Ray Parker Jr.'s Detroit roots

Long before 'Ghostbusters' he was a teen playing at the 20 Grand

Ray Parker Jr. will forever be synonymous with one song. Forget the fact that he was playing with the Spinners when he was a teenager. Forget that he wrote hit records for Barry White, and has played with Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Forget that he has worked in the studio with Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan and the fuckin' Carpenters. No, Ray Parker Jr.'s name cannot be uttered anywhere in the Western world and most places beyond without an immediate Ghostbusters reference following.

Hell, you might not have even known that he is from Detroit at all. His association sort of got lost in the Hollywood lights (he's still in La-La Land now). But the 58-year-old was raised on the west side of the city, in the Dexter-Grand Boulevard neighborhood. Ask the man, and he's not sure why his Detroit connection has been blurred. After all, he's not the first Detroit musician to move away. "All my relatives are from Detroit," he says. "I don't know how people forget I'm from Detroit. I went to Cass Tech. I used to play all the parties and gigs in Detroit. I don't know how I got lost in the shuffle. I'm still one of the guys."

It does seem unfair because, back in the very late '60s and early '70s, a mid-teen Parker was playing with the house band at Detroit's famous 20 Grand nightclub. "I think I was like 14 years old, and every night I'd sit right next to James Jamerson, who's a famous bass player from Detroit," he says. That'd be James Jamerson of Motown and innumerable hit bass lines. "I'd play with him, and I didn't even know he was going to be famous years later. I distinctly remember that if any notes went wrong, I got the blame for it because I was the youngest guy. I wasn't supposed to be in a nightclub anyway. So I think that helped me hone my craft."

Parker says that, living in his neighborhood, there was no way that he wasn't going to wind up playing music. "Detroit in the days I grew up was an unbelievably musical town," he says. "I mean, everybody in my neighborhood played music. Everyone I knew wanted to play an instrument. So we'd always have block parties and bands would just play outside on the front lawns and backyards. So the level of competition was really extreme. It wasn't like we were doing it as a career or anything. Everybody was just doing it for the fun of it."

It wasn't only at the 20 Grand that Parker was schooled by the best. "The Spinners was my first group," he says. "They had me come on tour with them at 13 or 14 years old. They had to ask my mom and get me back for school on Monday morning. As long as I stayed out of trouble, my parents loved me playing music. They thought it was a good way for me to keep out of trouble."

However hard he tried, though, Parker couldn't get signed by the hometown labels. "I didn't meet Berry Gordy until I was almost 30 years old," Parker says. "I tried to get signed by Motown. I played outside on the boulevard. I played with all the Motown acts, including Marvin Gaye. But I just couldn't get signed to Motown, or Invictus, or Hot Wax. I just couldn't get signed. It's interesting with all the Detroit history that the guy who signed me was Clive Davis, from New York."

He thinks the Detroit R&B folks saw him primarily as a guitar player. "And no guitar player had any hit records then, so that was the end of that."

So how the hell did a man with apparently sound taste end up in the pit known as Los Angeles?

"I was 18," he says. "I liked it when I saw Leave it to Beaver and the Beverly Hillbillies when I was 7. I was preprogrammed, because I didn't understand that they made movies there, so I kept asking my parents where Beaver is at. Beaver would ride his bike to school and nobody would steal it. We were cold and Beaver was warm. I said, 'Where's that at?' They said, 'That's probably Hollywood, California.' The Beverly Hillbillies pretty much capped it for me. Wow, swimming pools and big houses. I told my uncle, 'I'm confused. All my life, which wasn't that long, I wanted to move to Hollywood, but now I like this Beverly Hills place.' He says, 'They're right next to each other.' The big change came when Motown moved west. When I got back from Stevie Wonder's tour, most of the Detroit stuff had moved west."

L.A. and the movie industry, of course, led to the gig doing the theme song for Ghostbusters. But does Parker regret being effectively typecast by the song?

"Absolutely not," he says. "'Ghostbusters' is probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It was a song that didn't just go to No. 1, it went out of the atmosphere, the galaxy, the universe, and it's still going. It's just an unbelievable song. No. 1 in 52 countries around the world. We sold 35 million copies of different versions of it. Video games in Las Vegas. Toys. It's in every commercial, it's everywhere. People say, 'Are you tired of hearing it?' Absolutely not. It's the No. 1 Halloween song of all time in America. It's like getting the Lotto ticket. It's unbelievable. There's absolutely no way that I'm gonna get upset over 'Who ya gonna call?'"

Holy shit! Ray Parker Jr. just said "Who ya gonna call?" to me. It is refreshing that Parker isn't at all jaded by his association to what is essentially a novelty song (albeit a great one), especially considering the lawsuit filed by Huey Lewis against Parker and Columbia Pictures, claiming that the melody was stolen from his song "I Want a New Drug." The three settled out of court in '85.

I put it to Parker that he hasn't heard the song until he's heard my wife's Karaoke version, before asking him if he'll be re-recording it for the much-rumored Ghostbusters 3. "I'm assuming they're going to keep the theme I already did," Parker says. "I don't think they're going to update it and I'll tell you why. They came out with a series of video games a couple of years ago for Nintendo, Xbox and a bunch of other stuff. Sony, who owns the rights to the picture, did a whole lot of worldwide research. They spent a lot of money. They thought, 'Let's do an updated version and put Snoop Dogg and Ray together.' All different things. After they did all that, the whole of planet Earth unanimously told them they want the old version. It was just one of those songs they didn't wanna remake. All of the video games use the old version and I betcha anything, now they've done that research, they'll do the same with the movie. If they call me, of course, I'll go in and do something. I got a funny feeling they'll leave it as is. Either way, it'll be wonderful for me."

On Feb. 13, Parker and his undercelebrated career will be the subject of the Unsung show airing on TV One — the black-oriented cable channel's answer to Behind the Music. We should be hearing all about those early Detroit days, hits like "You Can't Change That" and "The Other Woman," "Ghostbusters" and much more. Parker is excited to see how it turns out.

"It's going to be Ray Parker Jr.'s life story," he says. "It should be surprising. Things that you don't know are in there. You'll find out a No. 1 song that won Grammys that I wrote when I was a kid and didn't really get credit for it. That will surprise you."

He laughs, then adds, "How do you like that? Now you gotta see it."

Ray Parker Jr.'s Unsung episode will debut on TV One on Feb. 13 (at 9 and 10 p.m.) and can be seen afterward at tvone.tv.

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