Born Ray Ragsdale, January 24, 1939, in Clarkdale, GA. Education: Georgia State University, B.A., c. 1960. Addresses: Office-- Ray Stevens Music, 1707 Grand Ave., Nashville, TN 37212. Agent-- Williams Artists Management, 816 North LaCienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

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" 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."

by Anne Janette Johnson

Ray Stevens's Career

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.

Ray Stevens's Awards

Grammy Awards, 1970, for "Everything Is Beautiful" and 1976, for instrumental version of "Misty."

Famous Works

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 3 years ago

Just attended the Ray Stevens show in Branson. Third time since '82. He is the ONLY entertainer my husband and I care to see. He is a man of strong political convictions and NOT AFRAID TO SPEAK THEM, EVEN AT THE RISK OF LOSING SOME AUDIENCE MEMBERS. HE IS SO RELEVANT AND UP TO DATE. We truly admire his heart and the way he demonstrates it. His show is unique and spectacular. We absolutely LOVE the MAN.

almost 4 years ago

Recently I had the wonderful pleasure of attending Ray's show in Franklin N.C....it was GREAT!! I think his arragement of MISTY is beautiful! LOVED his performance!

about 5 years ago

I have been a devoted fan of Rays since 1970. Till this day I have never heard a voice that is as sinsational as Rays. His musical abilities are so diverse as well. When I hear him sing I just melt. I cannot wait till next wed. I will once again get to see him in person. I would love to say hello as I have in the past. Hopefully, carol bardin

over 5 years ago

I love Ray Stevens. He makes this already enough stressful life a little happier each time I hear him sing. I heard he passed away recentlty. Do you know the details?

over 5 years ago

I just love Ray Stevens I have been a fan for years. I think if I had to pick just 1 or 2 of his songs they would be (1)It's Me Again Margaret,(2) The Streak,but I really like everything he does so it was hard to just pick 2. Afan forever