Those were Ray Parker, Jr.’s sportive first words to the phalanx of photographers and news cameras clicking and whirling away as he stepped up to the podium in Hollywood last Thursday.
Under a clear, blue Southern California sky ordered just for the occasion, Ray, before an assemblage of fans, R&B stars and giddy tourists lucky enough to be on the Boulevard to witness the kind of pomp synonymous with Tinsel Town, was presented the 2518th star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Ray’s Star, which sits near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Sycamore Avenue, was awarded to Parker by Hollywood’s Chamber of Commerce in honor of the Grammy award-winning guitarist/songwriter/producer/performer’s career in popular music.
And what a ride it’s been. Ray’s 1984 number one global solo smash, “Ghostbusters,” nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song—it was beat out for the Oscar by “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Ray’s old boss, Stevie Wonder–-was only the biggest in a collection of big top ten pop records, including “Jack And Jill,” “You Can’t Change That,” “Two Places At The Same Time” and “A Woman Needs Love,” all of which Ray released with his old band, Raydio, and the solo hits “The Other Woman” and “I Still Can’t Get Over You.”
And that’s just his work as a recording artist.
Ray has a whole ‘nother career as a songwriter and/or producer, including writing for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (1974‘s “You Got The Love,” co-written with Khan), Cheryl Lynn (1981’s “Shake It Up Tonight”) and New Edition (1984’s “Mr. Telephone Man”), among others–not to mention a cute and corny little mid-tempo thing you probably never heard that I absolutely adore, “Car Of Love,” originally recorded by jazz/R&B legend Nancy Wilson.
I know all this useless information, because I knew Ray Parker, Jr. long before I met him. That is to say, growing up in Oklahoma City, I heard his guitar on some of my favorite records but didn’t know it was Ray. That doesn’t make him a relic. Born in 1954, Ray is only a year older than I am.
It’s just that, as a teen, while I was riding my prized silver Stingray bike to buy candy, Ray was in the house band at the famous 20 Grand Club in Detroit, where he was born and raised, playing behind Motown acts like the Spinners, who took him on the road. In 1971, while I was in high school making an art of class-cutting, Ray was playing guitar on The Honey Cones’ number one hit, “Want Ads.”
In ’72, when my friend Don Minnis nearly wrecked his Daddy’s Plymouth Satellite on the winter ice getting us to a Stevie Wonder concert at Oklahoma City’s Fairgrounds Arena (Parliament/Funkadelic was the opening act), years later I’d learn the tall, lanky cat on guitar in Wonder’s band (and on Stevie’s “Talking Book” and “Innervisions” albums) was Ray.
By the time I got to Los Angeles in 1973, Ray was already here, recording with Barry White and augmenting White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. (Remember the Orchestra’s ubiquitous ’73 smash, “Love’s Theme”? At some point that year I threatened to jump off Hollywood’s 9000 Building on Sunset, where Barry White’s baby-blue offices were, if I heard that tune one more time.)
When he wasn’t working with White, Ray was playing on the recording sessions of the Jackson 5, the Carpenters, Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Boz Scaggs, the Temptations, Leon Hayward and a zillion others.
I don’t remember actually meeting Ray for the first time. In person, I mean. Might have been at one of those lavish record release parties that defined the excesses of the ‘70s music business. He might have even called me at Soul Newspaper, where I started out writing about R&B in the mid-‘70s, to introduce himself and make sure I knew what he was up to and spelled his name right for the sake of my “Ivory’s Notes” column.
Ray was the first guy I knew who owned a Rolls Royce. In his twenties. (Do you hate Ray yet?)
By the time he formed the original Raydio in 1977 with Arnell Carmichael, Jerry Knight and Vincent Bonham, Ray had already been baptized in the treacherous ways of the music biz: a record producer suckered him into letting a singer record, without a contract, this ditty he heard Ray fooling around with between takes during a session.
But when you’re Ray Parker, Jr., even the ripped-off tune, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” recorded by Leo Sayer, in 1978 goes to number one pop and wins the Best R&B Song Grammy, over the Commodores’ “Brick House.”
Ray is one of these guys who, when he falls, he falls UP. Sheesh.
Either because or in spite of that experience, Ray, notorious for having saved his third grade lunch money, became known in the industry as a savvy businessman. When he began to slow down his work in music and TV appearances, much of the public figured Ray had gone the way of many entertainers–broke or struggling to stay afloat.
He was afloat, all right—sailing around the world and piloting the plane he owned to his place in Mammoth, where he loves to ski. On the day of the Star ceremony, Ray’s friend, the iconic Bill Withers, called Ray an example of how to navigate the potential trappings of show business. “He never got into drugs or any of that,” said Withers. “Early into it, Ray saw this as a business.”
Astute with his earnings even during his days as a session player, Ray invested in stock, businesses and commercial and residential real estate. A true entrepreneur, he’s done TV commercials for products in Europe. Before he sold it several years ago, Ameraycan, his North Hollywood recording facility, was used by a variety of major acts.
Few people understand the psychology of the star who willingly leaves the spotlight. Even Ray’s mother didn’t get it. “I bought mom and dad a house, retired dad from his job,” Ray told me over dinner a few years back. “Mom said, ‘Baby, all this is wonderful, but I sure do miss seeing you on ‘Soul Train.’” Ray could only laugh.
Married since 1994 to wife Elaine with whom he has four sons, Ray has done well for himself, no question. However, the private after-party he hosted at Hollywood’s massive Hard Rock Café had the distinct feel of something bigger than that Walk of Fame star. It resembled a reunion of sorts; a celebration of some of the most influential popular music ever made and the artists and musicians who made and continue to make it.
At the Hard Rock, everywhere you looked were the familiar faces of those who took part in creating the soundtrack to popular culture: Brian Holland of the iconic Motown songwriting/production team, Holland, Dozier and Holland; Bill Withers; Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White; songwriters/producers Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis; Claudette Robinson of the legendary original (Smokey Robinson and the) Miracles and Motown singer Scherrie Payne.
Mingling were badd-ass players such as Stevie Wonder’s longtime bassist Nathan Watts, veteran session guitarist Paul Jackson and drummer/producer Oille Brown, among others. These were Ray’s friends; they came to honor him.
However, the Hard Rock was filled with the unmistakable vibe that we were also honoring a certain era of popular music that will always reign as the real deal. Here was this great gathering of brilliant, seasoned artists, musicians and industry insiders, and for once it wasn’t somebody’s funeral. Officially, it was Ray Parker, Jr., Day–City Hall issued a proclamation declaring as much. But unofficially, the day belonged to the honor of soul and R&B. And Ray didn’t mind sharing.
George Benson, backed by a rhythm section that included the legendary Wah-Wah Watson on guitar and “Ready” Freddie Washington on bass, performed an impromptu “This Masquerade.” Deniece Williams stopped the room with a stirring rendition of “Silly.” Both spontaneous performances were wonderful, soulful reminders that no matter what, there will never be an excuse for great songs, artful musicians to play them and gifted vocalists to sing them.
Ray pushed his way through the Hard Rock crowd, smiling from ear to ear, trying to say hello, hug or pose for smartphone pics with friends, family and associates. He couldn’t greet them all, but it was clear that he was having the time of his life trying.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]