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.

Of all the songs you recorded up until that time, why was “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” the first song you decided to sing all the way through?

It took me two months trying to do it. I got so in the groove that when I got Arnell to sing on it, it wasn’t in his key. It was like, you need to start over and cut the track over. Cut the track over? It’s a masterpiece! I had it feeling good. The only person who could sing it in that key was me.

I remember at one time I was so frustrated. I was gonna erase the whole thing. I put all 24 tracks on the record. I walked out the door, and Arnell actually stopped me. He saved the day. He said, “You’ve been working on this forever. At least play it for Clive. You’ve got the vocal on there now. Why would you erase everything?” That’s the “A Woman Needs Love” that we know today.

What’s the genesis of that song?

There was always a couch in front of the console. I’m sitting at the console. When I was writing the song, there were six girls on the couch. They’re not looking at me. They just started to do their gossip thing. At that time, girls were like, Well if a man can [fool around], we can do it too. Times have changed. One girl said, “Come home early; get your feelings hurt.” I thought “that’s a hell of a line.”

The big crisis was that I had written “She will fool around just like you do”. They didn’t like that. Then I changed it to “She can fool around” if you don’t take care of business. They all liked that. As soon as I said “They can fool around” or it’s possible that it’s going to happen, the girls were good with that, but they didn’t like me saying they will fool around. It’s almost like I was giving the girls permission to go out and do it if he’s messing up. Guys didn’t like the song, but the girls loved it. The program directors were like, “We ain’t gonna play this song”, and the girls made them play the song.

“A Woman Needs Love” is the only song that I ever wrote that I thought was the hit. “I got this one! This time, I’m going out to order my new car!” [laughs]

It’s interesting how, thematically, “The Other Woman” is like the flip side of “A Woman Needs Love”, and that came out less than a year later.

“A Woman Needs Love” made me so good. I got all the girls on “A Woman Needs Love”, across the board. “Why can’t you be like Ray?” Guys would be like, “I don’t want to hear about him. Let’s get this over with. Go on and kiss my wife. Dance with her, please.” I thought “I don’t know if I want to be that goody two shoes.”

I remember hearing “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield on the radio. It had the guitar in it. I thought, Maybe I need a record with the guitar and other stuff, but I’m not that kind of guy who looks at something else. I’m like, let’s just go take the chick if we’re gonna do this. I’m not wishing I had somebody else’s woman. I would just go take her, so then I came up with the idea for “The Other Woman”.

I’ll never forget; some of the guys at the record company thought it was too rock & roll. “Black radio ain’t playing that. How are you gonna get on WBLS with rock & roll guitars and that stuff? This is a bad idea, Ray. Don’t do this. Turn those guitars down.” I thought, There ain’t nothing on here but the guitar! Turn them up! That was in the air at that time. It’s not in the air now.

The story was sort of a true story for me, mixed in with some other stories I heard, but it was a heck of a story: “I’m just an average guy, fooled around a little on the side.”

In your documentary, there’s a great section about Ray Parker, Jr. as a sex symbol. It’s fun to see your family respond to that …

… They’re laughing about it. My youngest son says, “He’s so corny. What are you talking about?”

As your career took off, were you aware of how your image was being crafted?

Yeah, the publicity department is gonna sell whatever they can sell. The girls were falling over the lyrics of the song, or they liked your haircut. There’s even a picture of me and Billy Dee Williams at the same age, and they put the two of us together. Even I almost had trouble knowing which one was which. That part just came. For me, the music was always the most important thing.

My image with the girls always was the same thing. It’s like, “That Ray Parker … He’s such a nice guy, but there’s a little something … I don’t know. I don’t trust him all the way. He might be a little more naughty than y’all think.” [laughs]

I’ll never forget I was in People Magazine‘s “Top 40 Millionaire Bachelors”. First of all, the millionaire thing was nice because I was broke growing up in Detroit. Even my mother was like, “Son, do you have a million dollars?” Then they went to the sex symbol thing, and I looked in the mirror. There wasn’t anybody knocking down the door the week before, so when they’re knocking the door down it’s got to be because of this music and the money and some other stuff. It’s the same guy in the mirror. Ain’t nothing changed.

The nice thing about being famous is you get all the attention, you get all the girls, you get all that, and the other nice thing about being famous is when you stop making records, it all goes away really quickly, so you can go back to society, which I think is wonderful, by the way. I don’t want to be that guy who, for the rest of your life, can’t go to a deli and have a sandwich. It’s like going on a vacation — be the star, get all the girls, get all the stuff, and then you can go right back and disappear again.

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

By 1983, you’d written and produced for artists like Cheryl Lynn and Deniece Williams. How did you get the gig to write and produce for Diana Ross on her album Ross (1983)?

According to [designer Ria Lewerke-Shapiro] that did her cover, Diana saw my cover on A Woman Needs Love and really liked it. She said, “I think she’s gonna call you.” She calls me. We went on a couple of dates. I picked her up in my car. We went out and hung out. I took her to the studio and then we started recording here in New York. She was wonderful, by the way. Very nice person.

She had bought her mother a mink coat. She’d invited me to her house in Connecticut. I said, “I got to go to Detroit.” She said, “Oh, you’re from Detroit?” I went, “Yeah. I’ll drop your mother’s coat off at her house.” She was so surprised. She said, “How do you know so much about me?” She had totally forgotten that I was her guitar player when I was nineteen! Now I’m an older guy, I’m more mature, and she’s looking at me totally differently from the way she looked at me when I was a young kid playing the guitar for her. “What do you mean you don’t remember me? We flew to New York together on the airplane, you and me! We rode to Electric Lady and cut some sessions.” She said, “That’s you?” “Yeah, that’s me!”

It was fun working with her. That was exciting. It was like the old days in Detroit and early California days when we used to work with Motown. I just played the songs for her at my house, sat at the piano, sang them a little bit for her. It was a lot of fun.

We did the vocal in New York. I was hoping I was going to have more time with her, of her singing, but she’s like, “Two hours, hour and a half, you got it. That’s it. I’m going to Atlantic City after that.” Oh shoot, I gotta get this right now, as opposed to some people who just sit there and sing their hearts out forever. It’s just different, different ways of different people working.

Of the songs you wrote and produced for her, RCA released “Up Front” as the single, but I always thought “Love or Loneliness” would have been a strong contender as well. What’s the story of that song?

You have to stop and ask yourself, is it really worth it? Is this love or is this just loneliness? Is this a mistake? It’s funny when you cut records on somebody, no matter what you think in your mind, the record takes on a life of its own. That one would be my preference over “Up Front” because I like the realism that she delivered in that. I still listen to that now sometimes.

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

“Ghostbusters” dropped a year later. As a songwriter, how was your experience writing “Ghostbusters” different from any other song you’d written before?

First of all, writing “Ghostbusters”, everybody was in my way. If I was starting to write a song, I’d just do what I want to do. It depends on what I’m writing as the story.

“Ghostbusters” is probably one of the first times that I had to sit in the room with somebody else. They showed me a film. I’ve got to put something under that scene that sounds like that scene, but I don’t hear any music, so I’ve got to hear it in my brain. Then I’ve got to talk to the director who has his own ideas of what that is. He tells you he wants this tempo, this beat, this kind of feel, so now you’ve got to adapt to what someone else is thinking. I’m really writing the song based on someone else’s input, what someone else is telling me to do, all the way down to “I want the word ‘ghostbusters’ in the song”. I would have never done that. That’s the last thing you want to sing, that word! That word doesn’t sing too well! I had to come up with all of that stuff based on the director’s input and what the film was telling me.

It worked!

Well, it worked because there’s one scene in the film where the Ghostbusters had their backpacks on, and they got the phone number underneath it. That, to me, was the entire thing — you call the Ghostbusters. Then the music, for me, had to be stiff, it had to be military because I thought of Ghostbusters as military characters. I see them marching. I saw them like Gomer Pyle, which is why I put the little Gomer Pyle line in the song — “I can’t hear you!” I took the military approach to it … and now all of that works. It was as far away from what I would have done on my album as possible.

Describe the impact of “Ghostbusters” when it was released.

That song was a hit the same day it came out! It was an immediate success. In one week, the promotion guy had all of the radio stations, and it usually takes months to get that. He had them all the first week. Little kids are pointing to me in shopping malls. They didn’t know what they were singing, but they recognized the face. Even now, five or seven-year-old kids, they don’t want to be sitting on grandpa’s lap, but they want to take a picture with me and give me a hug. They just love that song. It’s a timeless song. It’s almost 40 years old, but it feels like it was yesterday.

You’ve said it’s like having a new hit every year.

Yes, it’s like having a new hit every year. When Halloween comes, I’ll go out with my kids or my wife to some party, and there will be kids there who go completely nuts … and I’ll have to sing a few bars of it or something. That’s always the case, but what a nice problem to have! [laughs] People say, “Are you tired of it?” It’s like the winning lotto ticket. Do you want to give that ticket back? No, of course not!

How did you find out that “Ghostbusters” was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Original Song”?

I really didn’t know what to expect with the Oscars because I didn’t really watch the Oscars. I wasn’t a TV guy. I didn’t understand the significance of it at the time. I was in my twenties. I didn’t care. They were inviting me and I was like, I don’t think I’ll go. I got a call from Columbia Pictures. “Excuse me, it’s the Academy Awards. You’re going.” It was strongly suggested by somebody there that I go. Then they wanted me to open up the 57th Academy Awards, to sing and perform. I understand the performing part. Now I’ve got something to do, so that was pretty interesting.

The set piece for that performance has all these levels. You’re backing up a forklift on stage, which then rises up in the air. There’s dancers, explosions …

… Dom DeLuise and the orchestra. I didn’t know it was going to be that big of a production. In fact, Diana Ross was there that night. She looked at me and said, “There’s billions of people watching this show, and you’re opening it up. Are you a little bit nervous?” I said, “No, it’s what I’ve been waiting on all my life. I’m not nervous. I’m ready to do this!” It was fun.

In the documentary, you’re shown talking to a classroom of young students. One of the things you say to them is “The only thing I was afraid of as a kid was turning 40 or 50 and having not tried it.” What kind of wisdom would you share with aspiring musicians?

You live one time. No matter where you are, everybody is taught to do it the safe way. You might have some idea, and they’re all saying, “Man, what makes you think you can fly to the moon? Nobody else has done it, but you’re the one, right? You want us to believe that you’re the one in a million.” Sometimes you are the one in a million. What’s worse than that is if you don’t try it — anything that you want to do that you love — later on, you’ll be looking at the rest of the guys doing it, saying “I could have done that”. You’re just looking at all that time that went by and you just never gave it a shot.

What songs of yours would you put in a time capsule?

“A Woman Needs Love”, for sure. “The Other Woman”, and “Ghostbusters”. Those three pretty much … Well, I’ve got to put “Jack and Jill” in there, and I got to put “You Can’t Change That” in there, too. Those five pretty much sum me up.

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

I know one of your favorite songs that you wrote is “That Old Song”. Why is that special for you?

I believe everything that I wrote on that. There’s just something about the melody and the arrangement and the story. Gene Page did those strings. I thought that was going to be a much bigger hit. It did well, but I was waiting for the public to go crazy and they were like “That’s nice”. Then you look at “Ghostbusters”, which was really a throwaway song. It wasn’t even going to be a record. It was only going to be 20 seconds … and then everybody goes crazy. I poured my heart out in “That Old Song”, and then you listen to “Ghostbusters”, which wasn’t that big of a deal, and it was a bigger smash. “You’re the man!” I am? [laughs] Music is surprising like that.

For the time capsule, what song would you add that you wrote for another artist?

I’m going to go with “Mr. Telephone Man” [New Edition]. I should have sung that myself! It sounded just like my band Raydio, the whole track and everything. I didn’t like the lyric, so I changed the lyric to “A Woman Needs Love”. It’s really almost the same song, musically.

New Edition did such a wonderful job. They were all scared to death. They’d never sung the harmonies before. They said, “Who’s singing in the background?” I said, “You guys are.” “We’ve never done that!” “Well, you’re going to do it this time.” The nice thing about that is they were open to trying everything.

Bobby Brown had never sung anything in his life. He was the only one with that high voice. He could barely get there, but he did get there. They were struggling so hard to get the record that they sounded so youthful and energetic. The story was right for them. They just made it a smash. That was a real surprise, a real shocker.

Ray, how do you define success for yourself?

Success is when you can do what you want to do every day and you enjoy what you’re doing. It’s not really the money. It’s not even really what everybody thinks. It’s what makes you happy. For me, I find success in my music because I love music so much.

I always wanted to be a part of the club, the higher echelon of musicians or higher echelon of people who are thought of creatively. I’m as big of a groupie as I am an artist who does it. I get kicks when I’m sitting next to this star or that star, people whose records I buy, people I enjoy being around. To me, that’s the biggest success.

People say, what would really make your life change? If you said, “Ray, you can’t have three Porsches anymore. You can only have one”, it’s an inconvenience, but that wouldn’t be a big deal. The big deal is you can’t play the guitar anymore.

Ray Parker, Jr.
Christian John Wikane with Ray Parker, Jr. / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Rebel Media

What’s one of the greatest challenges you’ve overcome in your career?

Well, the challenges that I’ve overcome are just fear. Is the first record gonna sell or am I gonna look like an idiot? You’re always thinking that when you write a new song. You’re always thinking that when you go out onstage. I don’t know why, because the people in the audience already bought the record. We got to come out strong and get those guys in the first ten rows who affect the other guys. If it ain’t right, you get hit with a tomato. It does happen. You just worry about the typical things that anybody would worry about, but it’s all fear-based.

Over the last five decades, you’ve carved a unique niche for yourself from all of the different roles you’ve had in music. What would you say to your younger self, knowing what you know now?

Knowing what I know now if I had to do it all over again, with this knowledge, I don’t know if I’d do it all. [laughs] It’s extremely difficult, and it takes timing, preparation, luck … everything all at the same time. Of course, I would probably be doing the same thing I’m doing because it’s the only thing I love doing.

“Not knowing” is what’s called being young. That’s what makes the record business so youthful. You don’t have enough sense to know that you shouldn’t be doing this … or you spend too much money on the equipment. When you’re young, you just have that positive outlook — “I’m gonna go do it!” That’s what makes it work.