Ray Stevens

Ray Stevens

Courtesy of Gaither Music

If you are looking for Ray Stevens to divulge all in his brand new book, Ray Stevens' Nashville, he tells Billboard that you might be in for a little bit of a letdown.

"It's a selected memoir," says the legendary comedian. "There's a lot I left out. I wasn't trying to cover everything. Sometimes, you get too technical when you try to remember every detail of everything, but the details I did remember are actually what happened."

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The book focuses on his career, and how his growing up years helped to shape him. He says that some of his musical prowess he owes to his mother, who encouraged him to continue practicing piano when he would much rather be outside playing baseball with his friends in Clarkdale, Ga.

"That was my mom's idea," he recalled. "She talked my dad into buying an old second-hand piano. She enrolled me in piano lessons when I was six, and made me practice every day. I wanted to be out playing ball with the guys, but I had to practice for an hour before. Thank God she made me practice the piano before I went out and played baseball," he reflects. "I would have been a bad baseball player after I grew up, but you don't have to be that big to play the piano."

From there, the family would move to Albany, N.Y. and then to Atlanta, which was a musical hotbed in the late 1950s. "I graduated high school in 1957, and during that year, I met Bill Lowery, who was a music publisher and radio personality in Atlanta. He encouraged all the kids around Atlanta to write songs because he had just started a publishing company. Through him, I met people like Jerry Reed, Joe South, Buddy Kalb and Tommy Roe. Anybody who has aspirations of being in the music business that lived around Atlanta were drawn to Bill Lowery."

Even then, Stevens knew there was something special about his contemporaries, especially Reed. "I thought Jerry was one of the best guitarists I have ever heard in my life. He and Chet [Atkins] were two of my best friends. I can't even hold a guitar, but thankfully I didn't have to because I had buddies like that."

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His path would take him north to Nashville, where he would move in early 1962. Not too long after that, Stevens was creating his classic string of hits like "Ahab The Arab," which peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100 later that year. He says the song was a last-minute addition to the recording session. I had my songs, but I didn't really like any of them. So, the night before, I wrote it. I brought it in to Shelby Singleton that day and told him I was going to depart from what we had said we were going to record. He said 'Ok, man, whatever you want to do.' We recorded the song at 10 a.m. that morning."

As it turned out, it was quite the profitable day on Music Row. "I was part of the Mercury Records team at that time. I remember that at 2 p.m. we recorded Leroy Van Dyke's "Walk On By," then at 6 p.m., we cut "Wooden Heart" by Joe Dowell. We cut three hit records on the same day."

Later in the decade, he would find himself producing such acts as a teenage Dolly Parton, and playing on such hit records as the 1968 Waylon Jennings classic "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line," on which he sang the high harmony part. Though he played on many songs that became classics during that period, he stresses he didn't know he was in the process of making history.

"Back in those days, the artists and the songs weren't classics – yet. We were just all trying to do the best we could. It was a lot of fun. It turned out that a lot of the records turned out to be hits."

He tells the stories of such monster hits as "Everything Is Beautiful" and "The Streak," and also how he originally recorded "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" a year before Johnny Cash.

Stevens is still creating music and videos today, and has jus released a brand new Gospel collection, titled Ray Stevens Gospel Collection, Volume One, which brings back many of pleasant memories. "In the mid 1970s, I had a hit with ‘Turn Your Radio On.' We put an album out, which was successful. Since then, I've always wanted to do another Gospel album. I cut twenty-four songs, and this is just twelve of them. If this one does well, we'll put out Volume Two."