Ray Parker Jr. Wanted to Write One Song That Would Live Forever. He Did It With ‘Ghostbusters’

Ray Parker Jr. Wanted to Write One Song That Would Live Forever. He Did It With ‘Ghostbusters’

As a kid, Ray Parker Jr. had a dream. “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,” he once said. “So I guess I got one.”

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If you don’t know the man’s name, you know his iconic song. And if you were around in the mid-1980s, you couldn’t escape its chorus.

There had been hit singles from movies before “Ghostbusters.” In fact, the summer of 1984 also featured “When Doves Cry” from the Prince film Purple Rain. But “Ghostbusters” seemed different, more titanic, than previous musical tie-ins. Here was a big, obvious, undeniable pop smash that directly referenced the film that inspired it. The song was about the movie. Much like “Footloose” from earlier that year, “Ghostbusters” was an overt way to advertise a film through a catchy piece of music with the movie’s title as the song’s title (and chorus). Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! What movie you gonna see? Ghostbusters

The song and the film both came into the world almost exactly 39 years ago. And they’re both still very much part of our lives — for better or worse. To this day, I cringe whenever anyone innocently asks, “Who you gonna call?,” waiting for the inevitable, Pavolivian response from the other person. Such is the power of “Ghostbusters.”

Parker had had a whole career — a couple of them, actually — before that song. Born in 1954, he grew up in Detroit, taking to music at an early age. “I started at six years old on the clarinet and the saxophone, which I didn’t like that much, but I was really good at it,” he recalled earlier this year. “That’s why I learned to read music. I learned the technical things in music. Then, at about 10 years old, my brother had a cheap little $35 guitar. I just liked the guitar. You could play more than one note at a time, and play some chords, which I had never even considered when I was playing the saxophone and clarinet.”

He couldn’t have asked to have been raised in a more fertile musical environment. Detroit was home to Motown, and by his teens he was writing songs for other artists and developing as a session musician. He soon struck up a friendship with Stevie Wonder, playing on his albums and touring with the legend. “He taught me the whole thing,” Parker said of his friend’s creative influence on him. “He taught me how to write the songs, period. I didn’t really know what I was doing in the 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.” He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, keeping super-busy as a songwriter for hire. “I never have time to enjoy life,” he lamented in a 1978 Ebony interview. “I’ve been here all these years and haven’t even been to any of the nightclubs.” But soon Parker moved on from writing songs for others to starting his own group, Raydio, landing three songs in the Top 10 over the span of three years before the band broke up.

Parker kept going, releasing a solo album called The Other Woman in 1982, with the title track proving to be a massive hit. But his songs tended to be R&B love songs — he didn’t seem an obvious choice to write an uptempo pop call-and-response anthem. That’s why Parker was as surprised as anyone when he was approached by the Ghostbusters team to work on a theme song — and fast. As he recalled, “They showed me the film and said, ‘We have about 60 songs for this already, but we don’t like any of them. Can you come up with one?’”

His instructions were that the song be upbeat and had to feature the word “ghostbusters,” which was a bit of a challenge. (What rhymes with “ghostbusters”?) But once Parker hit upon the idea of having the word be the refrain in response to a question posed to the listener, he knew it would work. Still, there was a catch: At that point, “Ghostbusters” was just meant to be a short snippet of music to appear during an early scene in the movie at the New York Public Library. After hearing the song, though, director Ivan Reitman had a thought. “Ivan called me up and said, ‘I like what you’re doing with that, can it be longer? Can you make it a record? Can it be something else?’” Parker said in 2022. “I thought it was good for the film, but I was like, ‘You wanna make a record out of that?’ But he heard it clearly. In the parts I turned in, some were supposed to be background parts, but he wouldn’t even let me re-sing it! He said, ‘I like the way you’re signing it, the slang and everything’ — so we kept the demo because he loved it all. He thought it was a hit when nobody else did — including myself!”

Parker’s inspiration for the lyrics came from a moment in the film when the Ghostbusters, played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, are doing a television ad for their nascent paranormal-busting business. Not surprisingly, the resulting song sounded a little bit like a jingle, with the words explaining why you would need to call the Ghostbusters: 

If there’s something strange 
In your neighborhood 
Who you gonna call? 
If there’s something weird 
And it don’t look good 
Who you gonna call? 

Most of the instrumentation was done by Parker, a habit he’d developed early in his career after taking a page from the book of one-man band Wonder. “People say, ‘Why did you want to play all of the instruments and engineer it and do all the rest of the stuff?’ I’d say it’s not an ego thing, but in the beginning, I couldn’t afford to pay somebody!” Parker recalled. “But I didn’t want (to) be one of those people who’d say, ‘I wanted to have a demo tape, but somebody didn’t do this, so I couldn’t get it together.’ People didn’t want to hear that, so I had to do everything myself, at least in the beginning.” 

The music was premium synth-heavy cheesy goodness, balancing novelty-song silliness with what, at the time, felt like high-tech studio production. You could dance to “Ghostbusters,” it sounded slightly spooky (in a non-scary way) and that keyboard riff wouldn’t get out of your head. Plus, Parker’s lover-man charisma gave it a little sex appeal, his constant “Who you gonna call?” requests sounding a bit like a come-on. (Not to mention sly lines like “If you’re all alone / Pick up the phone” and “Lemme tell you something / Bustin’ makes me feel good.”) With its chorus of backup vocalists enthusiastically shouting “Ghostbusters!” — they were friends of Parker’s girlfriend — the song was a party that everybody wanted to be invited to. You couldn’t have asked for a better way to sell the film, which became a box-office colossus. Same for the single, which was No. 1 for three weeks. 

That summer, anything Ghostbusters-related became a phenomenon, and for Parker, it was a bit dizzying, especially since his reputation was for more grownup romantic songs. “Clive Davis was like, ‘You can’t be singing to a ghost. You’ve made your whole career singing to girls,’” he told SlashFilm. “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 and Bill and everyone to be in it, and then he expanded it even more. It was unbelievable.”

This explains why random celebrities like George Wendt, Chevy Chase, John Candy and Jeffrey Tambor are all featured in the “Ghostbusters” video yelling the title chorus. The sense of the song being a four-minute ad was only amplified by the music video, which included tons of clips for the film. “Ghostbusters” didn’t start a national dance craze like “The Twist,” but it captured the zeitgeist in a similar way, making the high-concept comedy seem like the coolest, funniest piece of pop culture on the planet. Parker figured out how to synthesize all that into a song, even if it did lead him to having to do some pretty dopey TV appearance to promote the track:

Ghostbusters ended up as the second-highest-grossing film of 1984, right behind Beverly Hills Cop, and the film earned two Oscar nominations, including one for Best Original Song. Perhaps fittingly, Parker lost to his mentor Stevie Wonder for “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which also bested Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose.” If “Ghostbusters” wasn’t ‘80s enough with its Jazzercise-ready beat and neon spectacle, Parker’s performance at the Academy Awards upped the face-palm quality to 11, with the singer inexplicably operating a forklift and bizarre guest stars showing up. “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,” Parker later admitted. “When we rehearsed it a few times, it was a lot of fun.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that “Ghostbusters” was everywhere at the time. Michael C. Gross, who was an associate producer on Ghostbusters and the man who designed the famous logo, noted in a Ghostbusters oral history, “(Radio) played it ad nauseam. Many people said to me, ‘I love your movie, but can you get them to stop playing that fucking song on the radio?’” 

Somebody who was especially annoyed was Huey Lewis. His band, Huey Lewis & the News, were becoming superstars thanks to their third album, 1983’s Sports, which had featured four Top 10 smashes, including the driving “I Want a New Drug.”

In that same oral history, Reitman admitted, “We kept looking for a song for the montage in the middle of the movie. I was a big Huey Lewis fan, and I put in ‘I Want a New Drug,’ as a temp score for screenings. And it seemed to be a perfect tempo, and we cut the montage to that tempo. When it was time to mix the movie, someone introduced me to Ray Parker Jr., and he comes back with a song called ‘Ghostbusters’ that has basically the same kind of riff in it. But it was a totally original song, original lyrics, original everything.”

Lewis didn’t agree, suing for plagiarism. “We decided to settle even though I think there’s a lot of songs that are similar to other songs, have the same beat,” Reitman said. “The fact that it had the same kind of bass hook doesn’t in itself mean a copyright infringement.” Parker and Lewis were barred from discussing specifics of the settlement as part of the agreement they signed, although this didn’t stop Lewis from complaining about the supposed plagiarism on Behind the Music, saying, “The offensive part was not so much that Ray Parker Jr. had ripped this song off, it was kind of symbolic of an industry that wants something — they wanted our wave, and they wanted to buy it. ... (I)t’s not for sale. ... In the end, I suppose they were right. I suppose it was for sale, because, basically, they bought it.” Parker successfully sued Lewis for his breaking of the agreement.

“I can’t talk about it because I don’t even know what happened,” Parker said in 2021 when asked about Lewis’ initial lawsuit. “I had the best lawyer in town. He says, ‘Do you want to know what happened?’ I said, ‘Does it have anything to do with my money?’ He said no. I said, ‘Well, then I don’t care.’ I think it was misconstrued in the press that Huey Lewis was suing me or something similar to that. It was really a lawsuit against Columbia Pictures and I was just named in it. I never met him. When people asked me what happened, I said I don’t know what happened. Nothing happened to me. I mean, right now, if you check the song, it says, ‘Written by Ray Parker Jr., published by Raydiola Music.’ So it’s the same as it was when I wrote it.”

Of course, Lewis and his band would have their own massive soundtrack hit the following year with “The Power of Love” from Back to the Future. But the lawsuit remains an amusing footnote to the Ghostbusters juggernaut, prompting enterprising YouTubers to craft their own “Ghostbusters”/“I Want a New Drug” mashups. And to be honest, the two songs do sound sorta similar:

Parker charted in the years following “Ghostbusters,” but he’d never again capture the public imagination as he did in 1984. As huge as the song had been, it was destined to be a dated time-capsule piece, although you still hear the track regularly around Halloween. “(I)t’s like having a new hit every year,” he told PopMatters. “When Halloween comes, I’ll go out with my kids or my wife to some party, and there will be kids there who go completely nuts … and I’ll have to sing a few bars of it or something. That’s always the case, but what a nice problem to have!” Parker laughed. “People say, ‘Are you tired of it?’ It’s like the winning lotto ticket. Do you want to give that ticket back? No, of course not!”

When the Ghostbusters team reunited for the 1989 sequel, Bobby Brown was chosen to pen the theme song, resulting in a track in which he rapped about proton packs. Years later, Sony tried to resurrect the franchise, resulting in the controversial 2016 “lady Ghostbusters” film that made the internet very angry. That uneven movie’s worst creative decision was tapping Fall Out Boy to do a rock remake of “Ghostbusters,” dragging poor Missy Elliott into it for no good reason. The results were excruciating, and even Parker struggled to be polite about the cover. ​​“I wish they had called me to maybe work with some of the younger guys and help them get a direction,” he said at the time. Dubbing Fall Out Boy’s take “interesting,” he added, “I’m just gonna say maybe I’m an old guy now and I like it the old way.” So did every human being on Earth with functioning ears.

By comparison, 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which was directed by Ivan Reitman’s son Jason, wasn’t quite as egregious in its “Ghostbusters” blasphemy, although it does feature a truly groan-worthy moment in which a character asks someone for a phone, prompting the other person to ask, without irony, “Who you gonna call?” Fan-service pandering has rarely been so embarrassing. 

“Who you gonna call?” is the question Ray Parker Jr. asked the world so long ago, and it’s a line he gets quoted back to him all the time. Appropriately, it was also the title of a recent documentary about the man, which sought to remind viewers that he’s way more than just the Ghostbusters guy. (Remarkably, he also had a chance to write the theme for the Mel Brooks sci-fi comedy Spaceballs, which he turned down. “I didn’t do it because I was too busy fooling around, doing something, chasing girls or water-skiing,” Parker said, which is, frankly, an amazing explanation.)

But despite all his other hits and his work with legendary artists like Stevie Wonder, he knows “Ghostbusters” will be the first line of his obituary. He’s fine with that, and he’s fine with shows like Key & Peele goofing on him, with Jordan Peele playing Parker as a guy who’s secretly written songs for everything from Gummo to The Passion of the Christ in the style of his Ghostbusters theme. “I thought it was wonderful,” Parker later said of the sketch.

Every decade has high-sugar, empty-calorie singles, but the 1980s seemed to have more than its share, with artists (prompted by MTV) dedicated to going for flash and bombast. “Ghostbusters” is very dumb, but it’s also very fun. You probably don’t seek the song out, but when it comes on, it’s hard to resist. And it instantly makes you think of the film, which was always the idea from the start.

As for singing more Ghosbusters songs, Parker seems okay with the fact that that particular ship has sailed. After all, he wasn’t asked to contribute anything to Ghostbusters: Afterlife. “Maybe in one of the films after that,” he shrugged. But then he admitted, “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.”  

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