Ray Stevens

Monday, April 1, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 1, 2002, in Nashville.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is the remarkable Ray Stevens.

Ray Stevens: [Sings and plays] “Osama, yo’ mama didn’t raise you right./ When you were young, she must have wrapped your turban too tight./ She should have kept you home on those Arabian nights./ It’s plain to see you need some therapy./ Osama, yo’ mama could’ve done a lot better, though I bet every day, you did something to upset her./ By the way, we got an answer to your anthrax letter./ New York City’s where it’s from./ It’s called a smart bomb./ And I can hear your mama sayin’ now: ‘You in a heap of trouble, son./ Now just look what you’ve done./ Saw you on TV with that gun./ Mercy sakes, I can’t do a thing with you./ Told you W’s gonna get you.’ [Gobbling noise] And I can hear W saying: ‘You in a heap of trouble, boy./ And I don’t think you will enjoy our game of search and destroy./ Yeah, we got your terror right here, and we gonna run it up your rear.’ [Gobbling]”

Paulson: It is great to have you here. Thank you for being part of “Speaking Freely.”

Stevens: Nice to be here.

Paulson: We’re glad to have a new Ray Stevens album out. And yet it’s been more than 40 years since you first walked into the recording studio. And now your name shows up on about 75 albums, 20 or more hit records. Is that pretty much what you dreamed of when you first became a recording artist, that kind of longevity?

Stevens: Yeah, well, I don’t know about the longevity, but that’s all I ever wanted to do. I mean, I’ve — I think I’ve wanted to write songs and make records since I was a sperm. So, thank goodness I was able to do that — so far.

Paulson: And it began in the late ‘50s? Is that your first time to walk into a studio?

Stevens: Yes, ‘57. I was still in high school and made my first record in Nashville at what’s now called RCA Studio B.

Paulson: Which is a revered site in Nashville.

Stevens: Yes. It’s sort of a relic now.

Paulson: A lot of great records made there.

Stevens: Absolutely.

Paulson: Is that when you first made the acquaintance of your good friend, Chet Atkins?

Stevens: I think it was. I think I met Chet — I was living in Atlanta at the time. And I drove up to record here. Because in Atlanta, at that time, there weren’t any great studios. And Chet was there. I think he was running RCA, the Nashville office of RCA. And I think I met him on that trip.

Paulson: So, your first song, I understand, was a hit in Atlanta.

Stevens: Yeah.

Paulson: “Silver Bracelet.” Is that, that had to be kind of a rush for you as a young performer to actually hear your song on the radio.

Stevens: Oh, yeah. I remember the first time I heard it, though. The disc jockey introduced me as Ray Peterson. And I think I got introduced as Ray Price a few times. But they finally got it right, I think, down the road a little bit.

Paulson: Well, you eventually went on to record a kind of song that not many people did then and not many people do today. I mean, the so-called novelty record — you can call it parody — I think your first time you dabbled with that, would that have been “Sergeant Preston”? Or was that earlier than that that you wrote your first humorous song?

Stevens: I think “Sergeant Preston” might have been the first one. And I don’t do parodies. I do comedy songs. But — I have done one or two parodies but not as a general rule. But “Sergeant Preston” was a song about — well, I’ll do you a little of it. It goes like: [Plays and sings] “Well, in the frozen north of the Yukon/ lived the king of the Royal Mountie Fuzz./ Sergeant Preston was his name./ King his dog’s name was./ He had a big red coat and big black boots/ and a whistle on a chain./ And all the crooks ran for cover/ because he always got his man./ He said, ‘On, King. On, you great husky.’/ And that great husky said: [Howling].” Anyway, we had to pull the record off the market. It was taken off — it was gonna be a hit, I think. But in my exuberance, I had neglected to get permission from the folks who owned the character Sergeant Preston to use him in a song, and so they made us kill the record. But it did give me an idea as to where I could go and get some airplay, so —

Paulson: And so you found this other voice. Where did that come from? Where did you get the notion that you could be funny in song?

Stevens: Well, other people were doing it, so why not me? I mean, I was a big fan of The Coasters, Leiber and Stoller’s group, that did so many great records — “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Along Came Jones,” all those. And I was a big fan of Spike Jones, Dave Gardner, who was a great southern comedian back in those days.

Paulson: And in one day, you end up recording something on your own, something called “Ahab the Arab”?

Stevens: Yeah, we cut that — I think we cut that in the month of January right after I moved up here. And that was a — that was a lucky day, I think, for Shelby because that morning we cut “Ahab the Arab,” and at 2:00, we cut “Walk On By” with Leroy Van Dyke. And at 6:00, we cut “Wooden Heart” with Joe Dowell. All three records were big hits, all done in one day. So, I think the stars were lined up right.

Paulson: Absolutely. Where did “Ahab the Arab” go? I mean, today Americans have their sense of Arabs and the Arab culture. Clearly in 1962, there’s a different sense of that.

Stevens: Yeah. And you know, the song really wasn’t political or have any politically incorrect intentions. It was just an outrageous look at a guy who had a camel, and he named him Clyde, just like Roy and Trigger, you know? And he was a hero, and he’d ride through the desert and make off with the sultan’s prettiest girl in the harem. But, you know, I don’t know where that song came from. The night before the session, I had my material picked out. And I didn’t like any of it. And so in desperation, I wrote “Ahab the Arab” the night before the session. And sure enough, it turned out pretty good. I think there were spirits up there guiding me or something.

Paulson: Any recollection of the reaction you got when you first walked in the studio and said, “I’ve got a song called ‘Ahab the Arab’”?

Stevens: Well, you know, the reaction — let me tell you, those guys — [Laughing] they work so many sessions and recorded so many wild songs. I mean, you know, so what? “Okay, let’s hear it.” But it did. Once it came over the playback system, it did get a rise out of a lot of people.

Paulson: Oh, I’m sure. You’ve recited the lyrics. And people in their living rooms are now singing it. Could we have a little bit of “Ahab the Arab”?

Stevens: Oh, yeah. Let’s see. [Plays and sings] “Let me tell you about Ahab the Arab,/ sheik of the burning sand./ He had emeralds and rubies just dripping off of him, had a ring on every finger of his hand./ He wore a big ol’ turban wrapped around his head, scimitar by his side./ Every evening about midnight, he’d jump on his camel named Clyde/ and ride silently through the night to the sultan’s tent, where he’d secretly meet with Fatima of the seven veils,/ swingingest Grade A number one U.S. choice dancer in the sultan’s whole harem, ‘cause him and her had a thing going./ They’d been carrying on for some time now/ behind the sultan’s back, and you could hear him talk to his camel as he rode out across the dunes./ His voice would cut through the still night desert air, and he’d say: [Imitating Arabic speech] which is Arabic for, ‘Whoa, baby.’/ And Clyde’d say, [Sucking in air] ‘Whaaaa.’ ” My camel voice went away today. “[Braying] Which is camel for,/ ‘What the heck’d he say anyway?’ ” And it goes like that.

Paulson: That’s great. Any conservative estimate of how many times you’ve sung that song?

Stevens: No, I’ve sung it enough to have worn out my Clyde voice.

Paulson: I see. That had to be kind of a revelation to you. You talked about being able to do novelty songs or comedy songs and get on the radio. And this just exploded. I mean, it was a huge record. And then — you’re a guy who had been recording relatively straight romantic songs earlier. Did you just say, “Okay, I’m funny from this point on”?

Stevens: No, I like all kind of music, comedy music being one facet of that. And, you know, I never considered myself exclusively tied to any particular style of music. And I still don’t.

Paulson: And we’re going to talk about some of your more serious songs. What I find intriguing is that about this work and then the later songs like “America, Communicate with Me” is that you really are this voice from Middle America or the mid-South. I mean, there’s — much of what you’ve written is about there’s no need to be extreme left. There’s no need to be extreme right. We can all be together and take pride in the kind of country we live in. It’s really kind of a — you know, it’s an anthem for people who live their lives, daily struggle with challenges, but in the end, feel good about their lives and their country.

Stevens: You know, I’m interested in politics, but I — and a lot of the Republican or right-wing views I agree with wholeheartedly. But then I’ve surprised myself and found myself agreeing a lot with some of the views held by the Democrats and the left side. So, you know, I think the middle is a good, safe — well, I didn’t choose it ‘cause it was safe. But it’s a good common sense area. And, you know, I think common sense is the key phrase here.

Paulson: Given that you didn’t plan this and this is not a manipulation — you didn’t say, “You know, what the world really needs now is, is an album of protest songs for the middle,” it had to shock you, then, that “Mr. Businessman” became such a huge hit. Had — pleasant surprise?

Stevens: I don’t know if I was surprised or not. You know, every hit’s a surprise — don’t get me wrong. But I really thought it was a well-written song and — even if I do say so myself — and so, yeah, it was a surprise, but still, I could see why it was successful, to a certain degree.

Paulson: Oh, sure. It’s just that I think today the industry may be a little bit more calculating, a little bit more market-driven, and I think that conversation about, “I have a single here. It’s about, you know, overreaching by businesspeople who lose their values.” I mean, that would not sound like something Britney Spears would cover. [Laughing] Could we hear some of “Mr. Businessman”?

Stevens: Yeah. [Hitting single piano note, plays and sings] “Itemize the things you covet/ as you squander through your life./ Bigger cars, bigger houses, term insurance for your wife./ Tuesday evenings with your harlot,/ and on Wednesdays, it’s your charlatan analyst./ He’s high up on your list./ You’ve got air-conditioned sinuses/ and dark, disturbing doubt about religion,/ and you keep those cards and letters going out./ While your secretary’s tempting you,/ your morals are exempting you from guilt and shame./ Heaven knows you’re not to blame./ You better take care of business, Mr. Businessman./ What’s your plan?/ Get down to business, Mr. Businessman,/ if you can before it’s too late/ and you throw your life away.” Then it goes into the bridge.

Paulson: The album is full of songs that make you think. A song recorded in 1969 that also became the theme of your television show that was — it was substituting — summer replacement show for Andy Williams.

Stevens: Oh, yeah, right.

Paulson: A song called “Everything Is Beautiful.” And that, I understand, you wrote pretty quickly?

Stevens: Actually, it took about three days. But the song itself, after I waded through all the bad ideas and there was this much crumpled paper on the floor around the piano, when I hit on the idea, it wrote pretty fast. But I think what set it up so well was the fact that we took a portable recording of — a portable recording machine to my two daughters’ school here in Nashville and recorded their class singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” And we spliced that onto the front of the recording and bridged the splice with a big string chord, and it really set it up — very well.

Paulson: And was being on TV every week a dramatic change for you? Was that —

Stevens: Oh, it was terrifying, yeah. [Laughing] I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but it was — and at the same time, it was a lot of fun too. It was a very big learning experience for me. And we shot the show up in Toronto, Canada. And we were up there, I think, six weeks and shot eight or ten episodes, which was the summer block. And it was a lot of fun.

Paulson: And it played a lot of your, a lot of your strengths: comedy, music.

Stevens: Yeah, we had some great writers and people behind the scenes.

Paulson: Now, before we leave today, we’re definitely going to have to ask you to share “Everything Is Beautiful” with us. But I wanted to ask you about another recording you had from that period by a relatively unknown songwriter named Kristofferson. You had the first recording of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”?

Stevens: Yeah, a good friend of mine, Bob Beckham, who’s a publisher here in town. Back in those days, he was running, I think, Combine Music for Fred Foster. And Kris was a new writer they had signed — relatively new writer they had signed. And he brought in three songs. And Bob said, “Let me play you these three songs.” And one was “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” One was “Help Me Make It through the Night.” And I forget what the third one was, but it was a big hit. And so I said, “I love the ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’. Let me record that.” He said, “Fine.” So, I went in the studio and spent a lot of time and had made what I thought was a really good record. And I was very proud of it. And I got a call from Hal David, who wanted me to fly out to L.A. and hear a song that he and Bacharach had written for a movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” And so I said, “Sure,” and I flew out. And I heard “Raindrops Falling On My Head”. And I said, “Well, you know, that’s a great song. But if I cut that, that means I’m going to have to postpone releasing ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ and I don’t want to do that because somebody else might beat me out with it. So, thank you very much.” And so, nobody ever heard my record of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It came out, but it — and I know why now. I just didn’t have the image to sell that lyric. My image was not that song. And Johnny Cash’s was. He had a hit with it later. But it turned out well, I think. Because the very next record I had was “Everything Is Beautiful.” And of course B.J. Thomas sang the heck out of “Raindrops Falling.” I don’t think I could have sung it that good.

Paulson: So, you’re going to have a number one hit one way or the other. Either way it worked out well for you.

Stevens: Right.

Paulson: And so then the hits just, you know, started coming in a very serious way. “The Streak,” “Shriner’s Convention,” “Mississippi Squirrel Revival.” And, again, you’ve got, you’ve got this gift to record in about three minutes songs that capture the public imagination, make people laugh, and make them want to go out and buy them, which is probably the most important. And then, I think, one of the more unusual — well, maybe more conventional — but for you, unusual, is your version of “Misty,” which won your second Grammy. How did that come —

Stevens: That was an accident. We were in the studio — I say “we,” my road band and I — were in my little studio rehearsing for a television show that we were gonna do the next day. And during one of the breaks in the rehearsal, we started clowning around with “Misty” with a banjo and a fiddle and a steel because it was so out of character for the song. I mean, let’s face it. That’s the classic jazz ballad, with the major seventh chords and all that. And it started sounding good. So I called the engineer. He was home. I said, “Get in here, and let’s record this.” And he did, and we took it in about — we took about two takes, overdubbed the voices, and we had a record. And it took about an hour. And sure enough, it was a real winner — hit a nerve.

Paulson: Another record that you did very well with that was also thought-provoking was, as I mentioned, “Would Jesus Wear A Rolex?” Do you get hate mail, Ray?

Stevens: No.

Paulson: Do you ever get negative reactions to your songs?

Stevens: No.

Paulson: And I would think that one would make people crazy, especially if they weren’t listening carefully.

Stevens: Well, you know, I don’t think I have a very heavy reputation; I mean — but the song was a fun song. Chet Atkins and Margaret Archer wrote that song and gave it to me to record. And I just had a great time recording it.

Paulson: Can we hear a little bit of that?

Stevens: Yeah, let’s see. Let’s see. How’s that go? Um — [Plays and sings] “Woke up this mornin’,/ turned on my TV set./ There in living color was something I can’t forget./ This man was preachin’ at me./ Yeah, laying on the charm,/ asking me for $20 with $10,000 on his arm./ He wore designer clothing,/ big smile on his face,/ selling me salvation while they sang ‘Amazing Grace,’/ asking me for money/ when he had all the signs of wealth./ You know, I almost wrote a check out./ But then I asked myself:/ Would He wear a pinkie ring?/ Would He drive a fancy car?/ Would His wife wear furs and diamonds?/ Would His dressing room have a star?/ If He came back tomorrow,/ now, there’s something I’d like to know./ Tell me./ Would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?”

Paulson: I can remember the first time I heard that song. And just, I thought, “That’s amazing.” And a story told very well, very quickly. Let’s talk a little bit about Osama-Yo’ Mama, the album. You’ve been out of the studio for a while. It’s good to have a new release from Ray Stevens. And it was preceded — before you can have Osama-Yo’ Mama the album, you have to have the single.

Stevens: Right.

Paulson: And, as we speak, it is one of the top two best-selling singles in the country markets across the country. And yet it doesn’t show up as much, as prominently, in the airplay lists. What is that about? Why is it that people are buying it, and we’re not hearing it as much on the radio?

Stevens: I don’t know. I’ve asked that same question. You know, the soundtrack from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” suffered the same fate and went on to be album of the year. Gosh, I’d love to see that happen again. I’m not looking for that, though. But it’s a strange thing out there. I don’t know who programs radio now, but they don’t seem to be playing the songs that people want to hear.

Paulson: And what does that do to you as an artist? Somebody who’s clearly wanting to please your audience, but you also would like to be on the radio.

Stevens: Well, sure, yeah. Well, you know, you just have to bite the bullet and say, “Oh, okay. That’s the way it is.” But it does, you know, make you ask a lot of questions. Maybe it’ll come back around one of these days to radio stations playing what people are buying, you know?

Paulson: So, how is it different when you walk into a studio today and record your new album compared to 1957 when you walked in?

Stevens: Oh, gosh. Well, in ‘57 — I don’t even think we had eight-track back in ‘57. We had three tracks, and that was it. And that just a kind of a back-up thing. That was a little insurance policy. We really recorded mono, I believe, and — singles, singles anyway. And all the musicians were there, and you did it all at one time. And if you overdubbed anything, it was only one pass. Because more than that and you’ll get layers of hiss build-up, you know? Now, with digital — and in my little studio, I have 48 tracks. And I can just overdub till the cows come home, and you won’t hear a speck of hiss. And they have keyboard instruments that have synthesized — they call it sampling — every sound known to man. So, if you play a keyboard, you can put all kind of sounds on there, just stack them on one after the other. It’s really a lot — you get a lot more, I think, creative freedom today due to the technology than you had back then, but it’s not as exciting. Because when you walked in back in those days, you knew you had to nail it, and you’d get in there, and all the guys in the studio were really — you know, you were all trying to work together. And some magic happened, you know? And of course, you can make magic happen today, but you have to hold back on your enthusiasm till you get everything on there. And then you can adjust, you know? It takes a long — a lot more time to record these days.

Paulson: We cannot close the show out today without asking you to perform what is arguably your biggest hit. I was listening last night to “Everything Is Beautiful” and was struck by this line, this series of lines: “We must not close our minds./ We must let our thoughts be free.” And I thought, “That’s a great fit for what we do here.” And kind of marveling that that is the lyric of one of the hottest records ever. 1969 it was the number one record. It won the Grammy for you and works on so many levels. It’s melodically beautiful. It’s — you can’t get it out of your head after you’ve heard it a few times. Given that endorsement, would you play that for us?

Stevens: I sure would. [Plays and sings] “Everything is beautiful — in its own way./ Like a starry summer night or a snow-covered winter’s day./ Everybody’s beautiful, in their own way./ Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find a way./ And there is none so blind, as he who will not see./ We must not close our minds./ We must let our thoughts be free./ For every hour that passes by, you know the world gets a little bit older./ Time to realize that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder./ And everything is beautiful in its own way./ Like a starry summer night or a snow-covered winter’s day./ Everybody’s beautiful in their own way./ Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find a way.”