Ray Stevens just thinks funny.
His humor is keenly observant and rich in nuance. His style is unaffected and unpretentious which for the past sixty years has allowed for entertainment that is both witty and guileless. From his multi-million selling comedy hit, “The Streak” to the socially aware “Mr. Businessman” to his Grammy award-winning “Everything Is Beautiful”, Ray’s talent has touched so many around the world. Not only a singer and composer, Ray has also produced, arranged, and performed on many legendary Nashville recordings.
Ray Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale in Clarkdale, Georgia on January 24, 1939. Ray’s early influences came from the radio and the jukebox at the village swimming pool where Ray and most kids spent their summers. In those days radio stations were diverse and played music of all different styles and, along with the jukebox records, exposed Ray to an eclectic selection of music. Ray’s mother encouraged him to take piano lessons. At the age of seven, Ray had a realization where, in his own words, “It all made sense.” From that time on music was his life. As a teenager in Albany, Georgia, he had absorbed many of the great Southern musical influences, from country to rhythm and blues. At age fifteen he sang and played piano in a band, the Barons and they played all over the area for the American Legion, the Elks, private parties…aywhere.
At age seventeen he moved to Atlanta where he met radio personality and Georgia Tech football broadcaster, Bill Lowery. “Bill had all types of shows. He was on several different radio stations around town and he had started a music publishing company. He was looking for talent to write songs. I went out to his house and I said, ‘My name is Ray Ragsdale and I’m going to learn to write songs for you.’ He said, ‘Okay lad, go to it.’ I borrowed a little tape recorder from a friend. I got the key to the lunch room, which also served as the assembly hall, from the principal. The room had a very high ceiling and a piano on a little stage. I went there one Sunday by myself and made a demo of a song that I and a friend had written called, “Silver Bracelet”. I took it to Bill and he liked it. He called Ken Nelson at Capitol Records, who was coming to Nashville a lot during those days to produce records. Ken liked the song and signed me to a contract with Prep Records.”
In 1957, while he was still in high school, Ray made his first trip to Nashville and recorded his first track, “Silver Bracelet”, at the now historic RCA “B” studio. It was on that trip that he met Chet Atkins, who was the head of A&R for RCA and a lasting friendship was formed. In 1958, Ray recorded some tracks for Capitol and it was during this time that Bill Lowery formed the National Recording Corporation (NRC).
In 1961, Ray recorded “Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills,” which reached #35 on the pop charts. Its success helped Ray land a job with Mercury Records in Nashville, TN. Ray arrived in Music City on January 2, 1962, were he worked on countless sessions as a pianist, arranger, and vocalist. It was in one of those sessions he recorded, “Ahab the Arab”, which climbed to #5 on the pop charts in 1962.
Ray worked and developed friendships with many other performers including the Jordanaires, Brook Benton, Dusty Springfield, Bobby Goldsboro, Margie Singleton, Toni Wine, Lulu, “Mama” Cass Elliot, Brenda Lee, Ronnie Dove, Patti Page, and Chet Atkins. He and Charlie McCoy even played trumpet on a session for Elvis Presley. Ray explained, “I’m a terrible trumpet player. I played keyboards, of course, and they didn’t need me to play on this particular song. It was a sort of Mexican song, so they asked Charlie and me to get our trumpets and play a little Mexican lick on it, and we did. I’ll never forget that! The only Elvis session I ever played on, I played an instrument that I could barely hold.” Several years later Ray would publish “Way Down”, Elvis’ last hit before his death. While at Mercury, Ray also recorded the hits “Harry the Hairy Ape” and “Santa Claus is Watching You.” Ray left Mercury and joined Monument Records as a producer overseeing new artists, including a young Dolly Parton.
“Gitarzan” returned Ray to the pop charts top ten in 1969. On the country front he recognized the talent of a young Nashville writer and became the first artist to record Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” He hit the pop charts again in 1969 with a revival of the Coaster Pop/R&B hit, “Along Came Jones.”
Ray joined Barnaby Records in 1970, a label owned by singer Andy Williams. After he performed on Williams’ television variety show, he became Barnaby’s first contemporary artist. The summer of 1970 gave Ray the opportunity to host the summer replacement for the Andy Williams’ Show on NBC. He needed a hit song for the show and the end result of three days spent in his basement at his piano surrounded by crumpled paper was “Everything is Beautiful.” “Everything is Beautiful” became Ray’s first #1 hit on the pop charts and won him a Grammy for Male Vocalist of the Year.
For the next few years, Ray continued to release a variety of music including gospel and country, but the biggest song of his career came in 1974 with his comedic smash hit, “The Streak”. It was Ray’s second #1 hit and sold over 5 million copies internationally. Ray kept the ball of success rolling by winning his second Grammy award. Ray won Best Arrangement for his bluegrass reimaging of the Erroll Gardner/Johnny Burke classic, “Misty.”
Ray then briefly signed with Warner Brothers before moving to RCA Records in 1979. His major hit during that time was “Shriner’s Convention”, inspired from a real experience in hotel booked full of Shriners. In 1984, Ray signed with MCA Records and had hits with “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” “It’s Me Again, Margaret,” “Southern Air,” and “Would Jesus Wear A Rolex?” Ray continued to record for MCA until 1990 when he signed with Curb Records.
1991 brought the opening of his two thousand seat Ray Stevens Theatre in Branson, Missouri. During his time in Branson, Ray made music videos of several of his greatest hits to liven up the stage show. The videos went over so well that they were released in 1992 as a set called “Comedy Video Classics” through Ray’s own Clyde Records, Inc. and sold over two million copies. He then released “Ray Stevens Live!” in 1995, a video from the Branson show which sold over a million copies. In 1995 Ray released a full length movie called “Get Serious” which earned platinum status.
Ray continued to record, releasing albums like “Hum It,” “New Orleans Moon,” and “Ray Stevens Sings Sinatra…Say What??” In 2010, he released “We The People” a CD/DVD package which contained music tracks and videos on political subjects. Due to the popularity of “We The People,” Ray released another political album, “Spirit of ’76,” in 2011.
After years of planning, recording, and mixing, Ray released his “Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music” box set in 2012 which contains 9 CDs with 108 songs of what Ray Stevens considers to be the greatest comedy songs of all-time.
“Ray Stevens’ Nashville” was released in 2015 as a memoir of Ray’s life in the music business. This spun into an idea for a new half hour television show with Ray performing his own hits as well as covers while inviting special guests to chat and perform some of their own biggest hits. “Ray Stevens CabaRay Nashville” has released 6 seasons and has featured appearances by Tanya Tucker, John Rich, Charlie Pride, Duane Eddy, Sam Moore, Gene Watson, Bobby Goldsboro, Bill Anderson, Charlie McCoy, Gary Puckett, Lee Greenwood, Mickey Dolenz, and more.
In January 2018, Ray opened his Ray Stevens CabaRay Showroom in Nashville to rave reviews. The music venue boasts a 700 seat Vegas-style dinner theatre where fans can count on being thoroughly entertained by Ray himself in full concert and enjoy a great dinner & beverage service.
In 2019, Ray Stevens was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame member. Throughout his career, Stevens has sold more than 40 million albums. Ray continues daily office operations at his home base, the CabaRay.
Ray Stevens at a glance
Birth name: Harold Ray Ragsdale
Discography: 45 studio albums, 2 live albums, 60+ music videos, 93 singles, 2 No.1 singles. Other ventures over the years include real estate holdings, an entertainment theater in Branson, Mo., movies, books, his own record label, music publishing companies, the Ray Stevens CabaRay Nashville television show (2015) and the Ray Stevens CabaRay Showroom (2017)
Grammy Awards: 12 nominations, 2 wins
- Male Vocalist of the Year, 1970, “Everything Is Beautiful”
- Best Arrangement, 1975, “Misty”
Top 10 hits (U.S. country or pop charts)
- “Ahab The Arab” (1962) No. 5;
- “Gitarzan” (1968) No. 8
- “Everything Is Beautiful (1970) No. 1
- “The Streak” (1974) No. 1)
- “Misty” (1975) No. 3
- “Shriner’s Convention” (1980) No. 7
- 1980: Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction
- 1980: Georgia Music Hall of Fame induction
- 1986–94: Music City News Awards for Comedian of the Year
- 1992: Billboard No. 1 Home Video Plaque – Comedy Video Classics
- 1992: Ten Times Platinum Home Video – Comedy Video Classics
- 1993: Billboard Home Video of the Year
- 1993: Platinum Home Video – Ray Stevens Live!
- 1995: Platinum Home Video – Get Serious!
- 1995: Country Weekly Golden Pick Award for Best Comedian
- 2001: Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame induction
- 2009: Christian Music Hall of Fame induction
- 2014: ‘Nashville Cats’ Songwriter Session honoree at Country Music Hall of Fame
- 2018: Star on Music City Walk Of Fame
- 2019: Country Music Hall of Fame Induction