One of the most popular novelty artists of all time, Ray Stevens enjoyed a remarkably long career, with a stretch of charting singles -- some of them major hits -- that spanned four decades.
Unlike parody king Weird Al Yankovic, Stevens made most of his impact with original material, often based on cultural trends of the day. Yet his knack for sheer silliness translated across generations, not to mention countless compilations and special TV offers. Stevens was a legitimately skilled singer and producer who also performed straight country and pop, scoring the occasional serious hit. But in general, comic novelty songs were his bread and butter, and his brand of humor somehow managed to endure seismic shifts in popular taste and style.
Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale on January 24, 1939, in the small town of Clarkdale, GA. He started piano lessons at age six and formed a band at 15 called the Barons, which played at local venues and social events. At 17, he moved to Atlanta and caught on with radioman Bill Lowery's music publishing company; one of his songs, "Silver Bracelet," got him a shot at recording for Capitol subsidiary Prep, but the single never hit outside of Atlanta. Stevens enrolled at Georgia State University to study classical piano and music theory and in the meantime continued to record for Lowery's NRC label. One of his earliest novelty songs, 1960's "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon," was building a national buzz until a copyright infringement suit took it off the racks. Stevens began performing regularly on a radio show called The Georgia Jubilee, which helped lead to a job with Mercury Records as a session musician, arranger, and A&R assistant. Meanwhile, in 1961, he landed his first Top 40 hit with the novelty (obviously) song "Jeremiah Peabody's Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills."
Once Stevens joined the Mercury staff, he recorded several more novelty singles. "Ahab the Arab," released in early 1962, was a smash hit, reaching the Top Five on the pop charts and even crossing over to the Top Ten on the R&B side. The follow-up, "Santa Claus Is Watching You," just missed the Top 40, but 1963's "Harry the Hairy Ape" returned him to the Top 20. Still, Stevens wasn't planning on a singing career; he concentrated more on learning the ropes in the studio. He worked with artists like Brenda Lee, Patti Page, and Brook Benton and sometimes sang as a substitute vocalist with the Jordanaires. In 1963, he played with Elvis Presley himself on the sessions for the Fun in Acapulco soundtrack. With no hits of his own on the way, however, Stevens wound up moving to the Monument label, where he signed on as a producer and arranger. There he worked with a young Dolly Parton and B.J. Thomas, among others, and formed a friendship with producer Bill Justis (best known for his Sun Records classic "Raunchy").
Stevens began recording again for Monument in 1968, delving into surprisingly pointed social commentary with the Top 30 pop hit "Mr. Businessman." Comedy was still in his blood, though, and Justis gave him an idea for a song called "Gitarzan." Stevens wrote the lyrics and voiced the characters, and in 1969 "Gitarzan" became his first Top Ten pop hit in seven years. His follow-up, a version of the Coasters' "Along Came Jones," reached the Top 30. Stevens also recorded "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," a song by a young up-and-comer named Kris Kristofferson. He was so pleased with the result that he turned down a chance to record Burt Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," which of course hit number one for Thomas. Unfortunately, Stevens' version of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" flopped, but his instincts were right on, as Johnny Cash scored a major hit with it not long after.
An appearance on Andy Williams' variety show led to Stevens signing with the singer's Barnaby label in 1970. He hit immediately with a straight pop song, the relentlessly cheery "Everything Is Beautiful," which displayed his heretofore unseen sentimental streak. "Everything Is Beautiful" was an enormous hit, climbing to number one on the pop charts and winning Stevens a Grammy. Follow-ups included the serious-minded pop song "America, Communicate With Me" (1970), the novelty song "Bridget the Midget (Queen of the Blues)" (1971), and the gospel-styled "Turn Your Radio On" (1972), the latter of which was his first Top 20 country hit. It was, of course, a novelty song that would give Stevens his next big success. "The Streak," a 1974 ditty about the new fad of (what else?) streaking, zoomed up the charts to become Stevens' second number one pop hit and also made the country Top Five.
In the years that followed, Stevens' singles began to chart higher on the country side. His bluegrass-style rearrangement of "Misty" made the pop Top 20 in 1975, but it was a number three country hit and won him another Grammy. His country Top 40 hits over the next several years included "Indian Love Call," "Honky Tonk Waltz," and a version of the pop perennial "You Are So Beautiful"; during this period, he switched over to Warner Brothers. In 1977, he took a breather from country music to record an utterly bizarre version of Glenn Miller's swing classic "In the Mood," clucking all the instrumental parts like a choir of chickens (the single was credited to the Henhouse Five Plus Too). 1979's "I Need Your Help Barry Manilow," a takeoff on the MOR superstar's trademark style, was his last charting pop single.
Stevens switched labels again, this time to RCA, and promptly had a Top Ten country hit with the humorous "Shriner's Convention" in 1980. Several more singles failed to duplicate its success, and in 1984 he departed RCA for the greener pastures of MCA. Over the next few years, he enjoyed a period of renewed popularity. Songs like "It's Me Again, Margaret" (about an obscene phone caller), "The Mississippi Squirrel Revival," "The Haircut Song," "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex," and "I Saw Elvis in a U.F.O." may not have been his highest-charting (only "Squirrel" made it to the country Top 20), but they all became audience favorites and signature songs. Moreover, his albums sold better than they ever had before; 1985's He Thinks He's Ray Stevens reached number three on the country charts, and the 1986 follow-up, I Have Returned, actually hit number one. Both went gold, as did 1987's Crackin' Up, and Stevens issued several other albums for MCA up through 1991, when he charted for what appeared to be the last time with "Working for the Japanese."
In 1991, Stevens opened his own theater in Branson, MO, and played regularly there until 1993, when he sold the building to take a break. In 1992, he assembled a video collection of some of his best-known material and began a direct marketing campaign via television; the tape wound up selling over three million copies, and Stevens has since released other videos through his own company. He also recorded new material occasionally, returning in 1997 with Hum It and the holiday album Ray Stevens Christmas: Through a Different Window. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Stevens returned with the new single "Osama-Yo' Mama," which became his first charting country single in ten years, reaching the Top 50. It was followed in early 2002 by Osama-Yo' Mama: The Album, which climbed into the country Top 30. In 2005, Stevens launched a television-only campaign to promote his three-disc Box Set, then handed the collection over to Curb for street release in 2006. Laughter Is the Best Medicine appeared in 2009 as did Sings Sinatra...Say What?, which featured Stevens' versions of several songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi