Ray Stevens’ show offers patriotic songs, classic hits

30 Nov

I have fond memories of Ray Stevens’ music.
His novelty classic “The Streak,” brings back memories of my little brothers dancing around the kitchen — al fresco — lip-syncing into kitchen spoon microphones. We were a lot younger then.
I remember my grandmother teaching me the words to “Everything is Beautiful,” a Grammy winner by the boy from a small Georgia mill town. I remember roller skating to “Guitarzan” and “Turn Your Radio On,” his gospel toe tapper.
Today, Ray Stevens is a new member of the Christian Music Hall of Fame, a musical commentator on issues of political import and a YouTube video phenomenon with more than 10 million views online — and that’s just two recent hits counted.
I talked to Ray last week about his new Branson show, his recent viral video status and his musical beginnings. I have a new appreciation for the guy who wrote “Ahab the Arab.”
“I used to sing a lot with the radio, more so than your average bear,” the two-time Grammy winner told me of his childhood. “My mother insisted I take piano lessons at age 6, and I didn’t want to, but she was pretty forceful. So, I said, ‘OK, let’s keep peace in the house.’”
Ray said he’s glad he went along with his mother’s wishes and suspects he’s a better piano player than he would have been a baseball player.
At almost 72 years old, Ray is still going strong, performing six shows a week at the Welk Resort and Theater in Branson.
“I love Branson,” he said. “Branson is a cross section of America, the kind of folks I grew up with and I really appreciate being accepted there.”
Ray’s show includes many of his classic hits the audience expects and some of his new patriotic material, which has spurred his recent success on the video hosting site YouTube.
“All I do is make music,” Ray said. “I do songs and lyrics and shows and records and DVDs and videos and I do try to do songs that are relevant to the current political scene.”
As matter of fact, he said, the whole first part of his show is new material.
Hits and misses
“We the People,” the title song of his collection of patriotic numbers has almost 4 million hits on YouTube. “Come to the USA,” a song about illegal immigration, has around 4 million hits, too.
“I’m obliged to do those songs in the show because so many people are buying tickets and coming to see the show based on what they have seen on YouTube and they heard on the radio,” he said. “We’ve managed to get a lot of radio play on some of those political songs. Some people call them patriotic songs and I am very thankful for that.”
Another politically inspired song, “God Save Arizona,” takes on the federal government for their meddling in the state’s struggles with illegal immigration.
By most standards, Ray made it big at an early age. He started his own band at 15 and soon found local fame playing at school dances and events around his hometown. Then he met a music publisher who encouraged him to try his hand at writing music and lyrics. He did and soon started to get noticed.
“I wrote a song right off the bat and he got me a recording contact with Capitol Records,” Ray said. “I made my first record when I was still a senior in high school. I guess you can just say that I’ve been very lucky.”
His first try at songwriting, called “Silver Bracelet,” was not a hit, Ray said with a laugh. Soon after that he penned a novelty song based on the story of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” and another musical life lesson followed.
“I barked like a dog on the record,” he said. “You know, ‘On King, on you great husky … arf, arf.’ That was my hook. It was taking off and was going to be a big hit, but I had to take it off the shelves.”
The record had to be pulled because the young song writer and performer neglected to secure permission from the folks who owned the Sergeant Preston character.
Political correctness
Then, in 1962, after a couple of musical misses, he landed his first hit, “Ahab the Arab.”
“I wrote it the night before the session where it was recorded, and sure enough, there was something about it that was magic,” he said.
I asked Ray if ‘Ahab’ is received in today’s politically correct times the same way it was almost 50 years ago.
“I have guys in the media, like you, ask about the political correctness of Ahab,” he said. “I know that’s what you get paid to do, but let me tell you honestly, when I was a kid I read the Arabian Nights and I was a big fan of the culture. I thought it was pretty exciting. A lot of adventure and treasure and this kind of stuff. I just wrote it as a fun song. I had no political undertones or overtones or intentions in the song. Now, all of the sudden, I’m politically incorrect.”
Ray told me to simply listen to the lyrics of the song and not to read anything into them that’s not there. The funny song, he contends, shouldn’t offend anyone. I did and he’s right. It’s just a funny song.
With 50 years of entertaining audiences with his clever novelty, country, pop and gospel hits, Ray said he might be most proud of his 2009 induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
“I’m very honored by that,” he said. “I’ve done one gospel album and had one hit off it called ‘Turn Your Radio On.’ I look forward to recording another gospel album real soon. I’ve got material all picked out, but I’ve been so busy traveling and haven’t had time to get to it. As soon as I get off the road for a little spell, I’m going to cut that.”

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