Ray Stevens is known for being a funny guy with a catalog full of knee-slapper novelty tunes. But he can get pretty serious about the subject of comedy. Serious enough to spend a couple of years compiling and recording over 100 comedy tunes for a formidable boxed set, The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music.
There’s a whole other side to Stevens’ half-century Nashville career that’s definitely no laughing matter, what with all the pop hits, session singing, songwriting, piano playing, producing and undeniably inventive arranging. When that’s the sort of subject matter you’re aiming for, what you’ll get out of Stevens are straight-faced memories fleshed out in crisp, full paragraphs, seasoned here and there with just a touch of entertainer’s wit.
CMT Edge: The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music must have been quite an undertaking. Were you motivated to tackle the project and name it for a heavy-duty book because novelty songs have the connotation of being lightweight?
Stevens: That was one of the points I was trying to make by making The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music. I think it needed to be made, and if not me, who? I felt that I was in the right place at the right time to do this. Comedy music has been very important in the building of our whole musical history. It’s part of the legacy, so to speak, a big part of the legacy. There have been so many talented people involved in it, and I just thought it needed to be herded up, put in one corral and presented to the world as sort of a go-to place to keep people informed about it so that these songs and this concept of comedy music would not be lost.
And so that it would be taken serious, in a sense?
Well, there’s an oxymoron right there. Yeah, right. I’m real proud of The Encyclopedia. I think it’s well-produced. It’s well-recorded. It took me two years, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
You’ve done so many different things in your career. Comedy is the stuff people always think of first, so I want to talk about your lesser-known early days. When you came to Nashville in 1962, you were playing piano and singing on sessions, doing A&R, arranging, producing, writing and making your own records. How typical was it for one person to have a hand in that many different things?
Well, looking back, I don’t think it was very typical at all. There were a few of us out there who just were interested in any facet that we could get our hands on, any area that we could get into. Most people specialized. If you were a session player, you played your instrument or sang your part in the group, and that was about it. I’ve always been interested in music and what makes it happen. I’ve always felt drawn to the arranging side.
One of my good friends was Bill Justis, who was a great arranger. He died way too young. He taught me a lot, though, about arranging before he left. Of course, I studied theory and composition in college at Georgia State in Atlanta. But I really learned more just on my own by trial and error, really, in the studios. And when I say trial and error, the errors weren’t too bad because I wouldn’t have been able to get away with spending other people’s money in the studio if they had been that bad. Be that as it may, looking back on some of the things I did back in those days, I wish I had known what I know now — or what I knew later — about the whole process of putting a record together. It turned out pretty good. I had some hits. You live and learn, and the older you get, in my case, the more I seem to figure these things out.
What was it like for you to come to town as a piano player in the early ‘60s, considering that the Nashville Sound was so prominent around that time and it had its own style of piano playing, the delicate, slip-note touch?
The slip-note didn’t happen until after I got here. A guy named Don Robertson invented that, a California guy, and he showed it to Chet [Atkins]. And Chet called Floyd [Cramer] and showed it to Floyd, and Floyd capitalized on it. Which is great. But that happened after I was already here in Nashville. Of course, the countrypolitan sound, Owen Bradley was more responsible for that than anybody else because he had a formula. Owen was a great musician, and he got the perfect musicians in there to execute his formula. There you go. That was it.
It was a very different thing than what you were doing.
Well, you know, I was still into R&B. I didn’t much care for country when I first moved up here. I learned to like it after I got here and I learned to appreciate it. …Shelby [Singleton] brought J.P. Richardson to a show in East Point, Ga. [J.P.] was called the Big Bopper, and he had a new record out called “Chantilly Lace,” and he brought him to the show to promote the record. I met Shelby there. And he remembered me from playing piano and singing onstage and called me later to come up and work for Mercury here in Nashville.
That’s something that people might not even realize about your chart history. You were having success on the pop and R&B charts before you were really getting onto the country charts.
Well, I don’t know about the R&B charts, but I was certainly having success on the pop charts. [laughs] I was a little too white-bread for the R&B charts. I don’t think there were any white acts on the R&B charts in those days.
I thought that one of your very early hits got on there.
Well, now, you’re right. It might have. It might have leaked in there a little bit. I take that back. My memory’s not what it used to be.
Yeah, I had the first record on “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I spent a lot of time doing it. I was very proud of it. It wasn’t that big a hit. It was a small hit — for me, not for Johnny Cash. I figured it out later that I just didn’t have the image to sing about having a hangover on a Sunday morning, and Johnny Cash did.
Since it was a departure for you, did it feel like a risk at the time?
I’m too dumb to realize that there’s a risk in anything. I just kinda plow ahead, you know. (laughs) I had spent a lot of time on this record, and it was ready to come out, and I got a call from Hal David. And he said, “We’re gonna fly you to L.A. We want you to hear a song for a movie.” And I went to Burt Bacharach’s house, and he played me “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” I liked it OK. I didn’t like the line about “feet too big for the bed.” I said, “Thank you, but I’ve got this record that I’ve just cut, and I’m afraid if I don’t put it out next, I’m going to lose it to somebody else.” So I passed on “Raindrops.” They gave it to B.J. [Thomas] and, of course, B.J. nailed it really great. That was one that worked out good for everybody, except me. I would’ve had a lot more success with “Raindrops” than I did with “Sunday Morning.” But that’s what happened back in those days. So I put out “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and was kinda underwhelmed at the response I got at radio. But then my next record was “Everything Is Beautiful.”
When you were releasing both serious pop albums and comedy albums, was there much of a difference between how you’d approach each kind of project in the studio? Were there arranging tricks you’d save for one or the other? It wasn’t like the comedy work was musically inferior.
I mean, there’s only 12 notes, and the same 12 notes apply to a comedy song that apply to a so-called straight, serious song. You’re gonna make the record with the arrangement that suits the song. There’s a lot of similarities no matter what the content of the lyric is. Of course, if you’ve got a funny lyric, your music is a little more lighthearted perhaps than some “I’m dying without you” love song.
I wanted to ask you about your arrangement of the song “Misty.” That song had been sung by a lot of famous singers, Ella Fitzgerald and so on, and gotten the swanky, supper club treatment. How did you hit on the idea of doing it hoedown style and putting the banjo and fiddle front and center?
That was just an accident. We were in the studio. I say “we” — my road band and I were rehearsing. I have a little studio, and we were in there not to record but to rehearse for a television show the next day. During one of the breaks in rehearsal, we started clowning around with “Misty” with a fiddle and a steel and a banjo. “Wow, that sounds pretty good. Let’s call the engineer in here and record this.” He was home, the engineer. I called him and said, “Get in here! We’re gonna record something.” So he came in and we cut it in about two takes and overdubbed three background voices, and that was it.