On the Raydio: An Interview with Ray Parker, Jr.
With a documentary and new album slated for 2020, GRAMMY-winning legend Ray Parker, Jr. reflects on his career from Motown to "Ghostbusters" and beyond.
October 2015. Ray Parker, Jr. stands center stage with his guitar at the Apollo Theater. It's the Jazz Foundation of America's "Great Night in Harlem" benefit. Valerie Simpson is singing a tribute to Merry Clayton when she suddenly cues Parker, "Come on, Ray. Play it for them!" Parker speaks his own language through the fret and strings. His guitar solo drives the rhythm forward. It's the sound of a master at play.
Four decades earlier, Parker played in New York for a different occasion. A clip from the recent documentary Mr. Soul! (2018) captures Parker, only 18 years old, presiding as lead guitar alongside Stevie Wonder during his 1972 performance on Ellis Haizlip's New York-based television show Soul! By the end of the '70s, Parker would be guesting on music programs as the leader of his own band, Raydio, climbing the charts with one gold album after another.
Parker's studio work with legendary Motown tunesmiths Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland helped inspire some of his earliest songwriting efforts. Before scoring hits like "Jack and Jill" and "You Can't Change That", he authored tunes for a range of acts, including Barry White, Nancy Wilson, Leo Sayer, and Rufus & Chaka Khan, who powered Parker's first hit as a songwriter with "You Got the Love" off the group's second album Rags to Rufus (1974).
Throughout the 1970s, Parker became one of the industry's most sought-after session players. "The terms 'class act' and 'professional' are defined by Ray Parker, Jr," says acclaimed producer David Rubinson, who featured Parker on albums by Herbie Hancock, the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, and Bobby Womack. "He is as curious as he is creative, always wanting to know more, and always with a glorious, infectious smile."
Early on in his career, Parker collaborated closely with other musical virtuosos like Hancock, longtime friend Wah Wah Watson, and drummer/producer Harvey Mason. "I worked with Ray when he first came to LA from Detroit," recalls Mason, who wrote and played "Space Cadets" with Parker, Dave Grusin, and Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson. "He was a great studio musician at that young age and passionate about becoming a recording artist. He's a great talent and savvy businessman. I'm proud of his accomplishments and happy to call him a friend."
Though fellow musicians and producers knew the extent of Parker's talents, casual listeners became better acquainted with Parker once Arista Records rechristened the group "Ray Parker, Jr. & Raydio" in 1980. The name Raydio had obscured the fact that Parker not only wrote, produced, mixed, and engineered the group's albums at his own studio, he played guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards on all the tracks, save for a few guest musicians. The fourth Raydio album A Woman Needs Love (1981) pictured Parker alone on the cover, foretelling Arista's plan to position him as a solo act beginning with The Other Woman (1982).
Of course, Parker dominated the airwaves during the summer of 1984 when his theme to Ghostbusters (1984) topped the pop and R&B charts and put him in heavy rotation on MTV. He performed the Oscar-nominated song everywhere from the Academy Awards to the very first MTV Video Music Awards ceremony, and won a GRAMMY Award for "Best Pop Instrumental Performance". Parker is still in awe of the song's blockbuster success. "It's 35 years old, and, to me, it's like I had a hit record this year," he says. "There's always something going on with the licensing."
"Ghostbusters" will catch the spotlight once again in July 2020 with the summer release of Ghostbusters 2020 as well as director Fran Strine's forthcoming documentary about Parker, Who You Gonna Call? (2020). Parker is also finishing up his first album of new material since 2006. "It's an early-'80s sounding record," he says. "I'm sticking to three or four chords, simple lyrics, danceable. I want it to be something that you can bounce to."
Sitting with PopMatters at his home in Los Angeles on a recent afternoon, Parker retraced the full breadth of his life in music, from Motown to Raydio to the Hot 100. Indeed, there is far more to his career than busting ghosts.
When I look at the songs you've recorded either as an artist, songwriter, producer, musician, or bandleader, it seems like you've made enough music for a couple of lifetimes. Growing up in Detroit, what's your earliest memory of music?
My earliest memories of music are Motown, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, songs like "My Girl" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". I played the clarinet and saxophone. I was having a great time. Then you look at TV, and you see Stevie Wonder playing "Fingertips" at 12 years old on a harmonica, and you just get a little depressed. I'm trying to play marching band music, and he's got his own hit records out!
Before the world knew about Raydio, there was the Stingrays with you, Ollie E. Brown, and Nathan Watts ... and you were all of six years old. I know you played clarinet. What was the musical configuration of the band?
Ollie had a drum ... a drum, not a drum set! Nobody could afford a drum set. He had a snare drum and a cymbal that hung from the ceiling. Nathan played the trumpet. That was it. We had no chords. We had no bass. We had no bass drum. At six years old, it sounded good to us, and it sounded good to all the parents at the PTA meeting!
I didn't think there were a lot of places to go with the clarinet and sax, so I switched to the guitar at about 11 years old. The Lovin' Spoonful is why I wanted to play guitar. I saw John Sebastian playing "Daydream" on The Ed Sullivan Show. I had some ideas on the guitar. I'm not even going to say I was the greatest guitar player, but I was in a city where everybody was playing. You've got to get better than everybody else, or nobody's going to call you.
When you found the guitar, did you still play with Ollie and Nathan?
Yeah, a little bit, but then the band broke up because we met Sylvester Rivers, who's another one of my oldest best friends. Sylvester had a band with bass, bass drum, and all kinds of stuff. He needed a drummer, so we let Ollie go to his band, and then Nathan and I went to separate bands, but we all still played together. That broke up the actual Stingrays, somewhere around 11 years old. We had a five-year run, which is longer than most bands have today. [laughs]
I remember you mentioning a few years ago that you started playing with the Spinners when you were just 13 years old. That's really impressive.
Here's the interesting thing. My parents loved me practicing guitar because I kept out of trouble — no drugs, no getting into gangs or fights. They figured I'll play the guitar like kids do. It's a new toy. "He'll play that six or seven hours a day. It will wear him down, and that will be that." It never wore down.
There was one winter where my dad just couldn't take it anymore because he worked double shifts. He needed to get some sleep. "I love my son, but I'm going crazy with this guitar." He took the amp, a silver tone amp, and put it on the front porch. I'm blasting it out to the neighborhood, and then they're getting a little upset, but at least my dad can sleep. I'll never forget, a guy drove by and said, "Man, can you play that in my back yard for a party? I'll give you fifteen dollars." Fifteen dollars? That's a lot of money back then. A candy bar was thirty cents or a quarter. I did that, and then some people heard me playing there. Then I started doing some bar mitzvahs and weddings.
The next thing I know, I ran into Billy Henderson [Spinners] who was looking for some band members. He looked at me and Ollie. Ollie's older than me, but he thought we were a little young. He had a chart for "Fascinating Rhythm". It was kind of a hard chart to read. He said, "If you can read that chart, that means you can play our stuff."
How would Billy have found you?
Just word-of-mouth. I was playing night clubs and bandwagon gigs. That's where the city blocks off the street. They roll a truck down the street, and you play out the back of the truck. I lived twelve blocks from Motown. It seemed like 100 miles at the time, but now that I think about it, I could have walked to Motown. A whole bunch of Motown acts went to my high school. I went to Cass Tech until they kicked me out. I didn't do the work, so they told me, "If you want to see the eleventh grade, you'll leave here, or you're doing the tenth grade over." That's a whole other story, but I graduated from Northwestern, which is right down the street from Motown.
I was excited that the Spinners were on Motown. They hadn't gotten to Philadelphia yet. They had the one song — I didn't know Stevie Wonder wrote it — called "It's a Shame". G.C. Cameron sang the lead. We toured most of the midwest ... any place you could go in a car! We'd leave Friday night and come back early Monday morning. They'd get me and Ollie back in before school.
Based on your experiences with the Spinners, what was your impression of show business at that young age?
Well, all I knew was show business. I didn't know anything else. If you grew up in Detroit where I grew up, everything was entertainment. If you didn't do that, that means you're going to work at Ford, GM, or Chrysler. I really didn't want to do that. My dad wanted me to work at Ford. I said, "I just want to drive a car. I don't want to build it." The only way out that any of us could see was to play music. That was a little bit of a stumbling block because we had so many great people in Detroit. It wasn't like you're the best guy in the world. Everybody else is great too, so how are you going to stand out among everybody else? Why should we call you when we can call [Funk Brothers] James Jamerson and Robert White? It was very challenging.
Did your time with the Spinners overlap with playing at the 20 Grand?
I hadn't gotten to the 20 Grand yet. What's interesting is that after the 20 Grand, I ended up playing with the Spinners again with Philippé Wynne. They only had one hit record. I remember that distinctly because Philippé could carry the show for an hour-and-a-half, and he's not even the guy who sang the hit record. He had the magic.
The 20 Grand came about because Hamilton Bohannon saw me playing at the Latin Quarter, which was another nightclub in Detroit. I think I was 15. I was the youngest guy in the band, but I remember he came up to me and said, "I like the way you play the guitar. I'm the big band leader at Motown. I hire all the people. I hired James Jamerson." I thought, Is this guy for real?, but he was. "I want you. Can you play with the big boys? Can you handle it?" I said, "Yeah, I'm ready to do this."
He went and talked to my mom and told her that I wouldn't be doing drugs and drinking in the club. He'd come pick me up and take me to the gig. I sat at the 20 Grand right next to James Jamerson on this side and Wah Wah on this side, with Robbie White, Beans Bowles, Marcus Belgrave, and all those guys. It was amazing.
I'd always wondered how you met Wah Wah Watson, so it was through Bohannon?
Yes. What's interesting about that is that's my education. I didn't want to go to college. There's nothing else to do, so I'll hang with these guys. I had no idea that James Jamerson was going to become a legend. I'd sit in his car every night and talk to him. I had no idea about anything. I was just ... floating through a cloud, just on the ride. The older I get, the more I know how lucky I was. A lot of things could have gone south!
Photo: Eric Page
For people who aren't familiar with the 20 Grand, who are some of the acts that would have played there?
Bobby Blue Bland, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Temptations, Parliament without Funkadelic. That's when Parliament was a "stand-up" group with four or five singers. I've never had the chance to tell George Clinton, but I played with him at the 20 Grand when Parliament had blue suits and white shirts, doing routines.
At the 20 Grand, it was ten days on. Then they'd clean up for a few days, so we had three or four days off, and then back to ten days on. That was a permanent schedule. That's what we did every week. There couldn't have been a better tutoring program.
You were playing for Motown acts at the 20 Grand, so how do you start cutting sessions with Motown artists?
Bohannon hooked up an album that Marvin Gaye wanted to do. We went into the studio and just created music for a month. I wrote some of the songs. We did a whole album [You're the Man], which was just released this year. There's one song where Marvin says, "Hey, these guys from Detroit … Bohannon, Ray, Melvin (he's talking about Wah Wah)". He names all of us on the record.
We were at this studio called Golden World that Ed Wingate owned. I think it was the nicest studio in Detroit. Wingate was like a numbers runner, so he had all the money. Later, he'd sell that to Motown, so it became Motown Studio B. I'd never been in Motown Studio A, which is the snake pit where all the hits were from until one day [Motown arranger] Paul Riser called me. I went in with Paul Riser. I thought, Wow, I'm in the snake pit. I'd been to United Sound, I'd been to Pac-3, I'd been to a bunch of studios, but I hadn't been to the snake pit. Then in walks Smokey Robinson out of the clear blue sky. Smokey Robinson — golly!
For me, the Funk Brothers were the stars. Six years ago, they got their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They called me to help get everything going for it and get the money. If we'd waited two more months, there would be no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the Funk Brothers. If you're talking about a true blessing, a year later, I get my star, and I'm facing the Funk Brothers. Their star is actually pointing at my star, and my star is pointing at their star — the Funk Brothers and Ray Parker, Jr. What are the odds of that? For me, that's better than being next to Berry Gordy.
The biggest studio for me, career-wise, was when Holland Dozier Holland left Motown and formed Invictus/Hot Wax. The Funk Brothers weren't supposed to be there, so I was part of a whole new band. I played on all that stuff like Honey Cone's "Want Ads" and Chairmen of the Board's "Patches". The two hits that I know I missed that I wish I could claim I played on were "Band of Gold" and [sings] "Just give me a little more time". I love those two. It's like I want to say I played on "My Girl", but I was in elementary school ...
... and they didn't need one of the Stingrays!
Yeah, they didn't need a clarinet player that day. [laughs] Some of the stuff I missed just because of time, but Holland Dozier Holland embraced me. Once they heard me play and liked me, and my other friend Sylvester Rivers, they had us play on all the records. We were there every time they cut a session.
What were each of Holland Dozier Holland's individual roles as songwriters?
First of all, they all do everything, but I would say that Lamont leans towards the lyric. Eddie's more the overseer who knows how to put it all together. He makes the deals. Brian seems to be the classical musician who comes up with those ridiculous Tchaikovsky / Beethoven chords and those changes that nobody had heard before. Nobody has written classical music and put it to pop music like Brian Holland has. I don't know how he got that, but he's classically trained.
Then they got Paul Riser, who's also classically trained. He'd come in and sweeten it, so that worked perfectly too. If you look at some records, there are songs that just Eddie wrote with Norman Whitfield that had nothing to do with the other two, and vice versa, but when the three came together, that seems to be how it would go.
Earlier, you mentioned how word-of-mouth jump-started your career. Was it word-of-mouth that prompted Stevie Wonder to call you for his tour in 1972?
Believe it or not, yes. He said, "All roads lead back to Ray Parker, Jr." [laughs] He didn't tell me the names he spoke to, but I'm sure he spoke to Bohannon, Michael Henderson, Marvin Gaye, and some other people. "You want to go on tour? You need to call that Ray guy." When he called me up, he said, "The gig is yours. You do not have to audition. Everybody told me you're the one to call."
For him to call me to be in his band, not only was he going to teach me a lot of things, but he gave me confidence. How can I be worthless if the number one guy in the world is calling me on the telephone? He needs me for something. That in and of itself has got to be worth something. I never thought I was going to be Stevie Wonder, but I thought if I could just be five percent of Stevie Wonder, that'd be cool. Five percent of a billion dollars is okay! [laughs] That's still really good.
Stevie opened for the Rolling Stones in 1972. What were your expectations going out on the road at that level?
I was 17 years old when Stevie called. I assumed the Rolling Stones were opening for Stevie Wonder! I thought, Stevie Wonder's the headline act ... right? The first gig was in Vancouver, British Columbia. There were army tanks there and all this crazy stuff going on. I thought, Wow, is this what a concert's like? Then we got into the concert, and I noticed there were all of these white faces. I thought, very innocently, There's nobody black in Vancouver?
I'd never been on a stage this big in my life, so I didn't know what to expect. We played and the audience was very receptive. Everything was great. We went backstage. Then the crowd went berserk. They got loud. The floor was moving. What's happening? The Rolling Stones are taking the stage. What? After Stevie Wonder? I thought for sure that Stevie Wonder was the headline act. It was like mass hysteria. I didn't know anything could be that big. As you can see, I didn't know much about the world at that point.
You'd toured with the Spinners, but to go out on this big rock and roll tour ...
... I had no idea. I also had no idea that if you were black, you had to be on R&B radio. It really never occurred to me that CKLW and Keener were white stations, and WJLB and WCHB were black stations. Later on, people would say, "Why don't you cut a record like Led Zeppelin?" I used to say in the '70s, "If I cut that, they won't play it on R&B radio, which means they'll never hear it on pop radio." People would say, "What do you mean? If it's good, it's good." I said, "No, it doesn't work like that." Back then, if you didn't go number one on the black station, there ain't no hit! You're not crossing over. For me, I've always thought if you're black, you've got a really hard road because you got to make a record that fits this audience and fits that audience.
There's some interesting overlap between you, Stevie Wonder, and Rufus & Chaka Khan. You played on Stevie's "Maybe Your Baby" on Talking Book (1972). The next year, Rufus & Chaka Khan cut "Maybe Your Baby" on their first album. Then you wrote "You Got the Love" with Chaka on the group's second album, Rags to Rufus (1974), which also has Stevie's "Tell Me Something Good". I love how "You Got the Love" opens that album. It's like fireworks.
That's a magical song. I wrote that for Stevie Wonder and for Barry White. Don't ask me why! I was trying to imitate what Barry White did with the bass and with the guitar. I played it for Stevie. He wouldn't do it. I played it for Barry White, and he didn't hear it at all. I lived next door to Chaka and [Rufus drummer] André Fischer. André said, "Well, you know if ain't nobody gonna cut it, then we'll cut it." It was sort of like a mercy thing. [laughs] "You'll cut it? You want to hear it again? Do you remember what it sounds like?" We went into the studio. I played the guitar and a couple of parts. André played the drums. It was a little sloppier than the track I cut at home. The tempos were fluctuating, but then Chaka sang on it and just made it magic.
What gets me is the way the track keeps building and you don't know where it's building to, but when you get there — "I love you" — it's like an explosion. You don't see it coming. What was Chaka's contribution as a writer?
She wrote the rest of the lyrics, so she has half the song, but I wrote some of the lyrics and came up with "I love you" and all that stuff. I came up with the melody. My girlfriend, Anita Sherman, sang the melodies on the demo. She was pissed off. She said, "Chaka sang it the same way I sang it! She's making all that money!" I looked at her like, "Aren't you happy I have something on the radio?" [laughs]
Was "You Got the Love" the first song you wrote that you heard on the radio?
Absolutely. I know exactly where I heard it. I was driving on Sunset. I had a red Mercedes with black seats, and I heard it on my Blaupunkt radio. "My idea is on the radio ... and it's a hit!" It was exciting. You couldn't tell me anything!
Did you experience any kind of culture shock moving to LA from Detroit?
[laughs] I felt like I belonged in LA. I'm the guy who told my mom and dad when I was seven, "The stork might have slipped on the way to LA and dropped me in the wrong neighborhood." [laughs] That was my theory. I always looked at Leave It to Beaver and The Beverly Hillbillies and thought, While we're freezing, they have sunshine. Frankie Avalon's at a beach party. Where's the beach? I told everybody since I was seven or eight years old, "I'm moving to LA".
The same year that "You Got the Love" came out, Gene Page produced Nancy Wilson's All in Love is Fair (1974). On that album, she sings songs by Jimmy Webb, Thom Bell and Linda Creed, Paul McCartney ... and then there's a Ray Parker, Jr. song, "Ocean of Love".
Go figure! Gene Page was my mentor, my hero. I would call him my "LA father". He pitched "Ocean of Love" to Nancy Wilson. She heard the story — "Drink my mind and the water shall please you" — and said, "Oh yeah, I want to cut this." I would have cut it more modern, but they put the old kind of band sound on it. I wish we had cut it a little differently.
How did you actually connect with Gene Page?
Initially, through Holland Dozier Holland in Detroit. He came to Detroit to arrange a Dionne Warwick album [Just Being Myself] that Holland Dozier Holland were writing. Boy, he talked funny. [softly] "Hey babe ... one, two, three, four." The way he spoke was interesting. I couldn't make any sense of it. I didn't know if he was bourgeois. Is he gay? Is he straight? We didn't know what to make of him. He was from New York. He came from a well-to-do family. Then he was talking about Beverly Hills and gated houses. We're in the ghetto, so we're like, "What are you talking about?"
He was a nice guy. We liked him. He was very talented. I remember one thing he said was, "Okay, the session's over. I'm gonna go to my hotel downtown and go for a walk." Everybody at the same time said, "Don't do that! This is Detroit!" [laughs]
I never forgot him. We exchanged phone numbers, and I thought, When I get to LA, I'm going to look up Gene Page. Later on, we did a song for Johnny Mathis, "Nothing Between Us But Love" (1981). That was a lot of fun. I love Johnny Mathis. He's a wonderful guy. It wasn't a huge hit, but if I was writing for Johnny Mathis, then I've got my mama and daddy and all my relatives in my back pocket! Everybody knew Johnny Mathis. "Johnny Mathis? Ray has arrived!" That was a really big deal.
I love Gene's arrangement of "Always Thinking of You" on Love Unlimited Orchestra's White Gold (1974). How did that song develop in the studio?
Gene Page got me the job to produce Tom Keane. His father was Bob Keane, who had "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens. Tom Keane ended up writing a song for Chaka Khan, "Through the Fire", but I produced his first record, which was "Always Thinking of You", but we called it "I Caught You Creepin'". We took the vocal off. Barry White heard it and wanted to cut it.
The way that came about was, Barry White would say, "I'm cutting eight songs today. Y'all get triple scale. You do it in ten hours, five hours. I don't care what it is, but I ain't giving you a penny more." We were finished early one day. Gene Page had written the arrangement and printed up the chart for "Always Thinking of You" ahead of time. He'd get $1,000 per arrangement at that time, and then you had to pay somebody to write the charts out. He was into my song, $1,200 or $1,300 deep … and the song may not even happen. He never asked me for the money back. He was just helping a young kid out. You can't make it in this world without people in your corner.
When the session was over, I pushed Barry White into my car. He cut his arm trying to get into my little Mercedes. Things weren't going well when we first started. He already got hurt. Now he's in my car and the car's hitting the curb. I thought, I got to pitch him now! I played him my song. He said [gruffly] "That's nice Ray." Then he gets out of the car. I say, "I want to cut it." He said, "We can't cut it. The musicians are going home." I said, "They're friends of mine. If I talk them into it, can I cut it?" He said, "Well, you ain't got no charts." I said, "Gene wrote the charts." By this time, he's thinking, "Ain't that a bitch! He's pulling one over on me!" He said, "I'm going home. Cut the song. I'm out of here." I go in and ask the musicians for a favor. Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, David T. Walker … all the cats. They're all excited. Gene Page got the chart. I'm 19 years old cutting a song with Barry White and an orchestra!
The song cut itself pretty much. We had the best musicians in the world. All you gotta do is count it off, and they'll read the music. I cut the song and took it over to Barry's house. He says, "That's on the album." Now he didn't really need a song on the album. In hindsight, I think he was taking mercy on a black kid from Detroit. Maybe I resembled something of him from his past, trying to get going. He saw all the work that I put into it. It wasn't like I was asking for favors. I think he said, "I'll give him a shot."
How did you and Barry White collaborate on "You See the Trouble With Me"?
That didn't go well either. That's another one where I already wrote part of the song. His road manager lived in my building. I saw Barry White come over. It didn't occur to me that he'd pull his car right up to the gate. He was just going to go in for a minute. I went into the garage really fast to get my Mercedes, so I could drive around and play the song for him, but then I triggered the gate. The gate lifted up his white Lincoln. Then it broke off and fell on his car, and tore up the gate and the car. He looks at me and he says [sarcastically] "Thanks, Ray. I needed that." I'm thinking, Wow, we're not going to be friends anymore! I pitched him the song. He listened to the song, and then he wrote the rest of the lyrics, even after I tore up his car!
Even though it wasn't a huge hit in America, "You See the Trouble With Me" was one of Barry White's biggest records around the world. It's on all his Greatest Hits packages. That song's the moneymaker. More people know "You Got the Love", but "You See the Trouble With Me" made more money.
The music business is strange. I know people who wrote a lot more hits than me, and they live in condos. They didn't get the money. Sometimes it's their fault, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes the deal came at the wrong time. You say to yourself, "How is it possible that you can maneuver yourself into having that many hits, and then you don't get the money?" Then you take another guy who maybe didn't do as much as the other guy, and he's got all the money in the world. How did that happen? Some of it's by the grace of God. Some of it is the time you were born in, what was going on in the marketplace … a whole bunch of things.
There's a song you wrote with Wah Wah Watson, "Love Ain't Something (That You Get For Free)", that didn't make a lot of money, per se, but it's one of my favorites. You also wrote "Doin It" with Wah Wah and Herbie Hancock for Herbie's album Secrets (1976). Describe the writing dynamic between the three of you.
Herbie's one of those creative guys who just wants to come up with something new. We would come up with some ideas just on the spot. Me and Wah Wah, at that point, were doing all of Herbie's records, and we would play together on a whole bunch of other people. I was the "read the music" tune-up guy. Wah Wah was usually to my right because he made me tune his guitar. I'm only three years younger than Wah Wah, but it seemed like he was the big older guy, so he could boss me around. It really was like that. You're talking about a relationship that's 50 years. [Voice lowers] I miss Wah Wah.
David Rubinson produced a lot of that stuff you did with Wah Wah. To me, he's sort of an unsung figure.
Exactly, he was partners with Bill Graham. Wonderful guy, David Rubinson. We did the Pointer Sisters with him, Herbie Hancock, all that stuff at the Automatt. In fact, me and Herbie used to share a condo in San Francisco, and I had my car up there for a while. David was the guy who told me how to re-write "Jack and Jill". I went back and re-wrote the song with "Jack" in the verses and "Jill" in the verses to keep it personal. I think that changed everything in the song.
It's interesting that before Clive Davis signed you to Arista, you were signed to A&M for a brief period.
Yes, I was on A&M before Clive. Me and Don Passman were going door to door trying to sell music. I cut a song with Anita Sherman, "(Why Can't You) Make Love Like You Mean It" (1975) that was similar to "You Got the Love". A&M gave us a singles deal … which went absolutely nowhere.
I'll never forget going to the A&M lot. That was the first time I saw Quincy Jones. I think he was standing with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, but I didn't know who they were. I'm coming in through the gate, and I'm thinking, Wow, Quincy Jones! I don't know what to say to Quincy Jones, but I have to meet Quincy Jones. I went over to him. I don't know why, but I said, "Hi, you don't know who I am, but I'm Ray Parker, Jr., and I'm going to teach you how to produce hit records." That's how sure I was about myself!
A couple of months later, the Brothers Johnson were platinum and A&M was giving me my box of records — I think thirteen records were left — and escorting me off the lot. It's a long walk when your Adam's apple is way up here, and you're about to cry. [laughs]
Photo: Eric Page
Why'd they let you go?
I didn't sell any records. The song was only on two stations. One was in Florida, and the other one was in Louisiana somewhere in the swamps. I'll never forget leaving the label. It's the worse day of my life. I'm choked up. I just wanted to get to my car without crying. Quincy Jones sees me. He remembers that I'm that big mouth kid. He says to me, "Hey! I'm waiting on my production lessons." Tears are just dropping from my eyes all over the place. He felt so bad about making me cry, he ran over to me and put his arms around me. His exact words were, "I don't know who you are, but if you made it to this lot, you did something right. You wouldn't even be here to see me if you didn't do something right. I didn't mean to make you cry, but what you should do now is pick yourself back up and cut some more music and do it fast."
Wow. That is an incredible story, Ray. Well, not too long after that you wrote a number one record that should have had your name on it as a songwriter ...
... I'm wondering what that could be! It has Ray's guitar part on it. It has Ray's arrangement on it.
Yes, Leo Sayer's "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" is really your song.
It's in that same group with "Mr. Telephone Man", "Jack and Jill", and all those songs I wrote at home on my eight-track that I had. We didn't have drum machines so I wanted to hear what it sounded like. Ed Green, John Barns, and the gang were there. I gave everybody the parts and we were hitting the groove. A producer [Richard Perry] comes in and says, "Man, that's hot. Can we cut that on Leo Sayer?" I said, "Well that's my song. I wrote the song and I'm cutting this song." He said, "But it's hot right now. Do you mind? I'll give you part of the song." I did a lot of work with the guy so I said okay.
And then your name is nowhere to be found on the writing credit. He put Vini Poncia's name on it with Leo's, so how did Vini Poncia even factor into it?
I never met him so I don't know what he's claiming to have written. I have no idea. Leo Sayer is the nicest guy in the world. He cut more of my songs trying to make up for it, hoping that one of them would be a hit, because he felt bad about it.
I've spoken to Richard Perry several times since then. There's no hate. It's more that I don't understand why he did it. He's not sorry he did it, he's not remorseful, but he's more sorry that he didn't know that I was going to write that many more hits! It's like, "Wait a minute. I didn't know you were going to do all that." It's a really interesting mindset of people who do that kind of stuff.
Life is weird because you don't know where anything's going and that was the thing that propelled me to get a great record deal at Arista through Clive Davis. Carole Pinckes [Carole Childs] was head of Richard Perry's publishing company. She took "Jack and Jill" and gave it to Clive Davis without asking Richard. He fired her that same day ... so both of us were out! [laughs]
I think Carole took it to Roger Birnbaum who was the "go get a hot dog guy" when I was at A&M — and now he's the biggest guy in the film world. I remember they used to yell at him, "Go get some cookies. Go get some french fries." I always treated him nice. By this time, he was doing A&R for Clive. Carole took it to Roger and then Roger took it to Clive and that was it. Clive loved "Jack and Jill", but I wouldn't sign the deal with Arista unless he hired Carole. Clive was nice enough to take Carole.
How did "Jack and Jill" represent your sensibility as a songwriter at that point?
That's a desperate song. That's a do-or-die song. That's a song where if this doesn't happen, you're gonna be in real trouble. This is your one shot, don't get kicked off the label again. You've got to make this happen.
I tried to write a Holland Dozier Holland lyric because they always wrote about nursery rhymes and stuff like that. I made a clever sexual twist out of a nursery rhyme. I wanted a Moog bass like Stevie Wonder in the intro. That was brand new. Nobody had it. I put the nursery rhyme harmonies in there too with big, stacked voices. I like those high voices — "Jack!" "Jill!" — like Sly & the Family Stone's song "Stand!" A high voice will get you noticed on the radio. While everybody's driving, it will get their attention.
Jerry Knight and Arnell Carmichael bring such vocal power to that song. How did you select them for "Jack and Jill"?
I was cutting the demo with me singing it. I wish I could find it and play it for you so you could hear how bad it was. I learned a lot about singing later on but, at that point, it was really bad. Arnell was in my brother's band. Jerry lived in California. He used to come over to my house and hang out. We were just fooling around with it. He sounded good and Arnell sounded good. Valorie Jones of the Jones Girls and Ollie's girlfriend sang on it. Ollie's girlfriend was white, she had that Valley Girl sound, and Valorie's a black girl from Detroit, so all of that mixed together just did something. When I listen to "Jack and Jill" now, it's perfect. I meant to do everything that's on there.
Arista was still a young company at the time you signed with them in 1977. What appealed to you about the label?
David Rubinson and Jeff Porcaro were helping me get on CBS, but then David said, "If Clive wants to sign you, I think he'll give you more personal attention, even though you'll sell more records with CBS, which is a bigger machine. Clive will get behind you and really make it happen." He was right.
From day one, Clive said "I'm signing you." I was the one without enough confidence to just put my name on it and go. I wanted a band [Raydio]. I thought then I could do whatever I want to do, I could have different vocalists, but the truth is I could have done that on my own anyway. I was going to split it equally, which didn't make much sense because I was producing, writing, and doing everything. I owned the studio. Nobody in the band wanted to sign except me because they were scared Arista was like a Barry Manilow / Bay City Rollers "white" label that didn't have any R&B. Clive had something to prove — "I've got to make sure we build this up". I got the first gold album on Arista in the R&B department, so I just happened to be there at the right time when he was building that up.
Though the first album is billed as Raydio (1978), it's really you playing mostly everything on the album, not to mention writing, producing, and mixing all the songs. There's this combination of confidence and cockiness on the album that's really appealing, especially on the song "Me".
I wish that was a hit. That was the perfect song. "I got something good for you. Guess what it is? Me!" That album was really from the heart. It's like somebody saying, "For the first time in your life, do whatever you want to do." To me, that album sounds different from any of the other albums. The guy on that album must get it to happen from scratch. On the other albums, he must keep up his story.
Even though "Jack and Jill" was a slow-moving record, it ended up selling almost two million records because it just kept climbing up the chart. I remember I was landing in Washington, DC, which is where "Jack and Jill" broke out. While we were walking in the airport, Clive Davis had it announced that the album and the single had gone gold. That's how I found out — as I'm getting off the airplane at National Airport!
Raydio, as a band, really came alive on stage. The New York Times reviewed Raydio when you opened for Bootsy Collins, saying you "combine a great deal of visual flash with very exciting guitar playing" (3 April 1978).
That was a whole tour. Boy, was I scared the first time I got onstage. When the curtains open, it's Raydio and it's me, front and center. It's not like I was playing with Stevie Wonder where I could hide off and stand to the right. I hadn't practiced my voice so I knew it was going to get hoarse really fast. The other guys were singing so I put Jerry on this side and Arnell on that side. I figured, I'm a pretty boy so I'll stand here with my guitar. [laughs] I can play the guitar and make it funky. I'll put a little bit of my voice in and come in with the backgrounds and we'll make this work.
For the first album, you filmed videos for "Jack and Jill", "Honey I'm Rich", and "Is This a Love Thing". That was more than three years before MTV launched. What was your understanding of videos at that time?
It was a new promotional vehicle that people were getting into in the late-'70s and it took off. I'd never heard of a music video. Clive said we should shoot a music video. Clive felt that it was important. Me on a screen and somebody else is paying for it? I don't have a problem with that. [laughs] Shoot away!
Even your stage costume with the fringe jacket was quite elaborate.
Back then, everybody was wearing that kind of stuff. You could die in that now. Those outfits were solid leather. That stuff was so hot. If I just wear a T-shirt onstage, when those lights come on, it's hot. Imagine those leather things. You put that stuff on, man, you're up to 130 degrees. I used to think I was just going to tilt off the stage and pass out holding the guitar. It was that draining. I knew after a couple of those tours that I had to wear something different than this. Those outfits were a killer.
What was your mindset approaching the second Raydio album, Rock On (1979)?
That was fucked up. Two or three of the guys in the band quit. They wanted their own record deal. They didn't think that I was paying them enough money. They wanted royalties. I said, "You guys said you didn't want royalties!" The band came to me and said, "You made five million on the tour." I said, "What are you talking about? We were the opening act. Bootsy's nice enough to let me put my stuff on his truck but I'm losing $250,000 to pay you guys." They wanted $500 a week. I was making no money. Luckily, the record took off and we got a tour so I could get something back on the tour, but I was still in the hole. That broke the band up.
Just to clarify, that was the touring configuration of Raydio because you played mostly everything in the studio yourself.
Yes, that's what was so confusing about it for the second record. First, there was the band against me, which I didn't understand because most of these guys I grew up with in Detroit. Then there's Jerry Knight, who I thought was one of my best friends. We ended up all still being friends, but it's like, How did I get on this side, and you guys are on that side? I thought we were on the same side. Then they went behind my back and tried to get a deal. They all got a lawyer and they wanted to get their rights. I'm like, Dude, you negotiated the first deal. I gave you what you asked for and I didn't even know how I was going to do that. I borrowed, begged, and stole. I bought all the instruments. I took all the risk. You guys have been riding scot-free. You can't put your quarter in the slot machine after the sevens come up.
Then they came back with "We each want to write two songs on the record and we want this much." I thought, What makes you think Clive Davis wants two of your songs, like it's up to me? I don't own the record company. Then they fought among each other, which I thought was really interesting, so then everybody got their own lawyer.
I remember Jerry came up to me and said, "You see all the girls looking at me. I'm the sound of the group. I'm not trying to be an asshole, but I require 50% of the group and you can split the rest of the 50% with the other guys." I'm thinking, I thought they were looking at me! [laughs] Maybe they weren't, but I know they weren't looking at you 50% worth! At the end of all the negotiations, for every record I sold, I would be minus 200%. I couldn't do that.
Ultimately, you prevailed on Rock On, especially with "You Can't Change That", which was just as big as "Jack and Jill".
I cut "You Can't Change That" for the Spinners. Billy Henderson called me to write a song for the group. He says, "It's a long time since you were thirteen or fourteen. I like your new record. Maybe you should cut one for us." I thought, This is going to be a piece of cake. I'm going to take a little bit of the feel of "Games People Play", but I'm going to make it funky. I'm going to put "Rubberband Man" underneath that kind of a song. When I came up with that, I thought, They're gonna love this.
Billy said, "I don't really hear it ..." "You don't? It's the Spinners, for sure!" I could hear Philippé Wynne singing [sings] "You're the one I love ..." They didn't want to do it and so I cut it. A year later, Billy called me up and said, "We should have cut that song." "Yeah man, it's your song. It doesn't sound like me. It sounds like you guys."
How would you describe the quality of Arnell's voice on "You Can't Change That"?
He's the singer of the group. When people talk about the old Raydio stuff, they always ask, "Who's that guy with that magic voice? Where's that guy?" It's interesting to me that he hasn't cut solo records. At one point when I left Arista and I was going to Geffen, I signed a deal with Clive that we could still keep Raydio and let Arnell front the band, but then he had some marital problems with his wife. He couldn't get it together so that whole thing disappeared.
Earlier, we were talking about finding your voice. You sing in falsetto on "Let's Go All the Way" and "More Than One Way to Love a Woman". I hear some echoes of Marvin in that. Was he an influence in your vocal approach, using that falsetto?
Yes, I don't think anybody sings better than Marvin Gaye. If somebody said you can sing like anybody in the world, I'd say I want to sing like Marvin Gaye. When I say "sings", I'm not even saying the sound. Luther Vandross has an incredible sound, but Marvin Gaye puts his vocal in spots and places where nobody had even thought of it before. Just the way he uses the voice is like no other. Bar none, he's the genius of vocal arrangements. When he sings "Distant Lover", it's ridiculous. After he says a couple of words, he's got four bars of not singing. He just lets the audience go crazy. Then he comes back in with a line and you've waited to hear his voice.
There's something about "More Than One Way to Love a Woman" ... I first cut it in England. It wasn't at Abbey Road, but another famous studio. It sounded so much better than what I actually ended up with on the record. The guy had a drum sound in England that was outrageous. It was just one of those days where everything was sounding right. We didn't cut the whole song, so we had to recut it. If we'd had ProTools back then, I would have taken that and looped it.
That's Charles Fearing playing the acoustic guitar in the intro. I thought we should come in with a rock guitar right after the acoustic guitar. You can't get those kind of thoughts when you have a drum machine and ProTools and you're just sitting there doing it yourself. It just doesn't happen. It happens when you have people sitting there, conjuring up good ideas. It's chemistry.
Around that same time, you wrote and produced a few tracks for Deniece Williams on When Love Comes Calling (1979). By then, several years had passed since you'd first met her when she sang background in Wonderlove for Stevie Wonder. How had she grown as a vocalist?
Well, she'd had hits by then. She had "Free" and a bunch of other stuff. She had that high voice and she was able to control it. You just never thought a background singer was going to do that, but then she let me produce part of the record with David Foster because she never thought I was going to do anything either! [laughs] It runs both ways. We were both young and nobody thought anybody was going to do anything. I thought it was very kind of her to include me, or at least think I was able to produce her. She said, "Well, you've got a hit, so let's go!"
When I interviewed Clive Davis, he described you as "Prince before Prince".
I had a studio in my house before Prince did, and I helped him put a studio in his house. By the way, I ain't comparing myself to Prince! I feel like Salieri against Mozart. We used to talk all the time. He'd send me 85 songs, and I'd send him 12. Out of his 85, he's got twice as many hits as I do. How do you write 85 songs and cut them that fast? What he didn't have that I had was a studio in the house that me and Reggie Dozier built, Lamont Dozier's brother. I had an MCI board and Prince found it fascinating. Cavallo-Ruffalo [managers] were trying to sign him, and all he wanted to do was go to my house to see the studio.
He had a black BMW, which I took to my guy and had a stereo put in for him. I had my guys go back and put a studio in his house. I remember he had a Soundcraft board because he couldn't afford the MCI board that I had. He got the MCI machine, but he had a Soundcraft board because it was about $7,000 cheaper, if you can imagine. That was a big deal back then.
I've spoken to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and they said, "Man, he cut everything on the Soundcraft board. All the hits were on the Soundcraft board." Prince came up with the same idea that I came up with — he wanted to play with the sound, and the only way you could do that was to have your own equipment. Otherwise, you're gonna run out of money in the studio. How are you going to spend time with the knobs at $150 an hour? Does that guitar sound alright? It does if it's $150 an hour! [laughs]
I looked at Prince working and rehearsing. He neglected his entire life to rehearse the tour. It was never really my goal to be Mr. Workaholic. My idea of life was always, I like to sit here in the back yard and look at the trees. I want to sit here and play a little bit. It was never my intention to work work work and stay on tour. That's a good thing if that's your mission, but that's never been my mission. My mission was always, Well can we get a couple of weeks in Hawaii?
Why did Raydio become "Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio" on the third album, Two Places at the Same Time (1980)?
Because Clive got tired of the personnel change. He never liked Raydio in the first place. When the first group of band members left, and I had a meeting with him, I thought, This is a disaster. I've done my first big album. Now I've got to go tell Clive that a couple of the people left, including the lead singer. I thought it was a life-changing experience, but he didn't even see it that way. It was all of a 40-second conversation. He says, "I don't even know who the lead singer is. I never met him. What are you telling me for? It sounds like a production problem. You're the talent. I'm betting on you. You're the racehorse. I give you money and you produce the record."
I really like the first three albums. There's nothing planned on them. By the time I did the fourth album, A Woman Needs Love (1981), I was a little bit smarter. I remember sitting in the studio with no ideas. I've got three gold albums. Now I need a fourth! For some reason, there was no music playing. Four or five girls were just sitting on the couch. They started ragging on guys. I don't think I was supposed to hear it, but I was sitting at the board behind them. "Those no-good men, they think they can do what they want. We ain't going for this no more. Times have changed. Honey, I can get mine too!" I thought, Ain't that interesting? Maybe there's a song here. While they were saying all this stuff, I was sitting back there writing.
I told them I had an idea for a song. My song said, "She will fool around just like you do", just like a guy does. I talked with the girls. They weren't having it. They didn't like it because I said "She will fool around". No girl wants to hear that. Now when I wrote, "She can fool around", then all the girls liked it. In other words, if you fuck it up, she has the option to fool around! I went home thinking to myself, One word made all the difference in the song. If I had left "She will fool around", nobody would have bought it. "She can fool around" changed the whole thing.
It's interesting that "A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)" is the first major hit that you sang all the way through, start to finish, by yourself.
That was an accident. I wanted Arnell to sing it but he was out of town. Somehow I recorded it in the wrong key for him to do, so when he tried to sing it, it was too low. We didn't have ProTools. You couldn't push a button and raise the key. You had to cut the whole song over from scratch. I'm not feeling that, so I started singing it. I hated my voice. I remember I spent a month singing it. Track after track, trying to get a line here, trying to get a line there that would make some sense. Then I got frustrated. I was just so done with it. I wanted to get rid of the whole thing.
I put all the tracks in "record" and said, "Just get rid of it so then I won't have to think about it." Arnell stopped in and said, "What are you doing?" He actually stopped the tape recorder. He said, "It sounds pretty good now. It doesn't sound good to you because you spent a month on it, but it sounds good to the rest of us."
I was trying to sing like Teddy Pendergrass with all that [moans] "mmm", and it didn't come out like I wanted it to. Little did I know that the girls were gonna love that and that would be my new trademark. Every time I went "mmm", I was trying to go [forcefully] "MMM!" like Teddy Pendergrass, and it wasn't like that at all. It was like a little mouse [laughs], but the girls would hear it and go, "Ooh, he's so sexy." I'm thinking, What do you hear? You hear a failed Teddy Pendergrass! If Teddy was sleeping and turned over, that's what he would sound like. [laughs] It turned out to be its own sound.
On my way over here, I was listening to "That Old Song", which was the follow-up single to "A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)". It's such a perfect song for driving in the car.
"That Old Song" is one of my favorite songs. Emotionally, it took me someplace else. I thought that was going to be the biggest smash. It was Top 30 and then it fell off. People liked "That Old Song", but it didn't get the response I was looking for. If you let that affect you, then you're chasing the dream you had last night.
Parallel to A Woman Needs Love, you produced Cheryl Lynn's In the Night (1981), which had "Shake It Up Tonight", and Brick's Summer Heat (1981). Who brought you in for those albums?
Larkin Arnold [CBS Vice President] brought me in. Those were the two albums I produced to let me know that I didn't want to produce anymore! It's not my thing. People hire you to produce a record and you really have to be like a politician. They want to tell you what it's supposed to sound like and what you're supposed to do.
New Edition was different because they let me do what I was going to do on "Mr. Telephone Man" (1984). They heard what I did on Junior Tucker's version of "Mr. Telephone Man" (1983) and thought that was great. They said, "We like that old groove. Make it more like that. No new synthesizers or anything." It was probably the best production for me because I worked really hard on that. They never questioned anything, even when I had Bobby Brown sing the high part. He was the rapper. He said, "I don't sing." "Well, you're singing today!" They just went for it.
It turned out to be a wonderful experience even though they're a little out of tune on the record, but it's real. The performances were great. A lot of singers don't project the words like they really mean it, but New Edition delivered that song like they were thirty years old. It was one of my biggest smashes.
In the past you've mentioned how, musically, "A Woman Needs Love" grew out of "Mr. Telephone Man", which you'd actually written in the '70s.
I loved the feel of "Mr. Telephone Man", but I didn't like what I was singing. I don't know why. In hindsight, it's like "Are you stupid? It's a smash. What's the matter with you? You could have had one more big smash." It sounds just like Raydio. I put the music of "Mr. Telephone Man" under "A Woman Needs Love", and it worked perfectly. They're really similar songs. When I do concerts, I do half of one and mix it with the other.
When you performed "The Other Woman" on Soul Train in 1982, Don Cornelius interviewed you and said that "The Other Woman" was a surprising new sound for you. Did you face any sort of resistance from radio with that song?
I felt like I got resistance from the record company. The R&B department said, "What are you doing? We did all this stuff building up your career and then you cut rock and roll? Nobody will hear this shit."
"The Other Woman" started off with a tune I heard on the radio by Rick Springfield called "Jessie's Girl". It was a good song, but driving home one day I thought, I don't like the idea of 'I wish I had Jessie's girl'. If I want to be with your girl, I'll take her! I'm not even gonna sneak. I'll tell you ahead of time, "I'm taking your girl. This is why she should be with me." I wanted to write something like that.
I wrote "The Other Woman" and put it down in the studio. That was one of the fastest songs I ever cut in my life. I just put my groove down on the guitar. Then I played the second guitar, like Keith Richards. Everything I learned from that Rolling Stones tour, I put on "The Other Woman". It's got those chords where it meshes the minor with the major. I put my drum track on. That's me playing the drums.
I put a bass part on, like what Larry Graham would play on the bass for Sly & the Family Stone. In fact, Larry Graham was in the studio when I cut it. I'm such a punk. I should have asked him to play it, but I sat there thinking, "Holy shit, I'm playing Larry Graham and he's sitting behind me." I really wanted him to play this solo, but I didn't have enough nerve to ask him. I turned around and looked at him. He said, "Well, Sly ain't doing it, so go ahead on. It sounds good." Larry Graham knew exactly what I was thinking without me saying it, so I put that on there.
I had "The Other Woman", but I thought "Let Me Go" was going to be the first single on The Other Woman (1982). It ended up being a big hit for me.
"Let Me Go" was your Teddy Pendergrass homage that actually worked!
Exactly, that's it. I finally got it right! I missed it the first time, but that's what I was trying to do. "Let Me Go" is probably the best song I ever sang, just as a singer. I really worked on it and got that vocal down.
I wasn't even going to play "The Other Woman" for Clive. I went to a party. These girls who were black liked the song. I thought, What do they like about the song? It's rock and roll, and it's me talking about cheating.
Conceptually, "The Other Woman" is like the flip side of "A Woman Needs Love".
Yeah, but I wanted that flip side. "A Woman Needs Love" made me too good. All the girls loved me and all the guys hated me. I wanted to be a little bit of a bad boy. The girls liked "The Other Woman". They didn't even care that it was rock and roll — they didn't even hear that — all they heard was that story. "Everything was fine until she blew my mind." What I was singing about is a girl whose stuff is so good that it made me leave my wife and just go with her. They just loved it.
The girls at this party said well you should at least play it for Clive. I had 13 songs on the tape and "The Other Woman" was at the end of the tape. As it was coming on, I thought, Uh oh. We just had a great meeting. Clive said he likes "Let Me Go". He's going to put this out ... and then he heard "The Other Woman". When it was done, he said, "You're just fucking with me now. You knew that this was the hit all along. Why'd you put that at the back and make me listen to all thirteen songs? You should have played this first."
I left the meeting thinking he's gonna put "The Other Woman" out. I'm in deep shit now. [laughs] The R&B guy looks at me and says, "What am I going to do with that? Where am I supposed to play it? Clive's giving me a ton of money. I'm going to get it played ... I think. I got the money to get it played, but it's your butt. We're coming off all of these hit records and you cut this with the rock guitars? What did you do that for?" Then "The Other Woman" just took off.
By the time I got to The Other Woman, Clive was just done with Raydio all together. He said, "I want to sell Ray Parker, Jr." and I'm glad he did.
Yes, The Other Woman ostensibly introduced you as a solo artist to the public, minus the Raydio brand, and earned you a GRAMMY nomination. During your time at Arista, you produced "Up Front" and "Love or Loneliness" for Diana Ross on her Ross (1983) album at RCA. How were you enlisted for that project?
She called me up to produce her record. I'm thinking, Wow, I'm at the height of my career. I'm going to get to produce Diana Ross! The lady who was doing Diana Ross' album cover was also doing my album cover. She looked at me and said, "Diana Ross saw your album cover, A Woman Needs Love, and she was looking at you a little differently." I said, "What are you talking about? I've played on her records. I've known Diana Ross since I was 18 or 19 years old." She said again [coyly] "Well, I just thought I'd let you know that she's looking at you a little differently ..."
I meet Diana Ross in LA. We hang out. She comes over to my house. I had a Rolls Royce in the driveway. I had a Porsche. I had a little Honda. She said, "Which car are we taking?" "Let's take the Honda." I'm just testing her! We take the Honda and drive around the city. I take her to Ameraycan Studios from my house in Beverly Hills. Then she invited me over to her house for a birthday party she's having. That's where I met Berry Gordy for the first time. That was a big deal.
I write some songs for her. I cut the tracks, and she wants to finish them in New York. She invites me to New York. She sings like ten minutes and then she's tired. She said, "Let's wait till next week." Next week? It's Thursday. What am I supposed to do? She said I could stay at her house in Connecticut. I'm scared to go there [laughs], but she was very polite and never did anything out of range.
RCA released "Up Front" as a single. She kind of veered towards rock on that song, which wasn't really her forte as far as radio was concerned.
No, it wasn't her thing. The one I thought was better was "Love or Loneliness". There was just something about the song and the way she sang it. Even when I listen to it now, that's her story right there. I think that's a hit. I had a little Gamble & Huff in there. There were several records they did that had that little guitar octave playing three-note parts. I thought RCA would promote that, but they just let the whole album go. Steely Dan did the rest of the album. They didn't promote those tracks either. It was one of those records that just fell through the cracks, but I always liked "Love or Loneliness".
Yes, I love how the opening bass figure sounds like a little moan. In songs like "Love or Loneliness", you have such a real take on relationships ...
... because I listen. If you told me about your relationship, it would find its way into a Ray story. You'd be at home thinking, I'm sorry I told him that! Nobody would know it's you except us.
It's interesting to listen to Woman Out of Control (1983) now, knowing that Ghostbusters (1984) was one year away. "I Still Can't Get Over Loving You" was the big hit off that album but "In the Heat of the Night" is a standout track.
I just went for some crazy stuff on Woman Out of Control. I like "In the Heat of the Night". It's a vibe and a mood. I like the story on it. Sometimes the record company doesn't hear what you hear. "Guys, this is the song right here!"
"Ghostbusters" had absolutely nothing to do with anything I cut before. That was the biggest departure after "The Other Woman". What was nice about it was that there was no pressure of a record or video because there wasn't going to be one — they just wanted it for twenty seconds in the film. The director Ivan Reitman told me what kind of music he wanted and how he wanted it to go. I said, "You want a little uptempo bar band groove, just regular chords. Okay I got it. I'm gonna knock this out right quick and not think much about it."
I remember the director liked "The Other Woman" so I made a little melody similar to "The Other Woman". I put it in the same key. "Ghostbusters" is right in that same range as "The Other Woman". I thought, I'll kind of talk through it. They'll be happy with their twenty seconds over the library scene and that will be it. Then all of a sudden, the director heard it and said, "That sounds great. We need to make a record." "A record?" I got nervous. "A record of what? Me singing to a ghost? I sing to girls!"
Because the movie was a comedy, I was released from doing anything serious. My ex-girlfriend and her friends were Valley Girls from Tujunga. They said [exaggerates] "Ghostbusters!" in their native tongue. Then you got me and I sound like a ghetto kid from Detroit — "Who ya gonna call?" I'm talking like that, and they're answering like they're in another country. That's what really makes part of the record — they're in a totally different social club from what I'm in. There's some magic in the contrast.
When I finished "Ghostbusters", you don't want to know what you could have bought it for from me. If you came up to me and said, "Ray here's a bag of money", I'd say, "Take it. It's your song. I don't care." I can see how people can sell the entire state of Alaska for ten dollars. You don't think it has any value and it does.
I'm trying to get the chronology right, but were you about to leave Arista prior to "Ghostbusters"?
I didn't really leave Arista. Clive got into an argument with my manager over a Dionne Warwick album and how much money I was charging to produce. He said, "What's it going to take to re-sign Ray?" Then all of a sudden he offered me no money. I think we caught Clive on a bad day. I thought, "If I've sold that many records and my next deal is gonna be the same as the one from seven years ago, we better look around."
We looked around and David Geffen made an offer. Carole Pinckes took me there. She was working for Geffen. I couldn't let Carole down. We'd gone too far into the deal to get out of the offer. I told Clive, "You waited until the last hour. Why couldn't we have had this talk three weeks ago?" It probably would have been a better idea if I cancelled everything and went with Clive, but I ended up signing with Geffen. That was 1983. I said, "David, I have four more years on Arista. Why are you signing me now?" I got a tax-free check as a deposit. He said, "Take this now." It was a lot of money.
When I cut "Ghostbusters", nobody wanted it. Clive hated it. He said, "If you want to do that, take that to Geffen." I never got to play it for Geffen. Me and Clive were still cool, though. The movie was coming out. I said to him, "Look, Columbia Pictures will show you a rough cut of the film. They will pay for all of the promotion. It will cost you no money. All you got to do is put it out. You can fill the album up with your artists." He saw the film and said, "Okay let's do it."
It was my idea to come up with the Saturday Night Live guys in the video because I said, "If we're going to cut a video about 'Ghostbusters', we've got to make it a joke. Can you get these guys?" Ivan Reitman just expanded on that and said, "Well let's get everybody." It turned out the video was a super success. He directed it himself. It's the only video he's every directed.
It's not the easiest thing to film in the middle of Times Square ...
... in the middle of the day! Friday afternoon at one o'clock. Why? They blocked it off. It was a big video at the time. It had everybody in it, cameos. It was spectacular. By the time we were done with the video, I thought it's possible something can happen here.
I'd spent the last seven years building up an audience of me with the girls. Seven albums later, I think I know what I sound like. I think I'm this but I made "Ghostbusters" and that is bigger than anything I ever cut in my life, so what is the sound? Right now, when people think of Ray Parker, Jr. they think of that sound, but that's not where I heard me all these years.
You have to be able to be open-minded enough to know that you don't really know who you are. You need to be able to figure out what it is that you like. I think it's like that in all facets of life, even sexuality. People think they know what they like and then they experience something different and say, "I like that!" It's not right or wrong. I ain't got a problem with any of that. I think the one who wanders through life and doesn't know who he is or what he likes is a sad person. Most people I know have hurt their careers because they're trying to be something they're not.
You mentioned cameos in the "Ghostbusters" video. I distinctly recall watching you perform "Ghostbusters" on Solid Gold where the show incorporated clips of Tina Turner, the Pointer Sisters, and Laura Branigan lip-syncing the title, which I thought was the coolest thing. Looking back on that, it's impressive how you, Tina Turner, and the Pointer Sisters were veteran artists and yet all of you had achieved your greatest commercial success during the second, or in Tina's case, third decade of your career at that time. I don't know if that would be possible now in the industry.
Yeah, I even had a Greatest Hits (1982) album out before "Ghostbusters". I think that was the peak of record sales, the late-'70s, early-'80s. I was born at the right time. Had I been born ten years earlier, there were no album sales in the '60s. It's like being a session musician. There's a window that I happened to fall in where people could make money. You can't do that now in studio work. There's not enough studio work. In the '70s, studio musicians were making as much as the artists. You could make a fortune. Some of it is "I'm great!" and some of it is just timing. If I had done the exact same thing ten years earlier or ten years later, that wouldn't have been it.
"Ghostbusters" not only went to number one, it won a GRAMMY award and was nominated for an Oscar. Were there certain expectations from the record company that you had to live up to?
There was nothing I could live up to, period. "Ghostbusters" was like hitting the baseball out of the stadium and we never found the baseball. I don't know where it is. People say to me, "How are you going to top 'Ghostbusters'?" I will never try to top "Ghostbusters". I was never trying to write "Ghostbusters". How can I top something that I wasn't trying to do in the first place? I'm just thankful that it came along and it hit.
In the fall of 1984, you did a bunch of television, from closing the very first MTV Video Music Awards to singing "Heaven Knows" with Nell Carter on Gimme A Break! You also sang the theme song to Richard Pryor's short-lived Pryor's Place. Did you write it as well?
Yes, that was exciting for me. Working with Richard Pryor was wonderful. Seeing him dance to the song and I'm in the video with him? Those are precious moments you can't replace. When you do a show like that, the first thing you want to know is, "What are the ratings?" That determines whether you're going to be on the air or not. I'm thinking to myself, I wrote the theme song. They're gonna play it every week. I'm gonna make money! It's a kids show, so it could go on like Mr. Rogers. Richard Pryor's funny as heck. Everybody wants to see Richard Pryor.
The ratings come out and the ratings are great. I get a phone call a couple of weeks later. "Richard says he doesn't feel like doing it anymore." Is that a contingency? I didn't know that was possible. Guess what? If you don't feel like doing it, that means everybody's salary goes down the tubes. I wanted to say, "Can you fucking feel like doing it already?" [laughs]
I was struck by an interview that you did with Rolling Stone back in 1984 where you mention how you'd written some songs that commented on gay and bisexual relationships. For a major artist like yourself to have that awareness and explore it in a positive way was fairly progressive for that time.
What I don't understand about the world is, if a guy wants to have sex with a guy, and a girl wants to have sex with a girl, or a guy wants to have sex with a girl, isn't that behind closed doors? I guess if you're doing it outside in my front yard, then maybe I should get concerned about it, but if you're in the bedroom, why does anybody else care about what you guys are doing? I don't even understand why it's an issue. What is the problem here?
To quote one of your own songs, "It's Our Own Affair".
Exactly! Every relationship is different. You two guys get together and do whatever works for y'all. That's called a marriage or a union or whatever you want to be. Why does anybody care? I don't get it.
Now, "Girls Are More Fun" is a funny song. Clive took it like I was attacking gays and I really wasn't saying anything like that. What was funny about that song, I was in the studio with Miles Davis when the video came on. There's a shot of me in the video where the camera goes up the legs. You think it's a fine girl and then it's me! I'm thinking, I just met Miles Davis. Can we show something else? The video gets to that part. Miles looks at it and goes, "Damn, Ray. You got some pretty legs." [laughs].
Right after he saw me in the video, Miles was drawing these characters. He said, "Ray sit down. Let me draw you." I think I had a lunch date with some girl, but at that point Miles was going to draw my picture and give it to me. Right now, I'm older and wiser, I'd stop what I was doing, but at the time I told Miles I'd be back in a few hours and that was the end of that. I don't know why I did that.
After Dark (1987) was your Geffen debut and featured a duet with Natalie Cole, "Over You". You wrote that song with Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. How did that combination of people come together?
I got a phone call from Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. First of all, why would they call me? When I got that phone call, I thought, Burt Bacharach is acknowledging that I'm on the planet? He was talking about doing some songs. He heard that song I wrote and he said we should finish that. Then he got Natalie Cole to sing it with me. That turned out great. It was a nice experience. We thought that was going to do something but it didn't do as much as we thought it was going to do.
When you released I'm Free (2006), the industry had changed quite a bit from your last album on MCA, I Love You Like You Are (1991). What outlet did I'm Free give you creatively?
I could just do whatever I wanted to do. I had a classical guitar and was just playing around with it. It was totally different from anything I'd done. I wrote a collection of songs. I thought they were clever songs. People think you are the song. People thought I was going to divorce my wife and that there were a bunch of girls hitting on me all the time. I ain't divorcing my wife. We're happy! Then I had the drinking song "Rum Punch". I'm not an alcoholic. I just wrote one song about a glass of wine!
That's the first and only record I put out myself where I own the master. I didn't know what I was doing. There's probably about 40 or 50 grand that I didn't have to spend, but I actually netted 250 or 300 grand on that. I only got on Smooth Jazz radio with a single, but it was enough to let the R&B audience and other people know that I had a record out. Enough people bought it at concerts that I made money on it. I don't know if that same channel is available now because some of that is closed up with streaming, but at that time, I actually made a few hundred thousand dollars.
I must ask, is there a chance the Stingrays would ever reunite?
[laughs] No, I don't play the clarinet and Nathan doesn't play the trumpet! Nathan plays the bass. He's the band leader for Stevie Wonder. Ollie should be playing the drums, but he's been selling real estate and doing some other stuff. The Stingrays will unite, but it will be in my studio next door, just jamming.
Richie Sambora helped me build the studio. He lives two doors down. I used his architect. What's nice about it is I spend more quality time with my two sons because they're studying music. It's become a hangout. Leon Sylvers, Denice Williams, George Benson — everybody — comes over. I can get in and play with the band. We can rehearse and do stuff. For most of us, it's not about the money; it's just to play. If nobody hears it, that's okay too. It's just fun to do.
I love that I got to see you play at the Apollo for the Jazz Foundation benefit a few years ago. It was so special to see artists like you, Keith Richards, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, Valerie Simpson, Lisa Fischer, Bernard Fowler, and Steve Jordan as vital as ever. What do you attribute to that vitality after so many years in the business?
I just like playing music. I'm excited about it all day, every day. I don't take for granted that I could be working at Ford Motor Company. I know that seems like a long way away, but I haven't forgotten. I know what that looks like ... and I know what this back yard looks like. I sit here, right where we're sitting now, as thankful as I can be. I did this playing the guitar? It really is unbelievable. The only thing that could be better is if I could go back and be 20 again. [laughs]
Ray Parker, Jr. with Christian John Wikane / Photo: Eric Page