis' last hit.
After recording hits including “Harry The Hairy Ape” and “Santa Claus Is Watching You,” Ray also focused on producing other artists. Working at Monument Records during that period, Ray produced a newcomer, Dolly Parton.
In 1970, Ray joined Barnaby Records, a label owned by Andy Williams. After performing on Williams' television variety show, he became Barnaby's first contemporary artist. That summer, Ray had the opportunity to host as the summer replacement for the Andy Williams Show on NBC. He needed a hit song for the show and the end result of three days spent in his basement song writing was “Everything Is Beautiful,” which became Ray's first #1 hit on the pop charts and won him his first Grammy for Male Vocalist of the Year.
In 1974 while flying to Los Angeles, Ray read an article about a new fad among college students called 'streaking'. Inspired, he jotted down a few notes when he got home and wrote “The Streak.” This was Ray’s second #1 hit on the pop charts.
From 1979 to 1984 Ray's major hits included “Shriner’s Convention”, inspired from a real experience in a hotel booked full of Shriners, “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” and “It’s Me Again Margaret.”
1991 brought the opening of his two thousand seat Ray Stevens Theatre in Branson, Missouri. From 1991 to 1993 during the tourist season Ray performed twice a day, six days a week for over 1.6 million fans. Several years later in 2004 and 2005 Ray reopened the show for two more seasons and in 2006 the show closed permanently when Ray sold the theatre.
During his time in Branson, Ray made music videos of several of his greatest hits to liven up the stage show. A true pioneer, Ray released those videos through his own Clyde Records, Inc. in 1992 and made them available for purchase through a mail order/television ad campaign. The release of “Comedy Video Classics” proved very successful selling over two million copies.
In 2007 Ray decided to record exclusively for his own label, Clyde Records, Inc. Changing it from direct market only to a full service label that would make releases available to retail and for download.
This interview was conducted in July of 2009 during the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention.
TR: Tell me a little about when you first met Chet.
RAY: Well I think the first time we met was in the late fifties. Jerry Reed and I had come up here to record and I think we recorded in RCA Studio B, it could have been the one over on McGavock Pike which is now defunct, and it’s not there anymore. But, at any rate Chet was at RCA at that time.
TR: You and Jerry both came from that Atlanta scene, right?
RAY: Yes, he and I were both coming together; we were friends and played together in bands in Atlanta.
TR: So you and Jerry came and met Chet, what was that first meeting like?
RAY: I think he was just in his office, he had an office at the studio. He came in and spoke very nice, it was very brief.
TR: What was your first impression of him?
RAY: I thought he was wonderful, a really nice guy.
TR: You didn’t realize that you guys would have such a long history together.
RAY: Well at that time I didn’t have any plans to move to Nashville at all. I didn’t move here until 1962 and then I became more acquainted with Chet after that.
TR: You had a very unique relationship with Chet. You were a producer that worked with him, you worked as a studio musician, and as a business partner. How did you develop such a multi-faceted relationship with Chet?
RAY: I don’t know. He seemed to put a lot of faith in me and had a lot of confidence in me. I was very flattered that he would have that attitude towards me because I was nobody. I came up here from Atlanta and in 62 I was working for Mercury as an assistant in the A&R Dept.
Eventually my responsibilities grew and I would listen to new songs that were submitted for the artist roster. I was working for Shelby Singleton, and Jerry Kennedy and I would rehearse artists every now and then. I played on a lot of Mercury sessions back in those days and Chet would hire me to play on sessions at RCA.
TR: Strictly to play piano?
RAY: Either that or as a utility guy on the vibes or something like that. Usually as a keyboard guy and I would also get hired to sing harmony parts. I sang background on a lot of sessions that Chet produced. I sang harmony with Waylon when he started recording. As a matter of fact, I was a background singer for lots of artists.
TR: Maybe the fact that you were so multi talented was another reason why he put a lot of faith in you?
RAY: Maybe so. I don’t know.
TR: Did you also arrange the strings back then?
RAY: A little bit, I was getting my feet well as an arranger back in those days. I became friends with Bill Justice who was really a whiz-bang arranger. I had attended Georgia State, majored in theory and composition in the music department there for three years before moving to Nashville. Bill helped me finish up my musical education.
TR: It was a cheaper education too I bet!
RAY: Well yeah and less time consuming too, but he was great. I used to go over to Bill’s house and he would show me the practical application of what I already instinctively knew but didn’t know how to put on paper.
TR: Chet’s often credited along with Owen Bradley, for creating “The Nashville Sound”, which incorporated more strings among other things. You were part of that, were you not?
RAY: A little bit, yeah.
TR: What was that like? What was really happening in Nashville back then?
RAY: Well, it was a segue from arrangements with a steel guitar and sometimes a fiddle and instrumentation like that to a more middle of the road sound, a pop sound which incorporated the strings and background voices. Some of the first records of this type were done by Owen and Chet, Brenda Lee and Patsy Kline, Don Gibson and Floyd Cramer, the list is endless.
Ken Nelson also used to come here and cut Nashville artists like Ferlin Husky. Do you remember the record “Gone”? Ken did that, and he also cut Sonny James ‘ record, “Young Love”. Ken Nelson was the producer who produced my first record in 1957.
TR: Was that on Mercury?
RAY: No that was Capital. I was still in high school in Atlanta. Ken was an L.A .guy. He only came to town occasionally, to cut the country acts that Capital had signed. You know, you asked about the Nashville sound. I would describe it as a transformation from pure country to middle of the road country with a pop flavor.
TR: So it got played probably on more and different radio stations?
RAY: Yeah, it got a lot more air play.