Ray Parker Jr. has had quite a career in music. He played on Stevie Wonder's "Talking Book" L.P. and later went on tour with Stevie. Ray's many hits include "Jack and Jill", "You Can't Change That", The Other Woman" and of course who could forget "Ghostbusters".
Ray Parker Jr. spoke with us about a musical career that has been nothing less than spectacular.
Q - Ray, MTV recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Has MTV been good for Rock 'n' Roll, or did video kill the radio star?
A - (laughs) I think it was a good thing for Rock music. You know, something killed the Radio Star, but I don't think it was the videos.
Q - Maybe it was the end of Top 40 radio then that killed the radio star?
A - To me, I think Top 40 radio, even R&B radio, did it to themselves.
Q - So, you waited twelve years before you released a new CD?
A - (laughs) Maybe longer.
Q - What were you doing for all those years? Were you writing? Recording? Touring?
A - I was playing my guitar at home, 'cause I used to love to play. I'm always recording. I've always got the latest version of Pro Tools on Studios or whatever's going out at the time. But to me, it wasn't really a conscious decision. I was sort of at the height of my career and my parents got sick. They were much older than me anyway. I just couldn't think anymore. I wanted to go home to Detroit and spend the last few years with my folks. Then, I had little kids at the time and I wanted to make sure my little kids were OK. My parents lasted another 2 - 3 years. Then I wanted to spend time with my new born sons. Next thing you know, you've spent five years. And guess what? Being on vacation and doing things at your own leisure, that has a certain thing that carries forward too. Next thing you know it's been seven years. (laughs) Then you're partyin' and having a good time. So round about, I don't know, a little after that, a couple of my friends started callin' me to play on records again. A couple of people called me to go on tour. I don't know, I just loved playing music so much, a few years ago I said, I might as well cut my own records. (laughs) So, I just went full-circle.
Q - When you take that much time off, what does that do to your career?
A - You just disappear from the radar screen.
Q - People forget who you are?
A - Yeah. But that's not a bad thing by the way.
Q - Did you disconnect from what was going on in the world of music or did you for instance, still listen to the radio?
A - Oh, yes. I've always listened to the radio. Like I said, I love music. I don't really play music to make money. I just play music 'cause I love it. Hopefully I'll make some money. (laughs) I'm always listening to everything that's new out as well as recording and writing songs.
Q - When I listened to your songs, you sound like a guy who's having a lot of fun in the recording studio. At least that's the way it comes across to me. Am I right about that?
A - Oh, I'm having a great time. (laughs) Make no mistake. I'm always havin' a great time.
Q - You sound a little more laid back on this new CD than I'm used to hearing.
A - Yeah. I am a little more laid back I think. Yeah, you got it just right. More time with the family, more time at the beach. A little older, not moving as fast. And just different subjects, different story matters.
Q - That does seem to be what's missing in today' songs...a story. There used to be a melody and attention paid to lyrics. That is what made Top 40 radio.
A - Yeah. Just remember the songs, and I won't mention names, that have become popular in the last ten years. Can you sing them? A lot of those things you can't even hum along, so how can you possibly remember it 15 - 20 years later? I think that's what has probably killed the music business.
Q - How can someone learn to write a hit song?
A - That is a good question. A lot of it starts with playing instruments and working with other people. Some of the new generation is doing it on computers and they don't have a clue as to how to play anything. That's probably one of the problems. They don't know how to make the melody, go through the chord changes. They're not starting from that same school of thought.
Q - They also do not have the venues to perform the music any more.
A - That's right.
Q - With the drinking age having been raised from 18 to 21 and the increased police roadblocks and the no-smoking laws, it's become very difficult to find a place to perform. I would guess that you started out playing in bars.
A - When I was 13, I was playing in the bars. I guess it's a changing world. Some things are better today, like the internet. We have different ways of reaching each other. E-mail and all that stuff is wonderful. I actually think the kids are missing out on a lot of stuff.
Q - Now, you have to get a shot on American Idol to be heard.
A - Yeah.
Q - As a matter of fact, why aren't the contestants singing your songs? They had Elton John, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart.
A - I'd love that. I guess when they get done with all the Super Big guys, they'll move on to me somewhere. (laughs) But, even that show...it's an interesting show. They only care about singers. People who are very talented, let's take the group Styx for instance, they would never have made it on American Idol because they're not just a singing group. It's a combination of singing, playing and writing the songs. But, if you look at the 70s, 80s and early 90s, a lot of groups were self-contained entities, like Earth, Wind and Fire...Chicago.
Q - You have to wonder what Simon Cowell would say to Bob Dylan if he were starting out today?
A - He'd say, you don't have a career. You can't sing; get off the stage.
Q - Or Elvis?
A - Well, you know what, Elvis Presley because he had the body moves and the charisma might have lasted a little longer. But, Bob Dylan would have gotten up there and they would have kicked him off the stage and we would never have known the great songs he wrote and all of the rest of the talent he had. So, it's a great show, but it's only showcasing one small part of the music business and that's just the vocal talent.
Q - And then you'll have singers who are naturally gifted Country singers and they'll have them singing Disco songs or early Rock 'n' Roll songs. What does that prove?
A - Absolutely nothing. If you had me on there trying to sing a Country and Western song, I'd tank too. So, you get kicked off on something that's totally our of your realm and you sound wonderful singing something else. It proves absolutely nothing. Or, they'll have a Stevie Wonder week, which I saw. Some people were dying up there, trying to sing a Stevie Wonder song. It wasn't their vocal talent. It's not where they were.
Q - You actually started out as a session musician for Stevie Wonder, didn't you?
A - Actually, I started long before that. I started off in Detroit nightclubs and playing on records for Motown acts. Holland - Dozier - Holland and all that stuff. Stevie Wonder actually found me from there.
Q - Whose records did you play on at Motown?
A - Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, The Temptations. A lot of Marvin Gaye stuff. I used to go over to his house all the time. It wasn't that far from my house. So, I did a lot of their stuff. Charimen Of The Board, Honeycone...Put In The Want Ads, Band Of Gold. All that kind of stuff. So, Stevie Wonder got wind of me when I was eighteen and took me on tour with him and The Rolling Stones.
Q - That must've been some tour!
A - Everybody wishes they could do that at least once in their life. A lot of fun. (laughs) A lot of fun for a teen-age boy.
Q - Did you fly on the Stones plane?
A - No. We had separate flights. We hung out with them all the time. They were real nice guys. What a nice group of guys. That was a fun tour. Nothing like it before. Nothing like it since. We just had a great time on that tour.
Q - You also worked with Barry White?
A - I did all of the Barry White stuff, Seals and Crofts, Diana Ross, Tom Jones. Once I got to L.A. I did 35 - 40 records a week.
Q - What instrument were you playing, guitar or piano?
A - Guitar.
Q - Then you left Stevie Wonder to form Raydio?
A - No. I left Stevie Wonder's group not that far after The Rolling Stones tour 'cause I just wanted to move to California, 'cause the music business seemed to be in California. And then the weather was nice in California. (laughs) Then I got into the studio scene there and started working on all of the different records. I started writing songs for Barry White, Patti La Belle, Nancy Wilson...had my first hit on Chaka Khan. Had another huge hit on Leo Sayer that my name didn't get put on, called "You Make Me Feel Like Dancin'" I had put that whole song together and wrote it at home. That was my first real depressed moment in the music business because my song won a Grammy and my name's on it nowhere.
Q - How did that happen?
A - That's a good question. A lot of promises from a lot of high-profile people. I was just a young kid at the time, so I got taken advantage of.
Q - So, you don't get royalties for that song, do you?
A - You don't get anything...not even credit.
Q - That's terrible.
A - That's real terrible. But, you know it was pretty much a public thing. Leo Sayer was the nicest guy in the world. He tried to do everything to make it right, but it was out of his power. But, Clive Davis found out about it. He heard some of the other songs I had written and he was particularly impressed by that "You Make Me Feel Like Dancin'" song. And I had another tune called "Jack And Jill". I'd given that to the same guys who didn't pay me for the first song. (laughs) Clive said why don't you come and record "Jack And Jill" for me and I'll take care of the legal issues with these other guys, and that's how Raydio came about.
Q - How long did it take you to write "Jack And Jill" and "The Other Woman"?
A - Now, that's a hard question, 'cause "The Other Woman" took forever. Most of the song I wrote in one day. Then I couldn't figure out the break-down section for months. "A Woman Needs Love" was pretty fast. That probably took just a few days. "Ghostbusters" was even shorter. I wrote all of that in probably a day and a half. "Jack And Jill" probably took a year 'cause I kept revising it. I think I was real young at the time. I wrote it one way and a couple of my friends would say, well that doesn't make any sense, so I revised it. In fact, I didn't have "Jack And Jill" in the song for a long time, except in the chorus. A friend of mine, David Reubens said, well since you're singing Jack snuck down the hill to get away from Jill, why don't you put Jack doing whatever he's doing in the verses. Then I re-wrote it again. So, I think each song has a life of its own. Some songs you get all of it at one time. Some songs you just get the chorus today and then you get a brain storm six months later when you listen to it and say, well this is how the verse goes, why didn't I think of that before? So, they're different.
Q - "Ghostbusters" was probably the biggest song you ever had because of the movie tie-in.
A -"Ghostbusters" was the biggest song even without the movie tie-in. It was just the biggest song, period. There was some magic in that song that people all over the world really liked. In America, when it first came out, we thought OK, it's tied to the film, you get the publicity from the film. But then the strangest thing happened. I don't know if you know, but they don't release most films in the foreign market for maybe a year or so. But the song would go to countries like Poland, Africa and go to number one. They wouldn't even know it was connected to the film. So, within six to eight months, I had sold fifteen million records just overseas. So, it was just a strange phenomenon. There was something in that song had a happy vibe, whether you knew the words or not or whatever language it was in, it was just a popular song.
Q - How many records, tapes and CDs have you sold to date? Any idea?
A - I have no idea. If I had to guess, probably forty million records.
Q - Was this latest CD of your an easy project to do?
A - It was a real easy project. It was harder getting out than it was doing it, because I didn't have a record company and nobody telling me what to do. I just stayed in my room and played music and wrote songs. Probably the first time I made a CD and nobody influenced me to do anything. Whatever I liked, I could just do. I find that very rewarding at this age. (laughs)
Q - Was it your intention to tour behind it?
A - Well, I knew I'd go on the road and promote it, but basically I just wanted to make a record. It just felt natural for me to be playing at home all the time and make a record and express myself to the public.
Q - What's happened since you released the CD? Are you getting satellite airplay?
A - Oh, let me tell you, not satellite radio airplay, I'm getting played on just about every station in the country. It's Top Ten in the Smooth Jazz market. I'm in power rotation in Washington, New York, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, Denver. So, I really got a nice break there.
Q - What's daily life like these days for you?
A - I'm looking at musicians because I've been doing a lot of touring. I'm always looking for new musicians. I wake up, there's always the wife. I got four kids, so that takes up a lot of time right there. And there's a lot going on with this record, watching the stations, watching the stores. So, there's a lot going on all the time.