Album Reviews

Ray Stevens: Face The Music: The Complete Monument Singles 1965-1970 (Ace Records)

ray stevens

Ray Stevens
Face The Music: The Complete Monument Singles 1965-1970
Ace Records

Ray Stevens is a funnyman. His comedic songs blended in timely trend-tapping tales alongside folkloric numbers that were just downright funny. He built his reputation on those songs, and rightly so; decades later, “The Streak” and “Shriner’s Convention” are still routinely played on the radio, and still retain that charm that made them so popular in the first place. Ace Records’ compilation, Face The Music, compiles his single sides for Monument Records, and for those only familiar with his comedy records, one discovers a completely different, virtually unknown side to Ray Stevens.

It’s easy to understand why he might feel compelled to walk away from the humor market; it’s easy to get typecast as a funny man if your songs are funny. Witness Stevens’ contemporary, Roger Miller. He was a songwriter extraordinaire, who wrote some of country’s best weepies and ballads, but if you buy a greatest hits record, you’re only going to get the funny songs, because that is what was popular, and that is what he will eternally be known for. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind.) 

This change in direction had begun in the last year or so of his Mercury deal, and he must have viewed the label change as an opportune moment to strike out into new styles. His first single, “Party People,” was an excellent start; a mellow Joe South composition, it’s a soulful ballad, complete with a powerful Gospel choir, and Stevens masterfully delivers the poignant lyrics. Its b-side, “A-B-C,” was an original composition, a Stax-style R&B number that shows Stevens’ new direction wasn’t unwarranted.

Though he could deliver the goods, the single wasn’t a success, nor was its follow-up, “Devil May Care.”  The single’s b-side, “Make A Few Memories” brilliant, Brian Wilson/Phil Spector style number, again showed that Stevens knew what he was doing, even if the record-buying public didn’t reciprocate. Unsurprisingly, he returned to the comedy fold with his third single, “Freddy Feelgood (And His Funky Little Five-Piece Band),”  It would be a modest hit, and its b-side, the fine “There’s One In Every Crowd,” and follow-up single, “Answer Me, My Love,” would foreshadow the mature production and style that was around the bend.

In 1968, he released his third full-length album, Even Stevens. If ever there was a record that deserves to be rediscovered as a lost classic, it is this one. Consisting of all-original numbers, Even Stevens is a lush pop record, highlighting Stevens’ sophisticated production and arrangement skills, as well as his maturation as a mature songwriter. Even Stevens is a bit of a conceptual album, a social commentary on the day-to-day life of the American middle class. It’s a powerful album, too; the powerful social commentary found in “Mr. Businessman” and “The Minority” is hidden in overwhelmingly lush melodies and powerful vocalizing rivaled only by Scott Walker. Even the more lighthearted numbers like  “The Great Escape” and “Unwind” take on the grind on the working man in a way that’s quite serious. Even Stevens was an artsy, sophisticated record, and still rings true today, nearly fifty years later. Seven of the album’s tracks would be released as single sides, and “Mr. Businessman” was a minor chart hit.

But artsy message records don’t always sell, and whilst he was working on this sophisticated material, Stevens was working on more comedy records. In 1969, “Gitarzan” would take him to the top ten, a hilarious number about Tarzan and his crew forming a band. B-side, “Bagpipes (That’s My Bag),” was also indicative of the humorous direction that would soon return him to superstardom. He followed this single with a single of live recordings of two early rock numbers, “Along Came Jones” and “Yakety Yak,” continued his Top 30 chart run.

Yet his final sides found him returning to the more serious numbers. He would cover Bob Dylan (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”), The Beatles (“The Fool On The Hill”), and would have a minor chart hit with his cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which would give the budding songwriter his first taste of chart success. These singles are all excellent—Stevens at this point in his career was hitting home runs, even if the world wasn’t listening—and when he ended his run at Monument, he would sign to Barnaby Records, and score one of the biggest hits of his career with the Gospel ballad, “Everything Is Beautiful,” which began his nearly two-decade long run of hits.

Ray Stevens may have abandoned the more serious side of his Monument Records era in favor of more chart-friendly, family-friendly, all-ages fare, but that doesn’t take away from the songs offered on Face The Music. This compilation fills a void and wonderfully documents the lesser-known side of one of America’s finest songwriters.

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