In a career that’s lasted the best part of sixty years, Ray Stevens has been a singer, songwriter, session musician, arranger and producer. He’s a member of various Halls Of Fame and has won two Grammy Awards. Ray Stevens is also a truly prolific, and has released over thirty albums and 100 singles. 

Some of the the best of these 100 singles, are the ones Ray Stevens released for Monument between 1965 and 1970. They’re documented on Face The Music-The Complete Monument Singles 1965-1970, which was recently released by Ace Records. Most of these tracks have never featured on CD before, and feature the “new” Ray Stevens.

His career began in 1957, when former DJ turned music publisher Bill Lowery, introduced eighteen year old Ray Stevens to one of his contacts at Capitol Records. They signed him to their Prep imprint. 

For the first few years of his career, Ray Stevens combined his solo career with working as an arranger and session musician.  Ray Stevens was happy to work with other artists at NRC, and played piano on many sessions. This paid the bills, as his first few singles flopped. Rang Tang Ding Dong and Silver Bracelet never troubled the charts in 1957. Nor did the novelty single The Clown. So it was no surprise that Capitol cut loose when his contract expired. However, Bill Lowery would get his protege’s career back on track.

Bill Lowery had an in at NRC, which soon, became Ray Stevens’ new home. That was where Ray Stevens released another novelty record, Sgt. Preston Of The Yukon. It had been inspired by a popular television series, and featured an array of voices from Ray Steven. While the single only reached 108 in the US Billboard 100, the single caught the attention of Mercury Records’ A&R man, Shelby Singleton.

The A&R man realised that Ray Stevens was something of an all-rounder. He was a singer, songwriter, session musician and arranger. Ray Stevens was a also something of a hit maker.

Between 1961 and 1963, Ray Stevens enjoyed seven hit singles. Some of the most successful singles were novelty songs. While this paid the bills, Ray Stevens was in danger of being pigeon holed as someone who released just novelty singles. Ray Stevens knew he had more to offer than that, and began to lose interest in his solo career.

By 1963, Ray Stevens had turned his back on his solo career. Instead, he was working as a session musician, arranger and conductor. However, Mercury Records had recorded so much music, that they were able to continue to release music right through to early 1965. When his final single for Mercury Records failed commercially, the label that had been his home for five years, cut him loose. For Ray Stevens it was almost a relief.

Ray Steven didn’t want to continue releasing novelty singles for Mercury Records. Nobody was interested, and it could, potentially, hamper his chances of enjoying a career as a “serious” artists.

Maybe that’s why it wasn’t until late 1965 that Ray Stevens signed to Monument. Fred Foster, who ran the label, had high hopes for his latest signing. He saw him as the successor to Roy Orbison. Considering Ray Stevens had spent the last five years releasing mostly novelty singles, this was a brave call.

Fred Foster was willing to backup his belief. For his Monument debut, Ray Stevens recorded Joe South’s Party People, with A-B-C as the B-Side. When the single was released in late 1965, Monument took out a full page advert in Billboard magazine announcing Ray Stevens’ Monument debut. Despite this, the wistful sounding Party People stalled at just 130 in the US Billboard 100. While this may have seemed a disappointing result, Ray Stevens was having to rebuild his solo career. He had spent the best part of his career releasing novelty records. Party People was the start of Ray Stevens’ career as a serious artist.

For the followup to Party People, another Joe South composition was chosen, Devil May Care. Joe South also wrote the B-Side Make A Few Memories. Monument had hight hopes for Devil May Care, which was the perfect vehicle for the “new” Ray Stevens. It sounded like a homage to Bo Diddley, and featured a vocal powerhouse from Ray Stevens. Despite this, when the single was released in March 1966, it never troubled the charts. With two singles failing to chart, Ray Stevens had to hope there wasn’t a three strikes rule.

After his first two singles failed to chart, Ray Stevens reverted to type, and released Freddie Feelgood (And His Funky Little Five Piece Band) in June 1966. It was a return to his novelty sound. This it seemed was what the record buying public expected of Ray Stevens. Ironically, the B-Side There’s One In Every Crowd, was the better of the two tracks. Both were penned by Ray Stevens, but There’s One In Every Crowd won hands down. It was an impassioned ballad that played to Ray Stevens’ strengths. However, with Monument looking for that elusive hit single, Freddie Feelgood (And His Funky Little Five Piece Band) was chosen, and reached ninety-one on the US Billboard 100. For Ray Stevens, it was a Pyrrhic victory. 

Another nine months passed before Ray Stevens returned with a new single. This time, it was a cover of Answer Me, My Love, which gave Frankie Laine a hit single. On the B-Side was one of Ray Stevens’ compositions Mary My Secretary. Sadly, when Answer Me, My Love was released as a single in March 1967, the single failed commercially. This was a huge blow, as Answer Me, My Love was Ray Stevens’ strongest single for Monument. It was also the only single Ray Stevens’ released during 1967.

During the rest of 1967, Ray Stevens combined working as Monument’s in-house arranger with recording his first album for Monument, Even Stevens. It was released eventually released in September 1968, and was the first Ray Stevens’ album for five years. While Even Stevens wasn’t a commercial success, it featured three hit singles.

Even Stevens featured a reflective Ray Stevens, as he reflected on the travails of life. It was as if he was trying to prove to the record buying public that he was a serious artist. 

That became apparent when record buyers hard Unwind. It was was chosen as the lead single from Even Stevens. On the flip-side was the For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow. Both were penned by Ray Stevens, who had matured into talented songwriter and storyteller. When Unwind was released in January 1968, it reached number fifty-two on the US Billboard 100, and twenty-nine in Canada. This went some way to repaying Monument’s faith in Ray Stevens.

Six months after the release of Unwind, Mr. Businessman was released as a single in July 1968. It was a song full of stinging social comment. Tucked away on the B-Side was one of Even Stevens’ hidden gems, Face The Music a heart-wrenching ballad with a big, bold and impressive arrangement. Face The Music could easily have been released as a single. However, Monument’s decision to chase Mr. Businessman was vindicated when it reached twenty-eight on the US Billboard 100, and seven in Canada. This made it two consecutive singles for Ray Stevens during 1968. Would two become three?

Yes and no. For the third single from Even Stevens, Monument chose the another soul-baring ballad Isn’t It Lonely Together. It’s a tale of a relationship that’s on its last legs. Ray Stevens breathes life and meaning into the lyrics. The single should’ve been a single. However, Robert Knight had released a cover of the Ray Stevens’ song at the same time. As a result, neither charted. A small crumb of comfort, was that B-Side The Great Escape reached 114 on the US Billboard 100, and forty-three in Canada. With two hits in America, and three in Canada, 1968 had been a good year for Ray Stevens.

Apart from the hit singles, Ray Stevens was working on his second album for Monument. He was also asked to appear on Andy Williams television show. This was how by March 1969, Ray Stevens was about to make a return to novelty records.

Things had been going so well for Ray Stevens. He had worked hard to convince the record buying public he was a serious artist, and over the last two years had changed people’s perception of Ray Stevens. That was until Ray Stevens released Gitarzan.

The inspiration from Gitarzan, came from the Tarzan television series. Ray Stevens penned the song, and the B-Side was Bagpipes-That’s My Bag. Ironically, when Gitarzan was released in March 1969, the single reached number eight on US Billboard 100, and ten in Canada. Both songs would later feature on the Gitarzan album released later in 1969. By then, was Ray Stevens paying for his return to the novelty record.

The success of Gitarzan could be viewed as a short term gain, that in the medium and long-term, backfired on Monument and   Ray Stevens. Suddenly, after releasing some of the best music of his career, he had returned the world of novelty single. This could be the way that Ray Stevens was perceived in the post-Gitarzan Monument era?

Especially, after Along Came Jones was chosen as Ray Stevens’ next single. On the flip-side was a cover of Yakety Yak. When Along Came Jones was released in July 1969, it reached just twenty-seven on US Billboard 100, and twenty-eight in Canada. Was Ray Stevens’ return to the world of the novelty song proving costly?

Ray Stevens hoped not. He was determined to forge a career as a serious artist. So when he began work on his third Monument album Have A Little Talk With Myself, which was released later in 1969, Ray Stevens was careful to choose the correct songs. There were several covers, including The Beatles’ Fool On The Hill, Help and Hey Jude. Other songs came from the pen of Bob Dylan, Joe South and Kris Kristofferson. He had penned Sunday Morning Comin’ Down. This should’ve been the perfect song for Ray Stevens’ worldweary voice.

Or so most people thought at Majority though. Sunday Morning Comin’ Down was chosen as Ray Stevens next single. On the B-Side was Minority, another Ray Stevens’ composition. When Sunday Morning Comin’ Down was released as a single in September 1969, the song reached just eighty-one on the US Billboard 100, and fifty=nine in Canada. For Ray Stevens this must have been a huge blow 

Sunday Morning Comin’ Down was one of the best singles Ray Stevens had released in recent years. The song seemed tailor made for Ray Stevens’ voice. Despite this, the record buying public it seemed, preferred novelty songs about a gorilla. Maybe Ray Stevens’ decision to return to novelty songs was starting to cost him dearly?

Possibly, when record buyers saw Ray Stevens’ name, they remembered a string of novelty songs. That’s despite the reinvention of Ray Stevens, where he became a “serious” artist.  Meanwhile, Monument were beginning to think they had come as far as possible with Ray Stevens.

So Monument didn’t waste time in releasing Ray Stevens’ next single. Have A Little Talk With Myself was the title-track from Ray Stevens third album. On the flip-side was Little Woman. Both were penned by Ray Stevens, who unleashes an impassioned vocal Have A Little Talk With Myself. Accompanied by gospel-tinged harmonies, it shows what Ray Stevens was capable of. However, when the single was released in November 1969, it stalled 123 on the US Billboard 200. That was the end of the road for Ray Stevens.

His contract expired in November 1969, and Monument chose not to renew it. They decided to release I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,as a single in February 1970. On flip-side was a cover of The Beatles’ The Fool On The Hill. However, when I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight didn’t make inroads into the charts, it looked like Monument had made the right decision not to renew Ray Stevens’ contract.

Meanwhile, Ray Stevens had signed to Andy Williams’ Barnaby Records. For his first single, the gospel-tinged Everything Is Beautiful was chosen. It gave Ray Stevens his first number one single, and won him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Vocalist. This was the start of the rise and rise of Ray Stevens.

By the time he released Misty as a single in 1976, Ray Stevens was still releasing the occasional novelty record. However, Ray Stevens was at his best playing it straight, and releasing pop and country singles. Proof of this was Misty which won him his second Grammy Award. Novelty songs and parodies may have proved popular with some people, but resulted in many more people turning their back on Ray Stevens. This must have proved costly over the years.

Especially in the sixties, when Ray Stevens came close to becoming pigeon holed as someone who only released novelty singles. However, when he signed to Monument, the reinvention of  Ray Stevens began.

Between 1965 and 1970, which is documented on the Ace Records’ completion Face The Music-The Complete Monument Singles 1965-1970, Ray Stevens reinvented himself as a “serious” artist. Occasionally, Ray Stevens lapsed, and released a novelty single. Mostly though, he released what was some of the best most of his career. It showed there was much more to Ray Stevens than third rate novelty songs and parodies. Far more. 

Ray Stevens was a talented singer, songwriter and storyteller. However, he hadn’t found the right label. Fred Foster’s Monument was the perfect label for Ray Stevens to reinvent himself, and mature as a singer and songwriter. The Monument years, which are documented on Face The Music-The Complete Monument Singles 1965-1970 played an important part in the rise and rise of Ray Stevens.









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