Ray Parker, Jr.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

Chart Buster: An Interview with Oscar-Nominated Composer Ray Parker, Jr.

In a new documentary, Who You Gonna Call is more than a Ghostbusters catchphrase for Grammy-winning artist Ray Parker, Jr.

“It’s Ghostbusters. Look out!” That’s how Gregory Hines introduced Ray Parker, Jr. at the 57th Annual Academy Awards in March 1985. “We don’t want you to get scared,” he quipped to the audience. “Remember — it’s only a song.”

“Ghostbusters” was more than a song; it was a four-minute phenomenon. Only a few months earlier, Parker had topped the Hot 100 for three weeks and closed the first MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall, performing his title theme to Ghostbusters (1984) alongside Bette Midler and “Ray Stantz” himself, Dan Aykroyd. He’d just won the GRAMMY Award for “Best Pop Instrumental Performance” and was now opening the Academy Awards where he was nominated for “Best Original Song”. During one of the more elaborate set pieces in Oscar history, Parker drove a forklift onto the stage before a troupe of dancing ghouls accompanied him for the number. Dom DeLuise even made a surprise guest appearance, summoning a shower of smoke and explosions.

The epitome of nonchalance, Parker took everything in stride but realized how “Ghostbusters” had powered him to a whole new level of visibility. “It didn’t take long before nobody remembered that I ever sang another song or played the guitar or did anything musical,” he recalls. “They forgot everything else I did. ‘Where’d this guy come from?'”

Who You Gonna Call? (2020) remedies the impression that “Ghostbusters” solely defines Parker’s career. Directed by Fran Strine, the documentary offers a fascinating overview of Parker’s life in music, from playing guitar for the Spinners at 13 years old and joining Stevie Wonder‘s band five years later to signing with Arista Records and launching his own band, Raydio. Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Clive Davis, David Foster, Lamont Dozier, and Boz Scaggs are among the luminaries who attest to Parker’s prodigious talent and prolific session work throughout the 1970s and 1980s. “Ray was important to me because he was able to add that groove in the way that nobody can,” notes Hancock, who wrote “Tonight’s the Night” with Parker on the third Raydio album Two Places at the Same Time (1980), as well as his own Magic Windows (1981).

As a songwriter, Parker brought his distinctive groove to several acts, beginning with “You Got the Love” for Rufus & Chaka Khan — “as funky as it gets”, notes Hancock in the documentary — and continuing with artists like Barry White (“You See the Trouble With Me”), Johnny Mathis (“Nothing Between Us But Love”), and New Edition (“Mr. Telephone Man”).

Parker himself became a mainstay on the pop and R&B charts, writing and self-producing several Top Ten hits, including “Jack and Jill”, “You Can’t Change That”, and “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)”. Though the guitarist wrote every song and essentially played every instrument on each Raydio album, save for occasional guest musicians, Arista gradually shifted the focus from Parker as band leader to a solo act with leading man looks and romantic appeal. The Other Woman (1982) billed Parker as a solo artist and brought him to the top of the R&B albums chart in May 1982, tilling the foundation for his sweep across the pop landscape two years later.

Critics and curious listeners alike have since found a renewed appreciation for Parker’s catalog. “He’s one of the ’80s most brilliant pop auteurs,” Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield recently declared. In fact, the magazine included Parker’s “The Other Woman” and “I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You” on their 100 Best Songs of 1982 and 100 Best Songs of 1983 lists, respectively. “‘The Other Woman’ is a shameless blast of Rolling Stones guitar raunch … a phenomenal rock ‘n’ roll song,” Sheffield continued. “‘I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You’ is a sly, sexy, painfully sad synth-pop slow jam from a soul man who always knew his way around a sad song. Parker might be best known for romps like ‘Ghostbusters’, but ‘I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You’ is the crown jewel of his amazing career.”

However, fellow artists and musicians have always recognized the scope of Parker’s musicality and his creative acumen. “Ray was serious about the business, and he was always in business,” the late Bill Withers remarked at Parker’s induction ceremony for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014. “If I was gonna say to some young person how to do it, I would say Ray Parker’s a pretty good example.”

Parker’s been setting that example now for more than five decades. Just a few years after joining Parker at his home in Los Angeles, PopMatters recently reunited with him in New York where he was rehearsing for a benefit concert. During the conversation, he recalled highlights of his multi-faceted career as an artist, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, how he navigated his experience with fame while remaining true to himself, and what he learned as a graduate of “Wonder University”.

Let’s start with the shirt you’re wearing. How is Detroit the musical foundation of your career?

Detroit — that’s like the beginning and the end of everything. [laughs] It really is. I started off in Detroit. That’s where I learned everything. It was a crazy city to grow up in, but it was musically wonderful.

I started at six years old on the clarinet and the saxophone, which I didn’t like that much, but I was really good at it. That’s why I learned to read music. I learned the technical things in music. Then, at about ten years old, my brother had a cheap little $35 guitar. I just liked the guitar. You could play more than one note at a time, and play some chords, which I had never even considered when I was playing the saxophone and clarinet.

Yeah, Detroit’s very important. When a basketball game comes on, I’m rooting for the Pistons or the Detroit Tigers in baseball. I’m just a Detroit-er at heart. That’s why you see me wearing a Detroit T-shirt, to represent.

Why do you think so much incredible music came out of Detroit? What is it about Detroit that lent itself to all of that creativity?

That’s a really good question. Most people would play baseball, basketball, or football. In the neighborhood that I lived in, nobody did that. We all played music, so there were musicians upstairs, down the street, to the left, to the right. It could have something to do with Motown only being twelve or fifteen blocks away, but everybody was really really interested in playing music when I grew up.

The New York Times recently published an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (1972). In your documentary, Stevie talked about your guitar playing on “Maybe Your Baby”. He said, “It was almost as if he was hearing my thoughts.” You were only 18 years old at the time. What do you attribute to your innate ability to blend so well with Stevie?

Lots of practice! [laughs] First of all, Stevie’s from the Michigan area, and I think we were just vibing in the same groove. When he hired me, he wanted someone from that neighborhood who had the same feel that he did. Even after me, I got him several other people. He wanted them from the same neighborhood, where they had the same feel that he would like. I got him the drummer, Ollie [Brown]. I got him two bass players. Nathan Watts is still playing with him. I think it’s pretty amazing, actually.

Ray Parker, Jr.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

How would you describe what that feel is, musically?

That’s going to be hard to put into words, but it’s more the rhythm and where things sit. It’s not in front of the drum. It’s not too far behind the drum. It sits in a spot.

What exactly did you learn from Stevie about songwriting that you’ve taken with you throughout your career?

He’s so complex. [laughs] All of my songs, including “Ghostbusters” and “Jack and Jill”, are simple songs. Three chords, four chords. Verse, chorus, clever lyric, and that’s it. Stevie’s stuff is always so complex that even when you think you played it right, you played it wrong … and that’s for the best of us.

He would take my little songs from a cassette — I call them “songs” but they were basically me playing too many guitar parts — and he would change them into a song. He would take them into the studio — pay for them, by the way — and put his band with them. I tell people I’m a college dropout, but I graduated from Wonder University.

I’ll never forget the one time we were waiting to cut some of my songs, he wrote “Living for the City”. I was there when he wrote it, and I was there when he recorded the entire song. What an education that was just to watch that process. I wanted to go to bed and go to sleep several times. He wouldn’t let me go to the hotel and go to sleep. I had to sit there with him through the whole process, but what a lesson that was!

I know Stevie’s Music of My Mind (1972) is one of your favorite albums of all time.

That was like nothing anybody ever heard before. What you got to remember is that’s one of the first albums that had the synthesized bass on it. Nobody even knew what those sounds were. You couldn’t even buy a synthesizer to produce those sounds. They had that big giant TONTO machine that they would plug all the cables into. Then the ARP 2600 came out, which was a smaller version of the TONTO, and to plug in all those cables … and that’s just to get one sound and one note. It was really groundbreaking territory.

You toured with Stevie when he opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1972 tour. What did you observe between those two dynamic musical forces?

Well, coming from Detroit and being part of Motown, I thought Stevie Wonder was the headliner! I thought ‘they’re gonna let those nice Rolling Stones guys from England open up for Stevie Wonder. That’d be kind of cool.’ It was really the other way around. I mean I didn’t get that at all. It was a culture shock and a learning lesson, not offensive in any way because they were wonderful guys to hang out with, but I just didn’t know what was going on in the world past Detroit! I hadn’t been out of Detroit. I thought Stevie Wonder was already a star. Then he got so much bigger after the Rolling Stones tour and after the Talking Book album. He shifted gears and went into hyper space.

When I interviewed Lisa Fischer recently, she mentioned how Rufus & Chaka Khan’s Rags to Rufus (1974) was the first album she ever bought with her own money. That album has Stevie’s “Tell Me Something Good”, but it opens with your song, “You Got the Love”. How did that song get to Rufus & Chaka Khan?

I wrote that song, and I’d wanted Stevie to cut it. I wanted Barry White to cut it. I wanted somebody big to cut it. Chaka Khan and Rufus lived next door. André [Fischer] said, “Well if ain’t nobody will cut it, we’ll cut it.” I thought ‘some unknown band is gonna cut my song?’ It was better than nothing, I guess! Then I heard Chaka put down the lead vocal and I just went, “Who’s that? What is this?”

Just like listening to Aretha Franklin, when you listen to Chaka Khan, you can tell something special is going on there … and I wasn’t aware of that at all. They were just my next-door neighbors, so they were cutting the song. I was out of town doing something. Chaka took some of my lyrics and wrote the rest of the lyrics and then sang it. When I heard her vocal on it, I was like, “Wow, man. You can really sing!”

What I love about “You Got the Love” is the way it builds. It starts with your riff and then it goes to places that, as a listener, I didn’t really expect it to go. How is that an extension of who you are and how you approach music?

The only thing unusual about that song is I went to those diminished chords, and that was pretty different. It slides up. That was just me playing the rhythm on the guitar like I would play on anybody’s record in the studio. It really caught on. I’ll never forget when André heard it, he was like, “Man you’re grooving on that guitar part. Let’s turn that up!” I was only 19 years old, so what the heck did I know. I was just trying to find my way and get something going.

Who You Gonna Call is a clever name for your documentary because it has a double meaning. It references Ghostbusters, but it also relates to your work as a session player. Everybody called you to play on sessions. In the 1970s, you did a lot of studio work with Bill Withers. How did you first connect with Bill?

People had heard about me playing rhythm guitar, and he wanted some on his album. We became best of friends, all the way up till the end. Bill would come over to my house and take care of my kids, give them lectures. They’d listen to him. They wouldn’t listen to me, that’s for sure! Bill gives you the unadulterated version of it. He just tells it flat out like it is and I think they liked his delivery.

I really miss Bill Withers. It’s only been a couple of years, but it seems like forever.

Upon Bill’s passing, Billboard, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone selected “Lovely Day” as one of his most essential songs. The Guardian called it “one of the most joyful songs ever recorded. It is impossible to hear this song without feeling better.” You’re part of that recording’s DNA. What do you recall about cutting “Lovely Day” in the studio?

When we were in the studio recording it, I thought we were going to hit something more like “Use Me” or “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and then he comes up with “Lovely Day”, which had a great melody. I remember him holding that long note! I thought, Why is he doing that? The song sounds good, don’t hold the note so goddang long but that’s part of the catchiness of the song, I think. You could hear it, that it was going somewhere. It just was different from what I thought we were going to do. I thought we were going to do a lowdown thing. I like those naughty stories he tells!

Ray Parker, Jr.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

Bill spoke at your induction ceremony when you received your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014. He said, “The thing that I remember most about Ray is Ray never fell into any of the traps. He was always clean. He was always clean-cut.” Thinking back to the 1970s, what kind of traps could you have fallen into? How did you avoid them?

All the obvious ones. Too many girls — that had to be a trap! Drugs were the big one back then. They say, how did you not get into drinking? How did you not do the drugs, all of the stuff that’s around you, the cocaine? To me, it just wasn’t that interesting. First of all, everybody I saw that did it, looked stupid and they were spending way too much money on it, and it killed everything that they were trying to do. It brought down my heroes. Stevie Wonder didn’t do any drugs, and he was prolific and a genius. He didn’t need that stimulation. I thought, If he doesn’t need it, then I don’t need it. My heroes that didn’t do it were on top, and my heroes that did do it ended up falling, so it just didn’t seem that appealing to me.

“Jack and Jill” was the first single off your first album, Raydio (1978). It debuted on the chart in January 1978 and then hit the Top Ten three months later. What kind of expectations did you have for the release of your first single?

To put me in business. At that point, it was like, if I didn’t get a hit, just go back to the studio and play your guitar. I had been trying to cut records. I’d put all of my money into recording equipment. I put all the chips on one number. I needed it to happen. I tried to put a piece of everything that I loved in one song. My mind was like, I need that Stevie Wonder kind of intro, that Sly Stone kind of groove, the Holland-Dozier-Holland nursery rhyme kind of lyrics.

When it was finally done, I put everything but the kitchen sink in there, and I kept it simple so that the average person could understand it. Thank God everybody else felt the same way I did because I really worked hard on that one. I even put the high voices in there because I figured when it comes across radio, the voices would leap out — “Jack!” — so you had to pay attention to it. That worked really well as well.

Were you watching the charts as it climbed?

Are you kidding me? I was living in the charts. It was a slower-moving song. It was around for twenty weeks or something like that. Sometimes it would lose its bullet. Clive [Davis] would be like, “Don’t worry about it. We’re selling.” We ended up selling almost two million singles, so it was a big single. It was a wonderful song and a wonderful record. It really worked great for me.

I’ll never forget, George Clinton, who’s from Detroit, said, “I like how you put those California vocals over the funk.” I thought, Is that a compliment? What’s he saying? He was actually complimenting me because I got on the pop charts with the first record. I don’t know what happened. I thought I was cutting something more funky. What happens is your voice is a footprint. You can’t really change it. The way I heard voices and everything just came out real poppy.

Ray Parker, Jr.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

How did you find your identity as a lead singer?

That was difficult. What most people don’t know is that I didn’t sing a song all the way through until “A Woman Needs Love”, till the fourth [Raydio] album. I was smart enough, in the beginning, to know I couldn’t ad lib or sing like Philippé Wynne [The Spinners] and sing all the lines, so I had Arnell Carmichael and Jerry Knight there to sing with me. I was smart enough not to ruin the whole song.

I hadn’t spent any practice as a young kid singing on stage or trying to do it. I’d always be in the back playing my guitar. All of a sudden, I’m being thrown into the forefront. I thought ‘you got records coming out. You might want to try singing on a couple of those or somewhere in the song.’ [laughs] The girls thought I was sort of a handsome guy, so here’s this big tall guy holding a guitar … you are gonna sing some more, right? You sort of feel the pressure to get it together. It’s like doing push-ups, or anything else, the muscle for your voice. If you just do it all day, every day, it will get there.