07.24.2015

Our EXCLUSIVE Chat With the Legendary Ray Parker Jr.!

Our EXCLUSIVE Chat With the Legendary Ray Parker Jr.!

by Michael P. Coleman

All I wanted to do was play musicand the rest just seemed to happen.” 

If you want to talk with a true musical genius, who you gonna call?  Ray Parker Jr. 

Parker grew up in my hometown of Detroit.  Having been born just a few years before Motown Recordsheyday, he might have missed out on the companys glory days. 

He didnt.  In fact, Parker was on the road with The Spinners by the time he was 13 years old.  The next year, he was working with artists like Barry White, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.  By the time he was 18, he was a member of Stevie Wonders band.  And all of this was years before he fronted the 70s R & B / pop band Raydio, whose first single, Jack & Jilltopped the R & B and pop charts, setting the stage for a string of gold and platinum records.  Eventually Parker went solo and scored several other hits, including The Other Womanand one of the biggest hits of the 80s, Ghostbusters

I caught up with Parker as he took a break in recording his first new album in almost a decade.  He talked about that album as well as his early career, his work with Raydio and signing with Clive DavisArista records, and why Ghostbustersis his favorite song.  He also told me why he resisted being promoted as a solo artist early on, about the state of music today, working with other legends like Wonder, Diana Ross, Deniece Williams and Chaka Khan, and why he passed on an opportunity to record songs for Whitney Houstons debut album!  

The following conversation has been edited. 

 

rayparker youngWhen you were playing with all of the legendary Motown groups, in the studio with producers Holland-Dozier-Holland, did you realize how significant that was for such a young artist? 

No, because I was also playing every jewish bar mitzvah and wedding I could get!  I was young and trying to get it going any way I could, and just having fun. 

During that early period in your career, Im told it was a chance meeting that led you to co-write a song with Chaka Khan.

I was working with Andre Fischer, who was a member of Chakas band, Rufus.  I had a song that I was trying to get Stevie or somebody big to record, and Andre said hed cut it if I couldnt get anyone else to cut it.  So we went in and cut it, and it sounded good.  Chaka wrote some lyrics for it, and it turned into You Got The Love.  I remember the first time I heard it, I thought Man, she can really, REALLY sing!”  No one had really heard of her, but of course that changed quickly!  She was really unbelievable. 

According to Clive Davis memoir, he became aware of you as a session musician, called you in, and wanted to sign you as a recording artist for Arista.  What do you recall of that period?

That was a wonderful period.  It came right behind me not getting any writers credit for You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, recorded by Leo Sayer.  It wasnt Leos fault, it was the producer, Richard Perrys fault.  He was a good friend of mine who Id worked for all of the time, but they gave me no credit on the song.  I was really depressed about that for awhile.  Clive liked another song Jack & Jill, that I had given to Richard Perry, and we took it back since I didnt get credit on the other song.  I ended up recording Jack & Jillfor Arista. 

CLICK HERE TO WATCH RAYDIOS JACK & JILL. 

Arista wanted to sign you as a solo artist right away, but according to Clives book, you werent interested in that.  Why not?

I wouldnt say I wasnt interested in being a solo artist.  Back in the 70s, an instrumentalist making an album would have wound up being promoted only as a jazz artist, shopped to the jazz radio stations, and youd be done.  There was really going to be no way to escape that because people knew me too well as a musician at that point.  And sure enough when Aristas first album cover rendering came back, it was a picture of me holding a big olguitar.  I knew right then and there that that was going to be the curse.  So I had to switch it around and make it into something that could be Top 40. 

Clive wrote about your list of demands.  One was that youd be your own producer.  He talks about it having been unheard of for a new artist to be given the freedom to produce his own work.  Whered you get the confidence to tell Clive Davis that you wanted to produce your own music? 

I just told him the truth, that I was ready to do it myself.  We made a deal, and I agreed that if Id screwed it all up, we were going to go his route and have a producer assigned to me.  He was kind enough to give me a chance to do it my way. 

rayparker young3Youve always had a very distinctive vocal sound, and youve always been very unique musically.  You were known for your double entendre-laden lyrics.   I was a teenager at the time, and I didnt get the hidden messages in your lyrics until a few years later!  Did you look for those, or did that always come naturally to you?

It comes naturally, and thats in all of my songs.  Clive used to call them clever lyrics, something that delivers a message with a little smile to it.  Just like you, when I was a kid, Me & Mrs. Joneswas out, and I couldnt figure out why everyone liked it because it sounded like a big band song from the 40s.  Then when I got older and listened to the lyrics, I got it. 

Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio were the antithesis of Lionel Richie & The Commodores.  Lionel wrote and sang what women wanted to hear.  You sang what they NEEDED to hear, and in doing so you created a niche for yourself.

I just got really lucky with that.  I was dealing with women at the time.  It was a natural progression.  My lyrics were some of the stuff they were telling me.  I just put it into music. 

CLICK HERE TO SEE RAY PARKER JR. & RAYDIOS TWO PLACES AT THE SAME TIME. 

In 1981 you decided finally to step out as a solo artist.  With songs like The Other Woman, Streetlove, and Bad Boy, you went a little more rock.  Prince and a few other artists followed you down that road, with Michael Jackson writing and recording Beat Itthe next year.  Was that by design?  

No, I was just cutting.  When you hear what Im cutting now, the first record that Ive cut in years, this is gonna sound like that old Jack & Jillkind of vibe.  Theres a little of that rock edge, but theres a lot of classic Raydio in this new music.  Im almost done too, and its turning out really good.  Its Ray Parker stories, good songs, none of this modern stuff.  No rap.  No funny synthesizers.  Its going to sound like something recorded back then.  The kids are listening to Uptown Funkand stuff like that now, so theyre going to get to hear where all of that came from.  Im going to hit it, and its hitting hard.  Its about halfway done.  Ive got to get it done before the end of the year for sure.

rayparker hollywoodstarWould you be interested in working with Clive Davis in distributing your new album?

Absolutely!  Im still in touch with him, and hes the first person Im going to play it for when its done.  He can take it or not take it, but its going to get shoved down his throat anyway!

Im sure you cant get through an interview without someone asking you about Ghostbusters.  

I sure cant!  And thats OK, because thats my favorite song!  I love that song!  That song just changed the world for me.  Compared to anything else I ever did, it was just HUGE.  Off the chain. 

CLICK HERE TO WATCH RAY PARKER, JR. PERFORM GHOSTBUSTERS LIVE ON THE 1984 OSCARS! 

Even after your career took off, your dad was unconvinced that youd be able to support yourself as a singer.  When did it occur to him that you might be OK?

He didnt think people made money in the music business, and he wanted me to be able to support myself.  Just ten years before I hit, in the early days, you made ten dollars a night.  People just didnt make money [in the music business].   After I bought my folks a house and paid off all of their bills, my dad said Ok, this might work!” 

I always wondered why you never worked with Whitney Houston, since you were both signed to Arista.  Clive was usually right on the mark with pairing up artists with producers, and I think youd have done some amazing work with Whitney.  

Its my fault that that never happened.  Clive took me to see Whitney two or three times as they were working on her debut album and begged me to cut a few songs with her.  He asked me to work with her as a favor to him, but I was just lazy and not interested.  I should have done it! 

Clive wrote that he was disappointed in you for leaving Arista.  He obviously had a lot of admiration for you.  According to Clive, you didnt give Arista a chance to counter offer.  Is that true?

No.  In my opinion, the whole thing was a brilliant accident.  I really wanted to stay with Arista.  It was one of those things where Arista wanted to renegotiate but it was taking too long, and other people started throwing numbers at me.  Things got confused.  Even after I signed somewhere else, I still came back to Clive.  Ghostbusterscould have been on the other label, but I still gave it back to Clive even though I was in between labels.  Clive is my favorite guy in the music business.  I just think it was a big misunderstanding.  It worked out for me, because I got a lot of money from Geffen, and at the time I wanted to go home to Detroit and take care of my parents.  So a transition that allowed me the resources to take care of my parents couldnt have happened at a better time. 

Back in 1983, you produced two relatively unknown, great sides with Diana Ross, Love Or Loneliness and Up Front.  Howd you come to work with Ross, and what was working with her like?

She called me up and asked me to do it.  I used to play on all of her records in Detroit.  We had a lot of history.  She asked me to write her a song, and I thought those songs were the right messages for her at the time.  For some reason, RCA really didnt push that album for her, even though it had me and Gary Katz from Steely Dan on it.  As for working with Diana, shes always been nice to me.  I never had a bad day with her.  Shes always kind to me, very friendly.

You produced Deniece Williams' "I Found Love."   How was working with her?

Deniece and I were in the same band with Stevie Wonder, so we had lots of history.  So her asking me to do that was a natural.  It was all in a days work in that band. 

rayparker young2Talk to me about your reggae-influenced Im Free album.  It was a departure for you.  What led you to go in that direction?  

I dont know what leads me to go in any direction, so thats a difficult question to answer.  I just go in the studio and start recording, and whatever comes out, comes out.  Whatevers going on at the time in my life or in someone elses life winds up coming out in the studio.  Sometimes its as simple as me getting a new synthesizer or guitar and me wanting to play it a different way. 

Barry White.  Stevie Wonder.  Diana Ross.  Ghostbusters.  When did it hit you that youd made it as a former little boy from Detroit? 

[Laughs]  I know exactly when it hit me:  when I got my star on Hollywood Boulevard.  That to me was a big deal, just last year.  March 6, 2014.  Ill never forget it.  I was 15 years old when I came to California, and I walked Hollywood Boulevard back then and read every star.  Getting a star there seemed like the biggest award you could possibly get.  There are many of them out there, and Im not putting down Grammys, Oscars or any of those, but they give a lot of those away every year.  Not too many people get a star on Hollywood Boulevard.  That was a huge one for me. 

Are there artists today that youd like to collaborate with? 

Ive always wanted to meet Paul McCartney.  Ive never met him.  I think hes one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and for some reason hes escaped me!  I keep missing him!   Bruno Mars is also wonderful.  I like him. 

What do you think about music today?

I think its better now than it was ten years ago!  At least people are singing again and writing songs.  Even the rappers have respect now for tuning up and playing songs in tune.  There was a period in the late 90s or early 2000s when people were singing out of tune, out of time, and out of key.  I was wondering where the music went.  It all sounded all jumbled together.  I had to turn it off.  There was a period of time when I just didnt play the radio in my car.  And not only that but the messages were bad, too.  Songs about shooting the police and stuff.  WAY too crazy stuff.

Hows it feel for you to have so many people know your music?

It feels wonderful.  Im really pleasantly surprised.  Once again, as a kid growing up doing it, all I wanted to do was play music.  It wasnt about money or fame or anything else.  I just wanted to make as much music as I could and make it as best as I could, and the rest just seemed to happen.

Look to rayparkerjr.com for information over the coming months on Parkers new album.

 

Michael P. Coleman is a Sacramento-based freelance writer, and he believes a writer needs love just like you do.  Connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com or on Twitter:  @ColemanMichaelP