No one has ever combined funk and pop with the cool finesse of Ray Parker Jr. A multi-talented writer, singer, guitarist and record producer, Parker shone a particularly spirited creative light on the late ’70s and early ’80s with a handful of unforgettable hits: “Jack and Jill,” “You Can’t Change That,” “A Woman Needs Love,” “The Other Woman” and “Ghostbusters.”
The Detroit native’s forte was catchy songs delivered with good-natured humor, impeccable radio-friendly production and plenty of wink-winking sexual double entendre.
“People have enough problems,” Parker said. “They’re coming to be entertained and have fun. That’s always just been my theory on music, anyway. Somebody’s got to make those songs about politicians and all that stuff; I just don’t feel that.”
He began taking clarinet and saxophone lessons as a young child, and by age 11 was considered one of Detroit’s brightest child prodigies. Ray Parker Sr., who worked at a Ford steel mill for 47 years, recognized his son’s potential and allowed him to play guitar with the likes of Marvin Gaye and the Temptations in city nightclubs. Dad went to every show to keep an eye on things.
At 12, Parker toured with the Spinners, and he was still a teenager when he started doing sessions at Motown – he was in the second-unit band, playing when the famous Funk Brothers were otherwise engaged.
Stevie Wonder, then living in California, invited the young guitarist west to join his band, Wonderlove.”I had an 8-track in my car,” Parker said. “I was 17 years old, going to college, and the only piece of music I had for the whole car was Music of My Mind. I didn’t need anything else. I had a great sound system, and with that album in the car, I was happy.”
With Wonder, Parker opened stadium shows for the Rolling Stones. “I thought that they were opening for Stevie Wonder,” he said. “I was really shocked to see that they were the headliners.
“In my world, in Detroit, the closed world of the ghetto, Stevie Wonder was a superstar. He had all the hit records.’”
Parker worked on Wonder’s Talking Book and Innervisions. He was also making demos of his own songs, which Wonder encouraged. “And I thought gosh, if Stevie Wonder thinks it’s good enough for him to waste his time on, there must be something happening here.” Parker co-wrote “You Got the Love,” the 1974 hit for Rufus and Chaka Khan.
He also found plenty of work as a session guitarist, primarily with Invictus Records, the label started by Holland-Dozier-Holland after they’d left Motown.
Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”? Parker on guitar. “Want Ads” by the Honeycombs? Parker again.
Next he met his mentor, Barry White, who saw the young songwriter’s potential.
White and Parker co-wrote several hits, including the No. 1 “You See the Trouble With Me,” and that’s Parker’s wah-wah on “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” “Love’s Theme” and several other Love Unlimited Orchestra classics.
“He was a real kind person,” Parker recalled. “And very, very super-talented. We’d go into the studio and he’d know exactly what he wanted, right away. I can’t say enough nice stuff about him. He was just a big, big deal in my career.”
Arista Records president Clive Davis signed Parker. The 1977 Raydio album, written and produced entirely by Parker, featured him on nearly all the instruments.” At the time, anyone who was a famous musician that made a record, it was considered a jazz record,” Parker said. “No matter who you were, didn’t matter what it sounded like. It was only a jazz record because you were a musician.
“Musicians didn’t have hit records; they just didn’t allow it. Especially black. If you were black and you were a musician, the first thing they’d do is draw a picture of a guitar and you holding it, and there’s your album cover. And then you go to the jazz stations.
“When they designed my first album cover, that’s just what they did. So I went to Clive and said ‘For some reason, the company has an image of me as a jazz guitar player, and I’m trying to cut Top 40 records.’”
Presto! Raydio became the name of a band, with Parker out front in the cover photos. “Jack and Jill” hit the Top 10 single early in 1978. Although Parker’s silky tenor is featured on the chorus, the leads were sung by a friend of his, Arnell Carmichael.
“I couldn’t sing,” Parker said. “In the early days, I couldn’t even hold a pitch. The problem with being a good musician is you know what pitch is. I know what out of tune is. I don’t need anybody to tell me ‘I was just bad and out of tune.’”
Carmichael shared the lead with Parker on 1979′s “You Can’t Change That,” but by “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” two years later, Parker was handling all the vocals. “I wasn’t so sure about that,” he said, “but all my friends said ‘It sounds all right now, you’re not an idiot no more. You might be able to pull this one off.’”
There was no Raydio. Carmichael and the other guys pictured on the jackets were put on retainer, for personal appearances. Eventually the act was called billed as Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio.
By the time of 1982′s The Other Woman, the credits read simply Ray Parker Jr. “That happened automatically,” said Parker. “The band got a little crazy, and everybody thought they were the stars. Everybody wanted more money.”
A pulsating mix of rock guitars and soulful vocals, “The Other Woman” was a huge single, reaching No. 4 in April. The ballad “Let Me Go” was a minor hit, but Parker didn’t score big again until ’84.
He was approached by Columbia Pictures’ music division to write a song for their upcoming comedy Ghostbusters.
“It was a 50 grand deal, to write a song in two days whether they like it or not,” Parker recalled. “A key point – whether they like it or not, I get my money. I loved that deal.
“So therefore, you gotta come up with something. The only problem was, the something became a little harder than I thought it was gonna be. Because what the heck do you write to the words ‘Ghost Busters’? They want the word in the song.”
He watched roughs of the film-in-progress. “I remember they had the Ghostbusters packs on, and they looked real similar to a Roto-Rooter thing I saw. They had backpacks on when they come and clean your drain. I said ‘That’s it – it should be a commercial, and I should never sing it. I should never say the words ‘Ghost Busters’ myself, I should let the background scream it.’
“And that’s exactly what I did. That was the best, smartest thing I’d ever done in my life. That one decision.”
“Ghostbusters” spent three weeks on top of the Billboard chart in June and became the biggest record – by far – of Parker’s career.
Parker was subsequently sued by Huey Lewis, who claimed that “Ghostbusters” was a virtual rip-off of his “I Want a New Drug.” Parker, who says he counted 12 songs that use “the same bassline” (including Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing” and M’s “Pop Musik”) settled out of court.
Still prevented by gag order from saying too much about the case, Parker nevertheless brushes it off. “What I can tell you is that I’ve written a lot of songs in my life, and every time it’s really, really successful there’s a lot of lawsuits. So far, in my lifetime, nobody’s collected a dime and it all still belongs to me. You look at the credits and it still says Ray Parker Jr.
“I remember Lionel Richie told me a long time ago, ‘You’re not successful until somebody’s suing you.’”
A label switch, first to Geffen and then to MCA, didn’t produce any more major pop hits (although Parker did write New Edition’s smash “Mr. Telephone Man”). Parker returned to Detroit in the late ’80s to care for his ailing parents, who, sadly, died with in a year of one another.
Today, he’s working on his first album in 13 years, writing songs for kids’ cartoon shows, and hitting the road (he’s been playing guitar with his old friends the Crusaders).
Parker has no regrets about bowing out for a while. “I had an unbelievably lucrative career, I made entirely too much money, I was never going to live long enough to spend it anyway,” he said. “And I didn’t want to be one of these guys trying to figure out how am I gonna get my parents back.”