I have some Ray Stevens on my mp3 player, a late Sixties, surprisingly polemic song, ‘Mr Businessman’. It came up on the rotation today and, as it always does, it sparks an impotent memory from long ago that always fills me with fury.
The first Ray Stevens song I heard was this May 1970 no. 6 hit, ‘Everything is beautiful (which, oddly enough, I’ve only recently learned was written by Sonny Bono). Stevens is better known, before and since, for novelty songs (he would have big hits later in the Seventies with ‘Bridget the Midget’, ‘The Streak’ and a C&W version of the jazz standard, ‘Misty’, that I loved), but this was a serious and heartfelt effort, a peace and love song.
I didn’t like it. The children’s choir that led it in was too twee on its own, but the song was somewhat glutinous: hippy sentiment commercialised, worthy but soft-headed. Even then, its sentiments struck me as a little sickly.
Later that year, back end of the summer or thereabouts, I found myself watching a version of the song, sung by Jack Jones. Jones was an American singer, cabaret/MoR, one for my parents’ generation, not a pop singer. what he was doing on the kind of early evening children’s programme I was watching, I’ve no idea. Maybe he was making a guest appearance on Blue Peter?
I wasn’t really paying attention. I didn’t like the song, I was even less enamoured of his delivery of it. And then my ears pricked up when he got the words wrong.
The song contains a couplet that’s absolutely redolent of its times, of the conflict in America between young and old, past and future, that was only building. “We shouldn’t care,” sang Stevens, “about the length of his hair or the colour of his skin”.
But Jones sang it wrong: he sang about not worrying about the colour of his hair. I looked up, in time to watch him elide the rogue word in the next line, ‘and the length of his skin’. His vocal style drew attention to the substituted word, having to serve for the two-syllable word it had replaced and drawing extra attention to the awkwardness he’d self-imposed on the song.
I was confused. He’d sung the wrong words. Colour of his hair was meaningless in the context of the lyrics, but length of his skin was just meaningless.
In those days, the BBC had a letters programme, Points of View, presented by Robert Robinson: fifteen minutes of letters about television programmes read out and questions answered. This particular year, there was a junior version, a five minute programme called, predictably, Junior Points of View. A couple of weeks later, Jack Jones’ performance came up. Why had he sung the words?
I’ve never concealed that I was pretty naive growing up, but even I knew that the answer didn’t make sense: Jack Jones was an American, he had a weird sense of humour, that was his sense of humour in action. Now you, me and the world know that that was bullshit. That the BBC weren’t about to start explaining to their junior audience that a world-renowned entertainer that the BBC might want to feature again on MOR variety shows, was at the very least a cowardly shithole and possibly even a racist.
Because Ray Stevens was singing a song about brotherhood. Not just tolerance, but the active embrace of those who were different from us, who looked different. He was openly singing that we shouldn’t judge someone because they had long hair or because they were black. And Jack Jones, who could have avoided all of this by simply not singing the song if he didn’t have the guts or the common decency to make a statement like that out loud, instead perverted the whole sentiment. He rendered it meaningless nonsense. because a white American wasn’t willing, at the very best, to risk offending his audience by singing that some damned uppity nigger was every bit as good as them.
That’s what it was about, that and nothing else. It took me another couple of years to see that that was why he’d made such a bodge of the lyrics, that he’d thrown tolerance, respect and peace back in the faces of the people who desperately believed we needed it. It made me angry to have been a witness to it, to have been such an impotent witness to it, and to his getting away with it and not even getting called out on it.
That burn of anger hasn’t gone away in 46 years.The bastard got away with it. He wasn’t called out on it. He wasn’t shamed. And because I witnessed it and I did nothing, I am somehow responsible for it being allowed.
Every time I’m reminded of Ray Stevens, I’m reminded of this. And that burning core of impotent anger that’s been in me since I was 14 years old. The bastard got away with it.