Ray Stevens began his career with a novelty song that was a hit, and went on to become the top novelty recording artist of the latter half of the twentieth century.
He was born as Harold Ray Ragsdale in 1939 in Clarkdale, Georgia. He was a disc jockey at age 15. In 1956, he moved to Atlanta where he met Bill Lowery, who was a broadcaster for Georgia Tech football and a radio personality. Ray went on to study music theory and composition at Georgia State University.
He signed a contract with Mercury Records and in 1961 came up with his first hit, a novelty song he had written titled Jeremiah Peabody's Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green And Purple Pills. The song reached the lower part of the pop top forty and drew some notice for the artist, who was recording as Ray Stevens. It was a tale of a fictitious wonder drug that could cure many of your ills, obviously a spoof of some of the prominent television ads of the day.
In 1962 Stevens recorded another novelty tune that he had written, this one a way-out spoof of everthing Arabian, titled Ahab, The Arab. After seeing fellow-Mercury recording artist Clyde McPhatter in the studio, he named the camel in the song Clyde. This one was a solid top ten hit. The following year Stevens hit with Harry The Hairy Ape, his last big hit on the Mercury label.
But he wasn't finished yet. He did some work as a producer in the mid-60's, working with rising stars such as Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings in Nashville. He continued recording and made numerous appearances on the Andy Williams television show in the late 60's. In 1969 he was recording for Monument and came up with another top ten hit with Gitarzan. Before finishing at Monument he also hit with Mr. Businessman -- which showed he had talent for something other than just novelty songs -- and a re-recording of the Coasters' hit Along Came Jones. With backing from Williams, Stevens hosted a television program of his own in 1970.
Stevens began recording for Andy Williams' Barnaby label. In 1970 he had a huge hit, once again one that he had written himself, titled Everything Is Beautiful. This was to be his first recording to top the pop chart, and it crossed over to be a hit the country chart as well. Stevens found himself doing inspirational songs, country songs, and more novelty songs -- one hit after another, some big, some not so big. One of these was Turn Your Radio On in 1972. In 1974 a brief-lived fad called streaking seemed to come out of nowhere. Young people would shun their clothes and go running just about anywhere, but mostly in outdoor settings. Stevens could not resist; he wrote a novelty song about the phenomenon that he called The Streak which got swept up in the hysteria surrounding the new fad, and Stevens had his second (and last) number one pop hit. Ray came up with a country-and-western version of Erroll Garner's jazz song Misty in 1975 which was a hit in both country and pop, and won him his second Grammy (the first had been for Everything Is Beautiful).
Ray is a fine singer when he plays it straight, but has always enjoyed coming up with novelty tunes. He changed labels once again, this time to Warner, and had a minor hit with another novelty tune In The Mood; this one was credited to Henhouse Five Plus Too, and was to be his last to reach the pop top forty, in 1979. Another one was I Need Your Help Barry Manilow.
He continued in the novelty vain into the 80's, with songs such as Shriner's Convention, Mississippi Squirrel Revival (his final top forty country hit), and a song spoofing nuisance telephone calls in 1985 It's Me Again, Margaret.
Ever the comedian, Stevens took to making comedy records and videos as the years went on. Such recordings were not favored by radio disc jockeys, but sold well in the mass merchandise stores to his many fans. He opened a theater in Branson, Missouri and performed there for a number of years. In 1980 Ray Stevens was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he has continued recording into the twenty-first century.
Stevens is the most successful novelty recording star of the late twentieth century, and fans of 60's pop music associate him most closely with his two top ten pop hits of the decade, Ahab, The Arab and Gitarzan.
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