Ray Parker Jr.’s resume boasts several decades worth of work as a top-drawer studio musician, songwriter, producer and R&B hitmaker as a solo artist and a member of Raydio, yet he will forever be best known for his theme song to Ivan Reitman’s 1984 “Ghostbusters,” a song he threw together in a matter of hours, which went on to top the Billboard singles chart for three straight weeks. But for Parker, who receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 6, randomness is almost par for course.
“A lot of things in life happened by accident and I think a lot of the best things that have happened to me definitely did,” Parker says.
Of course, long before he made “Who you gonna call?” an international catchphrase, Parker, who’ll be 60 in May, was one of the first names on the Motown call sheet as a studio guitarist. At age 13, he played his first gigs at Detroit’s legendary 20 Grand club, backing up the likes of the Spinners, the Temptations and Gladys Knight. He cut his first studio session — at the behest of legendary Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland — at 16. And by 18, he was playing with Stevie Wonder on a national tour with the Rolling Stones.
“My wife is always concerned about kids doing things too early, but I actually think you have more common sense when you’re younger,” Parker says. “Things are much simpler. Like, someone tells you they’re gonna pay you $50 for a gig. You don’t really think about being scared or start wondering if you’re good enough — when you’re 13 years old, $50 sounds like a million dollars. I mean, the bicycle you want is only $20.”
Parker’s stock as a studio player rose further when he moved to California, sleeping at Lamont Dozier’s house and later following him from Motown to Hot Wax Records, where he played on his first No. 1 track, Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.”
“He would play certain high riffs on the high strings with this very unique touch,” Dozier remembers. “Like B.B. King has those distinctive licks, Ray came up with these figures that he became well known for. They were so ‘Ray Parker.’ There are certain guitar players where you just know they’re on certain sessions just by hearing it, and he’s one of those guys.”
It took well over a decade for Parker to fully break out as a solo artist — which he did with the help of Clive Davis, whom Parker calls his “personal Moses” — and only after he’d proven his songwriting chops penning tunes for Barry White, Chaka Khan and Leo Sayer. Though it was never for lack of ambition that he stayed behind the scenes.
“I used to walk around in those days with a black T-shirt that had gold letters that said: ‘I’m a Fucking Genius.’ I used to wear it everywhere,” Parker recalls. “I’ve never wanted to blend in. I was always kind of a big-mouthed guy, from the Muhammad Ali school.”
Recording as Raydio, Parker notched a top 10 hit right off the blocks with 1978’s “Jack and Jill,” and reached No. 4 under his own name with 1982’s “The Other Woman.” Yet Parker insists he sketched out his career trajectory on a purely ad hoc basis.
“I wish I could tell you some story about my plans and how I pulled them off, but the truth is, the first record went gold, the single went gold, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is really cool, but I probably can’t do this again.’ I thought I’d just go back to being a guitar player after making a few extra million dollars. But the second album did really well, and it just kept flourishing.”
Parker is busy working on a record that he hopes to have finished by this summer. And while recent years have seen an upswing of interest in veteran studio wizards — witness Nile Rodgers’ return to prominence thanks to Daft Punk — as well as a renewed vogue for vintage Ray Parker-style, Reagan-era grooves — the majority of Bruno Mars’ “Emotional Jukebox,” for example — Parker has little interest in adjusting his style for the times.
“This record is gonna sound like it’s from the ’80s,” he says. “There’s no reason for me to cut any hip-hop, I mean, there’s no 18-year-old girls coming to fawn all over me here, we must face this fact. The audience I’m selling to still buys CDs, and they’re an older audience. So I’m just gonna make music for my audience, and if it becomes hip with a younger audience, then it’ll just be because they happen to think I’m cool. That would be great if it happened, but I’m not gonna spend any time thinking about how it fits in with the newer stuff. Forget all that.”