Ray Parker Jr. on the Legacy of 'Ghostbusters', Passing on 'Spaceballs' and His Wild Oscars Performance [Interview]
Ray Parker Jr. is best known as the singer and songwriter of the Ghostbusters theme song, but the musician has an entire career outside of the supernatural comedy. A new documentary titled Who You Gonna Call? is premiering at the Zurich Film Festival later this month, and in addition to spotlighting his work on Ghostbusters, it dives into the life and career of Ray Parker Jr., including his time spent growing up in Detroit and early years in music when he cut his teeth working with Stevie Wonder.
In conjunction with the film’s forthcoming debut, I was able to chat with Ray Parker Jr. to look back on the legacy of his key contribution to Ghostbusters, including a certain Academy Awards performance from 1985, the groundbreaking music video, previous versions of the theme song that never came to light, and plenty more about the beloved theme. In the full interview below, you can also find out why he turned down the chance to write the theme for Spaceballs and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
In this documentary, you talk about going to the Stevie Wonder school of music when you were coming up in your career, and I was wondering if anything you learned during that time helped you create the Ghostbusters theme song in such a truncated window of time.
Well, first of all, when you speak of Stevie Wonder, I wouldn’t need to say something I learned from him. He taught me the whole thing. He taught me how to write the songs period. I didn’t really know what I was doing in th beginning, so he was the one to take me into the studio, showed me how to put the instruments down, how to mix it, how to record it, and all that kind of stuff. So I would say absolutely that he was directly influencing me on Ghostbusters. People say, okay, you did it in two and a half, three days, but it’s really more like 28 years of work that led up to it. If I hadn’t done the 27 years of work, I wouldn’t have been ready on year 28.
With a song that’s intended to be the theme for a movie, what’s the process like of coming up with the medley, matching it with the lyrics, and then combining it into a single song that matches the vibe of what you think the movie will be like?
There were certain things I knew that had to happen. The director [Ivan Reitman] had the tempo and what kind of music he wanted. Then he threw the curveball saying he wanted the word “Ghostbusters” in the actual song, which is just about an impossible word to sing. That’s what made the project so hard. The music actually came first, by the way. The first couple of days was all the music, and then how to put the lyrics in there. That was the hard part. I remember in the actual film, there was a commercial where you see the Ghostbusters and the phone number underneath at the bottom of the commercial. And that to me gave it away. The trick is I never say the word “Ghostbusters.” I’m just gonna say, “Who ya gonna call?” and then the crowd says, “Ghostbusters!” because that’s who they want to call to solve their problems.
You and Ivan Reitman have talked about how there were a ton of different version of the theme song that were attempted but didn’t work before they came to you. Do you know about any of the other artists who made a pass at the song?
The only one I’ve talked to would be Lindsey Buckingham [of Fleetwood Mac]. I think they had called him to do something. I spoke to him on one of these Zoom calls not too long ago. And I think there was Kenny Loggins and a whole bunch of people they tried. For some reason, no one could come up with a song for that film. What’s interesting is Gary LeMel, who was the vice president of Columbia Pictures at the time, he was 100% sure that I could do it. He knew something that I didn’t know.
When you originally wrote the song, it was supposed to be a much smaller clip of music that only played in the opening scene, right?
Yeah, they were already done with the film so they just wanted something to play over the library scene.
How difficult was it to expand that into a longer song that could be played on the radio?
Because it was way back when, we didn’t have digital recording where you could cut and paste. So I didn’t have enough music, and they wanted it exactly the way it was. So I had to get two 24-track tape recorders, go a generation down, which means the whole Ghostbusters song is actually one generation down. Analog people know what that means. Then I had to take a razorblade, which I did myself, and cut the tape and piece it together. So instead of it being a minute and a half long, it was four and a half minutes long.
You’re mostly known for doing love songs and ballads, which made you an odd choice to create the Ghostbusters theme song. But it seems like maybe you snuck some of that sensual style in there a little bit with lines like “I think it likes the girls!” and maybe some innuendo with “Bustin’ makes me feel good!”
Oh, you think so, do you? *laughs* I was trying to put something in there and not offend the kids but relate to the older people, so they could get a little something out of it. It’s funny singing about a ghost. And remember, because it was only supposed to be a short bit over the library scene, it wasn’t gonna be a big deal. It wasn’t a big deal until they wanted to make a full song and a music video. At the beginning, [music producer] Clive Davis was like, “You can’t be singing to a ghost. You’ve made your whole career singing to girls.” Believe it or not, it was actually my idea to bring in the Saturday Night Live guys [as cameos in the music video] because I was afraid to do a music video singing about a ghost. So Ivan got Dan [Aykroyd] and Bill [Murray] and everyone to be in it, and then he expanded it even more. It was unbelievable.
I read that was kind of a haphazard production because Ivan Reitman had to step up to direct it, they were still building the set on the day of shooting, and you didn’t have a permit for the sequence shot in Times Square. Was that experience hectic for you, or were you just oblivious to it because you’re just there to shoot the video and everyone else is dealing with the other stuff?
I was oblivious to all the technical details, thank goodness, because I needed to be smiling and singing and doing my job. So Ivan took care of all that. I remember what was exciting about that video was it was one of the first videos with a Black face that they were gonna play on MTV, who wasn’t really playing anything except rock and roll at the time. That and “Thriller” were two of the earliest videos of that kind to play there.
The video was a lot of fun. I thought it was incredible that Ivan Reitman said he was gonna direct the video. With as many hit films as he had, him directing the video was like having John Landis working with Michael Jackson. It was a lot of work, and when it was done, Ivan looked at me and said, “Ray, you’re gonna be in the Guinness Book of World Records because this is the last music video I’ll ever shoot.” He came in, he did it, and he left, and that was it.
That was also one of the first times that a song was so closely intertwined with the promotion of a major movie, including clips from the movie and the cast making an appearance along with you. And I have to ask where that Ghostbusters shuffle you guys are doing in Times Square came from.
Oh, we made that up at the last minute. Bill Murray had a lot to do with that. Trust me, that was not planned at all. None of us had organized it. One guy started doing it, we all started doing it. Next thing I know, Bill Murray laid on the ground and told me to spin him around.
I feel like you couldn’t do this today. Shooting in Times Square in the middle of the afternoon with all those people. The crowds would be insane.
You know, I gotta say, the crowds were insane back then. They said they were gonna block it all off, but I looked around and saw tons more people. And I thought, “How is this possible? Why are we shooting at Times Square in the middle of the day when there’s more people here than anywhere?” But it really worked out great.
When I was looking back into some vintage clips around the time Ghostbusters came out and some of the interviews you did and whatnot, one of the things I stumbled upon was the performance you did at the 1985 Academy Awards for the song (see below). Can you talk about how that concept came about? Because it seems like such an odd portrayal of Ghostbusters. Youre singing the song on a forklift, and there are space versions of Ghostbusters, and Dom DeLuise comes in. How did that come together?
They invited me to the Oscars, and I’m ashamed to admit, at 28 years old, I didn’t really know that much about the Oscars. I wasn’t an actor, I was a musician, so I only knew what the Grammys were. So the funny thing is, I wasn’t gonna go in the beginning. But somebody said, no, we need you to go. They’re gonna let you open up the show. They’re gonna do this big production. I was like, what could they possibly be doing? Once I got there, there was a big orchestra there. But they were playing some of the notes wrong, so I went over and straightened out the band. They thought I was just a singer and didn’t know anything about music, but some of my friends were in the band, so they listened to me and they straightened out the chords. But I had no idea it was going to be that big of a production with Dom DeLuise, the song going on for 10 or 12 minutes, and the ghosts and all that stuff. When we rehearsed it a few times, it was a lot of fun.
It almost felt like this odd Ghostbusters musical from an alternate universe.
Yeah, I’ll never forget that I was there with Diana Ross, and I had produced some records for her one time. And she looked at me and said, “Boy, there’s millions of people watching and you’re opening the show. Are you a little bit nervous?” And I said, “No! I’ve been waiting on this all my life!”
On the topic of alternate Ghostbusters, if you will, is there anything musically about the most recent version of the Ghostbusters theme by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot that you think just didn’t work to make it measure up to the original?
I think it’s just the choice of the public. The public, for some reason, wants the original song. It seems odd because most songs, when it’s 20 or 30 years later, they want to do an updated version of the song or a hip-hop version of the song. But everytime they try – and they put out an album last time with eight really famous artists doing the song – everybody still wants to hear the original song. I think it’s a good thing, or it could be bad, I don’t know. Maybe it’s what I prayed for. Because I remember when I was a kid, I heard Chubby Checker singing “The Twist,” and I thought I’d like an iconic song like this where when you say “The Twist,” you immediately think of Chubby Checker. So I guess I got one.
Do you have a favorite cover that you’ve heard of the Ghostbusters theme song? I know there are tons out there.
I like Alvin and the Chipmunks. It could be just because I grew up with Alvin and the Chipmunks, but when they did their version of Ghostbusters, I thought I’d really arrived.
You’re credited as co-writing the theme song that Run DMC did for Ghostbusters 2, so how involved were you with the creation of that theme?
They wrote the rap. They just licensed the original theme. And that’s another example of a song that didn’t really take off. People wanted the original song. So let’s hope one day in the future – I don’t think it’ll be in the upcoming film because as far as licensing, I don’t think they have the original song in that film.
So they haven’t reached out to you to do anything for Ghostbusters: Afterlife?
No. Maybe in one of the films after that. But I’ll probably be too old to sing it then if they keep fooling around. Maybe I can be the ghost if they wait any longer.
Hey, I saw you perform in-person at Ghostbusters Fan Fest last year, and you’ve still got it. You guys did an extended jam of the Ghostbusters theme, so I’m sure you could pull it off.
Well thank you very much. I’m having a good time. But they’ve already waited over 30 years for this one, and if they wait another 30, then I’ll be a ghost myself.
Since Ghostbusters was such a hit for you, did you have any other opportunities to write theme songs for other movies, or was that something where felt like you couldn’t top it after it became such a hit.
I never worried about topping anything. I just enjoy playing music and having a good time. But there was one opportunity. Mel Brooks wanted me to do Spaceballs, and made me a great offer.
I know, that’s what I say too. I didn’t do it because I was too busy fooling around, doing something, chasing girls or waterskiing. In hindsight, I’m going, “What the heck were you thinking?” I would have loved to meet Mel Brooks and hang out with him. What was I thinking about at the time? So Mel Brooks, if you see this, give me another chance. I can still do this.
Maybe he’ll get a Spaceballs sequel together and you can do it.
Yeah, or anything else he’s doing. But, you know, back then I was never trying to top one song with another song. With Ghostbusters, I didn’t even know how big of a song I was writing when I wrote it. All music to me is just a lot of fun. At the same time, I’ve never been the kind of musician, like some of my friends, who are just workaholics. And then they turn 60 years old and they don’t even know what it looks like outside because they were in the studio the whole time. I have times where I don’t play music at all and learn how to fly an airplane or ride motorcycles and dirtbikes, waterskiing on lakes, traveling the world, just having a good time.
Have you seen the Key & Peele comedy sketch that imagines you writing theme songs for other movies?
Yeah, absolutely. I thought it was wonderful. It’s funny, we were backstage at The Emmys. I play guitar sometimes for The Emmys. Jordan Peele was there, but he didn’t have his shirt on when I went in to take a picture. He was all nervous that maybe I didn’t like it and wanted to knock him out or something. But I told him I loved it, and he asked if he could put his shirt and jacket on to take a picture with me. So yeah, he’s cool, and now he’s become a super big director too.
Have there been any talks about doing a feature film about your life as a musician, especially with this documentary coming out?
There’s no talks of that yet, but that would be nice. Like what they did with the Ray Charles movie. I’m not as famous as Ray Charles, but they made a movie with a great story, and if they wanted to do something like that, I’d be honored.
Who do you think should play you in the movie if it happened?
I was just about to say, let me tell you right now, you should see my son Jericho. He’s 20 years old, and he looks like the lord is replacing me on the planet. He looked like me when he was born. Four sons, and when I saw him, I got nervous and scared. Uh-oh. This is the replacement. He’s got the look and he’s tall, good-looking, so he could probably play the part. But they’d probably get somebody famous if they were doing it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up one of the more compelling parts of the documentary that’s very timely and relevant in today’s tumultuous times. You talked about growing up in Detroit and the experience you had with police brutality and racism, and I wanted to know, in today’s climate especially, what you think the place is for artists like yourself, singers and songwriters, in being activists and using their music to spread this message.
It’s hard to believe that some of this stuff is still going on. The protests this time are maybe much nicer. Because in 1967 it was black against white and everyone was shooting each other. It was almost like a war. The realization that I’m coming to now, in this particular march, there were white people and people of all races supporting Black Lives Matter, which did not happen in ’67 or ‘68, that just wasn’t there. I don’t know how they’re gonna fix it, but I sure hope they do, because I have kids, and I like to know that they’re safe when they’re out there running around. Just people in general, I’d like to know that everybody is safe.
Who You Gonna Call? was meant to arrive this year around the same time as Ghostbusters: Afterlife, but it doesn’t have an official release date to the general public yet. Stay tuned.
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