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Ray Stevens: 50 Years of Sonic Cartooning
Two quintessentially American musicians named Ray released inspired 33-rpm albums in 1962. Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is a consensus classic, an R&B giant’s “countrypolitan” crossover that smashed racial barriers as surely as Elvis Presley’s Sun sessions. Ray Stevens’ 1,837 Seconds of Humor is remembered mainly for a couple of hit singles it included, but I am here to testify that it has an audacity all its own.
I was 14 years old in 1962 and deeply devoted to MAD magazine, The Bullwinkle Show and a short stack of Coasters 45s, including “Searchin’” and “Little Egypt.” I was, in short, perfectly primed for the Ray Stevens experience which, for me, began with acquiring his hit, “Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly-Unsaturated, Quick Dissolving, Fast Acting, Pleasant Tasting, Green and Purple Pills,” an ingenious homage to TV’s hammerhead pain-relief commercials and America’s snake-oil history.
“Do you have tired blood?” pitchman Stevens asked us. “Beriberi? Or maybe you’re a little overweight? You’d better make some correction in all this infection. Just send in one dollar ninety eight!”
I got 1,837 Seconds, Stevens’ LP debut, as a Christmas present that year. Albums were notoriously filler-heavy back then. I would have been happy if the only goodies it had contained were “Jeremiah Peabody” and the full-length version of his radio hit “Ahab the Arab,” a goof on Hollywood sheikdom in which the titular hero rides his camel named Clyde to a midnight tryst with Fatima, “the swingin’-ist, number one dancer in the Sultan’s whole harem.”
But that wasn’t the half of it. Not even the third of it. There was also the slyly lascivious “Scratch My Back (I Love It)” and “The Rockin’ Boppin’ Waltz,” an affectionate send-up in 4-4 time of the dance-song craze that borrowed its “boogity-boogity-shoops” directly from Chubby Checker’s “Pony Time.”
Furthermore, there was “Further More,” a rueful, speed-talking farewell to a girlfriend that made “Jeremiah Peabody” sound like a slow ballad. And in addition to that, there were a handful of full-blown comic constructions so vivid you could almost see them (Stevens would later embrace music video, but he was a sonic animator from the get-go):
“Popeye and Olive Oyl” is an audio cartoon that describes what happens after “Bluto comes up and he kicks a lot of sand/In Popeye’s face/Grabs Olive Oyl and runs/Think he’ll make a fool of Popeye/And have a lot of fun.”
“PFC Rhythm and Blues Jones” is an ode to an unabashed coward, a “BMI songwriter” who begs his commanders to “Gimme back my guitar and take this here gun/’Cause all this Army jazz just ain’t no fun.”
“A Hermit Named Dave” celebrates a misanthrope who “ate from a turtle shell, slept on a bear skin, had a seven foot beard growin’ out of his chin” and had been dodging the draft for 23 years.
The piece de resistance is “The Rock and Roll Show,” a 4 1/2-minute audio extravaganza in the manner of an Alan Freed rock-pop revue. Stevens impersonates not only the glib emcee but an Elvis-like rockabilly, a girl singer named Sally Smash who lip-synchs her record “Where Is My Johnny?” and a Duane Eddy-style ax-man named Wayne Twang.
Amazingly, all 11 tracks were Stevens compositions. This was at a time when about the only musical artists who put out LPs of only self-written material were jazz cats. The Beatles didn’t release Rubber Soul, their all-original milestone, until December 1965.
Not bad for a then 23-year-old native of Clarksdale, Georgia, who had grown up (or not) grooving to every silly record from “Aba Daba Honeymoon” to “Yakety Yak.”
In a recent interview, Stevens told me that Mercury Records, far from anxious, was “gung ho” about releasing his all-original LP debut. He noted that Shelby Singleton, the label’s legendary talent scout and A&R man, “had had acts like The Big Bopper. He knew what comedy could do.”
Stevens said he wrote the 1,837 Seconds material over the course of a couple of years and polished it in performances in clubs and on live radio shows with a band he was in with Jerry “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” Reed. He recorded the LP at Owen Bradley’s famed “barn” outside Nashville. The players included A-list session musicians like drummer Buddy Harman and guitarist Harold Bradley, Mercury’s Merry Melody Singers and a small orchestra conducted by Jerry Kennedy, another celebrated session man and producer.
Even complicated tracks like “Ahab” and “Julius Played the Trumpet,” with all their sound effects and silly voices, were recorded “pretty much live in one pass,” Stevens said. “Hardly any overdubbing was done back then.”
His latest project is The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music (http://www.raystevens.com/encyclopedia.html). The eight-disc set mixes some of his own hits (“Gitarzan,” “The Streak,” “Mississippi Squirrel Revival”) with covers of funny songs made famous by artists as different as Ernie K-Doe, George Jones and Allan Sherman. But for those of you who are on a tighter budget, Stevens’ 50-year-old debut is still out there to be had in vinyl and CD form. It’s the template for his whole career, still fresh and arguably more diverse than his various greatest hits packages.
Got the blues, the blahs, or other lethargy? Like those famous pills, 1,837 Seconds of Humor may be just what you need for quick, fast, speedy relief.
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