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“I’m afraid of ghosts! I’m not the guy who’s gonna do anything to a ghost”: Ray Parker Jr shares the story of how he had just three days to write the Ghostbusters theme with $50,000 on the line

 Ray Parker Jr.
Ray Parker Jr.

Ray Parker Jr has written some hits in his career – with Raydio, as a solo artist, and as session player to some of greatest soul and R&B artists of all time – but mention his name in conversation and there is one track that comes up, and that’s his Ghostbusters theme song.  

Ghostbusters made Parker a household name, scoring him a number one hit to the highest-grossing movie of 1984, the then highest-crossing comedy of all time. And it got him an Oscar nomination, missing out to Stevie Wonder's unstoppable I Just Called To Say I Love You, from Gene Wilder’s romcom The Woman In Red.

Although it may not be the song that him famous in electric guitar circles, having already graced some of the most treasured recordings from Bill Withers, Barry White and Wonder himself (Parker played on Talking Book’s Maybe Your Baby and was Wonder’s touring lead guitarist in ’82), Ghostbusters is the song that everyone on all corners of the globe knows.

And speaking to Mason Marangella of Vertex Effects, Parker shared the story behind its production and admitted that had no idea why Columbia Pictures reached out to him for the gig in the first place.

“I don’t know nothing about this stuff! And by the way, I’m afraid of ghosts! I’m not the guy who’s gonna do anything to a ghost,” says Parker.

But Columbia was in a jam. They needed a theme song and quick. Lindsey Buckingham was supposedly one of the artists who passed on it. Gary LeMel, then a senior vice president Columbia’s music division decided to give Parker a call. After all, he was an old pal from their time working with Barry White.

“He said that he had tried everything, They had spent a year trying to find somebody to write their song, and he just called me up and said, ‘You’re the guy to do it,’” says Parker. Not that he was convinced. But LeMel made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

I wasn’t even there when they overdubbed. I was so sleepy. I had to go home and go to sleep

“He thought that I was the guy to do it so much that he said, ‘There will be 20 songwriters at the meeting but we’re going to pay you 50 grand, to just to write a song. Whether we use or not you get to keep the money. I want you to stay here three more days and do this,’’ says Parker. “I thought he was crazy! He turned out to be right; I was the right guy to write that song.”

There was a catch. They needed it done in three days. There was no time to second-guess anything, or to fuss around with gear. Parker had his Yamaha guitar, one of two that he suggests was going to be a signature guitar at some point, with a tune-o-matic bridge and the now incongruous sight of a squarish 3x3 headstock on an S-style body. Parker says he used it on his 1982 solo hit, The Other Woman.

The Yamaha was played through had a silverface Fender Princeton Reverb tube amp with the ubiquitous Ibanez 808 Tube Screamer in front of it.

The best part of the song to me is I have four sons, and I was their hero... That’s priceless. You can’t buy that, your own sons’ personal hero

“Didn’t spend a lot of time [on it] by the way,” he says. “‘Okay, mic it! Set it up. We gotta go!’ Everything was in a hurry, so I used a synthesizer that was sitting in front of me. Everything that was sitting in front of me got used in the song. It wasn’t like a conscious decision. ‘We need that sound on that part.’ Man, just pull something up. I had a Jupiter-6. The first patch I came up with a bass on, that’s the bass of the song. ‘That’s a bass? Okay, we gotta go.’”

And that was Parker for three days straight. On the home stretch he called in Martin Page and Brian Fairweather to finish the track, with Dorothy Ashby playing harp. But Parker didn’t stick around for that. He was beat.

“I wasn’t even there when they overdubbed,” he says. “I was so sleepy. I had to go home and go to sleep. I just said, ‘Put something on.’ There was nothing we could do wrong to the song. It was just on its way there.”

Put it down to fatigue, or the fact that it the writing and recording process was so hurried, Parker didn’t think they had a hit on their hands. No one did. But the track’s success established a template that would become LeMel’s calling card. LeMel would soon be known as the “Godfather of the Modern Soundtrack” and knew just how beneficial a great theme song could be to a movie’s box office.

Case in point: St Elmo’s Fire, a film that was in the doldrums until the success of John Parr’s brilliant Man In Motion, which coincidentally or not, was another track that was made in a hurry. Parr had even less time than Parker, tracking the song in just 24 hours, with Steve Lukather joining him on guitar.

LeMel’s star was on the rise. He would join Warner Bros, and in 1992, he successfully overseen the best-selling movie soundtracks of all time with Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard, shifting upwards of45 million copies.

Parker did all right too. As Marangella notes, there are points in perpetuity for a track like Ghostbusters. Even the copyright row with Huey Lewis and the News couldn’t detract from its success. But most importantly, at the time it made Parker a star in his own home.

“The best part of the song to me is I have four sons, and at each age group, aged when they were seven, eight, 10, I was their hero,” he says. “That’s priceless. You can’t buy that, your own sons’ personal hero. I mean, not anymore! [Laughs] But at that time I was my sons’ hero.”

But Parker’s career didn’t begin and end with Ghostbusters, and his conversation with Marangella takes in some of its many highlights, including Chaka Khan’s You Got The Love, Marvin Gaye’s I Want You, Bill Withers’ Lovely Day, and his longstanding collaboration with Barry White, which saw him joined on guitar by the great Dean Parks, Wah Wah Watson, Jay Graydon, and David T Walker.

And if that’s not enough he shares the secret behind his picking technique and gives us the story of how he wrote Leo Sayer’s most infectious hit single but didn’t get the credit. “I was devastated,” he says. “And then to put salt into the wound, it won record of the year. It won the Grammy.”

You can check out the interview above and subscribe to the Vertex Effects YouTube channel for more interviews with session royalty, and also some footage that would make any gearhead drool, like a comprehensive demo of Eric Johnson’s custom-built Dumble Manzamp preamp and Odyssey power amp setup, which Marangella had some time with before it was sold for a cool $399,999.