Ray Parker Jr. is best known for writing, producing and performing the 1984 Grammy-winning No. 1 hit “Ghostbusters,” but by the time he turned “Who you gonna call?” and “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost” into national catchphrases, he had already logged more than a decade in the business. He was still a teenager when Stevie Wonder invited him to join his band, and before breaking out as a solo star in the ‘80s, he logged credits as a songwriter (Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s 1974 hit “You Got the Love”) and as a performer on a string of hits for the band Raydio.
For all of his early success, though, there were dues to pay, including one that still hurts to this day. It started with a song he’d written and recorded called “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” that he presented to a label suit in 1976. “He said, ‘Hey, if you cut that with Leo Sayer, I’ll give you part of the song,’” Parker, 66, recalls. “Well, I never got my part of the song.”
Sayer ended up recording it, and it went to No. 1 in 1977, with Sayer and Vini Poncia credited as its songwriters. Compounding the insult, “Dancing” went on to win a Grammy for best R&B song. “It kind of hurts when you see somebody on TV collecting a Grammy for [your] song, and here’s my mother in Detroit, and I haven’t bought her a house yet,” he says, calling it “one of the lowest points of my life.” “Every time I hear the song on the radio, the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘I don’t have a Grammy for that and my name isn’t on it, and nobody recognizes me for writing that song.’”
Does Parker think racism may have been a factor — a white industry insider deciding to pull one over on a young Black kid from the streets of Detroit? “I imagine it could be racial as to they decided, ‘Ah, forget him. We’re just gonna do it. We’re not going to pay him royalties. He’s young, he’s new, and I’m the bigger guy in the business and who’s gonna listen to him versus me, so I’ll just do what I want to do.’ So I was just kind of kicked to the curb.”
Parker doesn’t blame Sayer for the behind-the-scenes machinations, insisting it was a higher up’s decision not to put his name on the record. “It’s not Leo’s fault,” he insists. “He tried to cut six of seven more of my songs just because he felt so bad.”
Parker retaliated by reclaiming a song called “Jack and Jill,” which got Raydio signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis before becoming Parker’s first hit as a performer in 1978. The global success of “Ghostbusters” was the ultimate last laugh, and although he ended up getting sued by Huey Lewis over that song’s resemblance to Huey Lewis and the News’ earlier hit “I Want a New Drug” (the case was settled out of court), Parker remains fiercely protective and appreciative of his signature song.
“I have four sons, and they’re all different ages, and I was each one of their heroes growing up because I sang that song,” he says. “I wanted to make music to make people happy, to make them have a good time. And that song exemplifies that more than anything I’ve ever done. It’s hard to beat that song.”