Ray Stevens has carved a niche for himself as country’s reigning musical clown. The burgeoning popularity of the Nashville Network and live country television shows has proven a boon for the zany comedian-songwriter who broke into the business in 1962 with “Ahab the Arab.” Stevens’s silly songs capitalize on national scandals and fads and they usually leave the audience laughing at both the lyrics and their antic delivery. According to an Associated Press wire report, Stevens doesn’t mind being pigeonholed as a comedian. “I enjoy doing these nutty songs,” he said. “I’m one of the few doing them.”
Akron Beacon Journal correspondent Mark Faris noted: “To say there is anything beautiful about Stevens’ music would seem to be stretching matters a mite. But it does have a couple of things going for it. For one, it usually manages to hit timely—if not exactly pressing—topics.… For another, Stevens’ vocal sound effects … are just bizarre enough for folks to want another listen or two to make sure their ears aren’t deceiving them.” Stevens’s wider talents, however, are not completely masked by his jocularity. Chicago Tribune contributor Jack Hurst praised the singer as “a superior musician whose work most often shows his prodigious skills in only the most oblique ways.”
Stevens was born Ray Ragsdale in Clarkdale, Georgia, in 1939. He grew up listening to rhythm and blues and early rock and roll on the radio, but his own musical training was decidedly more rigorous. By his teens he was an accomplished piano player, and he attended Georgia State University as a student of classical piano and music theory.
While he was in college Stevens became interested in recording music and decided to become a singer. “When I first started recording,” Stevens recounted in the Chicago Tribune, “I did a lot of straight love songs and couldn’t get arrested. So I started writing these off-the-wall songs, and people liked them, and I got airplay, made enough money to put gas in my car.” Stevens, in fact, began earning a considerable amount of money, especially after he hit the Top Ten with “Ahab the Arab.”
A quintessentially silly song, “Ahab the Arab” describes the adventures of a hapless bedouin and his camel, Clyde. Stevens’s irreverent classic includes camel grunts and double entendres and is sung with just a hint of a Southern accent. The song put Stevens on the pop music map and paved the way for other equally loony hits, including “Guitarzan,” “The Streak,” and “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His TV Show?”
Both “The Streak” and “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex”
Born Ray Ragsdale, January 24, 1939, in Clarkdale, GA. Education: Georgia State University, B.A., c. 1960.
Singer, songwriter, and producer, 1960—; plays guitar, banjo, and piano. Recorded first novelty song, “Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Green and Purple Pills,” 1961; released first pop hit, “Ahab the Arab,” 1962. Has made recordings with numerous labels, including Judd, Mercury, Monument, Barnaby, Janus, Warner Bros., and MCA.
Selected awards: Grammy Awards, 1970, for “Everything Is Beautiful” and 1976, for instrumental version of “Misty.”
went gold within weeks of being released. Both songs hit the airwaves in timely fashion: “The Streak” coincided with the beginning of a fad of running nude in public that became popular in 1970, and “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex” was released at the very moment when television evangelist Jim Bakker was driven from his ministry by scandal. “It’s invaluable when you’ve got the media hyping what you are singing about,” Stevens commented, according to an Associated Press wire report. “To be funny, you have to be relevant.”
Stevens was indeed relevant, but he was also lucky: his compositions were actually recorded before their topics became fodder for the media. The songs were ready and waiting for events to catch up to them, and Stevens—who wears a Rolex watch himself—was tickled pink with the timing. “When you’ve got a hot news topic, you increase your sales tremendously,” he remarked, as quoted by the Associated Press.
For a time in the 1970s, Stevens considered a career in straight country music. In 1970 he released the song “Everything Is Beautiful,” an optimistic, sing-along work that won him a Grammy Award. And he earned a second Grammy in 1976 for his bluegrass rendition of “Misty,” which highlighted his instrumental prowess. Stevens’s pure country work can be heard on such albums as Turn Your Radio On and Nashville.
The impulse to lunacy, however, eventually became Stevens’s trademark. He remains best known for his outlandish tunes, which include “Mama’s in the Sky with Elvis,” “Bridget the Midget,” “Shriner’s Convention,” “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” and “It’s Me Again, Margaret,” about a redneck obscene phone caller.
Stevens’s comedy translates particularly well to music video, where he can add ridiculous costumes and facial gestures to his vocal work. He has profited tremendously from appearances on the Nashville Network and such syndicated programs as Hee Haw; for a number of years he has won industry awards as best musical comic in Nashville. Also performing some two hundred live shows each year throughout the United States, Stevens maintains a touring pace commensurate with that of chart-topping, serious country stars.
Few other artists have risen to challenge Stevens as the funniest country singer, and he likes it that way. “I still have in the back of my mind that one day, if I feel it’s right, I’ll put out another serious record,” Stevens declared in the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “But I think I can raise my visibility doing what I’m doing now. The public wants an entertainer to be easy to identify, and I figured that’s what people expect of Ray Stevens, so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that for a while and see what happens.’ And it’s turning out pretty well.”
“Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” 1959.
“Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills,” 1961.
“Ahab the Arab,” 1962.
“The Streak,” 1970.
“Everything Is Beautiful,” 1970.
“Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His TV Show?,” 1987.
Nashville, Barnaby, 1973.
I Have Returned, MCA, 1985.
Collector’s Series, RCA, 1986.
Surely You Joust, MCA, 1986.
Crackin’ Up!, MCA, 1987.
The Best of Ray Stevens, Mercury, 1987.
Greatest Hits, MCA, 1987.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, MCA, 1987.
I Never Made a Record I Didn’t Like, MCA, 1988.
Beside Myself, MCA, 1989.
Everything Is Beautiful & Other Hits, RCA, 1990.
All Time Greatest Comic Hits, Curb/CEMA, 1990.
Lend Me Your Ears, Capitol Nashville, 1990.
#1 With a Bullet, Capitol Nashville, 1991.
Also recorded Turn Your Radio On, 1971, Both Sides of Ray Stevens, Crown, Shriner’s Convention, RCA, and He Thinks He’s Ray Stevens, MCA.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Akron Beacon Journal, July 20, 1987; July 28, 1989; July 31, 1989.
Associated Press (wire report), May 29, 1987.
Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1988.
People, October 10, 1983; August 10, 1987; September 21, 1987.
Stereo Review, July 1980; November 1982; May 1985; February 1987.
Variety, February 6, 1985.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Stevens, Ray." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/stevens-ray
"Stevens, Ray." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/stevens-ray