At 28, Ray Parker Jr. has 19 years of performing under his belt. The Detroit-born guitarist-singer-songwriter-producer has had a hand in some 500 Top 40 singles and maybe 10,000 songs, working behind and alongside stars such as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin and Tom Jones. Parker also has spun out four gold albums and 12 hit singles with his essentially one-man studio “group,” Raydio.
But as prolific as he is, until four months ago Parker had never released a single under just his name. Then came his first solo album, The Other Woman. It went Top 20 within 10 weeks. Its title track hit the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts.
The Other Woman is about a man coping with two lovers. Most Parker songs are thematically based on man-woman relationships because “that’s what everybody wants to hear,” he explains. “But I try to write something that someone else wouldn’t have the nerve to say.” Last year his A Woman Needs Love became a hit for Raydio. Its feminist message made Parker an instant hit with liberated females—a kind of Alan Alda with soul. “The men called me a traitor,” he says. “But there were girls hanging around my studio all day. They took the song personally and every woman was thinking, ‘I know he takes good care of his women.’ ”
Parker’s own relationships so far are still centered on his longtime girlfriend from Detroit, insurance agent Debbie Peek. By mutual agreement, she maintains her own apartment, even though Parker, in another reflection of his recent success, recently purchased his second home. His Beverly Hills mansion, once owned by actress Polly Bergen, is next to one owned by Frank Sinatra. And it’s a long way removed from the tough Motor City neighborhood where as a boy, Parker recalls, “I was too tall, my head was too big, and I wore big white socks. I was just not hap’nin’ as a kid.” He had to pay off bullies and played clarinet in the school band to avoid getting knocked around in the alternative to music, gym class. At 7, he and two others formed a combo called the Stingrays, and five years later Parker switched from clarinet to guitar. By 14, he was in a band which owned a gun to collect its fees from slow-paying club owners. At 15, he did his first Motown session work, behind Marvin Gaye, and he soon bought a new Lincoln Continental.
He finished his first year of college at the Lawrence Institute of Technology near Detroit but dropped out to join Stevie Wonder’s band on the Rolling Stones’ 1972 comeback tour, making $600 a week.
A year later Parker headed for L.A., which he learned to love watching TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies and Leave It to Beaver. “Whenever I saw those shows,” he remembers, “it looked as if everybody was in sunshine.”
He eventually learned that L.A. wasn’t all TV sweetness and light when a neighbor in an elevator in his posh condo complex suggested he didn’t know where the service entrance was. He was soon able to rebuke her indirectly when Arista Records bought a Sunset Boulevard billboard to advertise Raydio’s Rock On LP.
But then, Parker has always been nothing if not confident about his talents. “I looked at Stevie and he was playing all the instruments on his records and writing songs, and I felt that I could do it too,” Parker says. He had been in Los Angeles three months when he finagled an introduction to singer-songwriter Barry White, who later recorded Parker’s Always Thinkin’ of You. Parker soon began picking up jobs as a studio musician, earning double scale doing session work for people ranging from Helen Reddy to Dizzy Gillespie. He became so popular, he tried turning down gigs unless performers would agree to use songs he’d written. It worked.
Chaka Khan and Rufus did his first hit, You’ve Got the Love, in 1974. The rewards since have been vast (Parker now grosses millions of dollars annually), but he’s never completely satisfied. “Of the hundreds of gold records I’ve written, produced or played on, only Boz Scaggs gave me one when they were given out. Lawyers, deejays and people in the company get them, but not the musicians.”
A 1977 meeting with Clive Davis of Arista netted Parker a recording contract and an upfront $100,000 check he used to bolster a bank account depleted by investments in his own studio—where he cut the first Raydio album in that same year. Parker has essentially been the group, dubbing vocal tracks and five instruments on some tunes, with studio musicians filling in. Then he got his first full solo shot this year.
“I’ve never been one of those star-type people,” he says. “Nothing like that ever really concerned me—except getting paid.” But his admitted ego has hardly submerged. His next career step, he hopes, will be films. As an actor? Writer? Director? “All of it,” he says, smiling.