There’s something of a known canon of Christmas songs. Most of them are jazz-influenced standards from 1935–54. While there’s an occasional breakout (like genuine all-timer “All I Want for Christmas Is You”), there’s a certain style and sound that says “Christmas” to us.
Halloween is more of a mixed bag. There are a few novelty hits from the early days of rock ’n’ roll, like Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” and dozens of songs with spooky themes, like “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins’ ”I Put a Spell On You,” that usually make the mix, but there aren’t many as essential as Ray Parker, Jr’s “Ghostbusters” theme.
Ray Parker, Jr. had a career before “Ghostbusters.” He started as a musician in Detroit, doing session work (in songs like Honey Cone’s “Want Ads”) and co-writing songs with the likes of Marvin Gaye. He performed with Stevie Wonder and co-wrote a hit for Chaka Khan with Rufus (“You Got the Love”). He had several R&B hits with his band Raydio before going solo in the early ’80s, and had a #4 hit as a solo artist in 1982.
Then ”Ghostbusters” happened. Propelled by a star-studded video (directed by Ivan Reitman and featuring a murderer’s row of celebrities, including Irene Cara, John Candy and Peter Falk), the runaway success of the movie, and its own phenomenal catchiness, “Ghostbusters” spent three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song (it lost to Stevie Wonder). Parker would have other songs and successes — notably, he produced some of New Edition’s early singles, thus helping to father both boy band culture and New Jack Swing — but what everyone remembers is “Ghostbusters.”
Movie themes don’t normally take over the world, much less a holiday. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” might be better remembered as the song Jack Black complains about in High Fidelity than it is for The Lady in Red. Usually a movie or a song is remembered, but not both. (Key and Peele have a pretty famous bit about the challenge of finding a good theme song…) Somehow, both “Ghostbusters” the song and Ghostbusters the movie hung on together, in part because the bone-simple premise of the movie meant the hook was equally straightforward. Even the structure of the lyrics, calling back to the kind of late-night TV ads you still see once in a while, is easy to grasp. You’ve got a problem? You know who to call.
The songwriting is solid, but I think there’s something special in the performance and arrangement, too. Parker’s delivery is warm and knowing, like he’s letting you in on a special secret. He doesn’t overperform or make the song seem more serious than it is; you can hear the smile in his voice. The shouted chorus encourages everyone to sing, or shout, along. It sounds great when it’s blasted at top volume. The spooky special effects add to the theme, but they’re not so overwhelming as to be distracting. It’s a perfect pop single, and that was more than enough to make it a Halloween staple.
Parker’s website is a bit dormant — he released a podcast in 2018 — and the most recent interview I could find was from December of last year. A documentary about him and his career was supposed to be making the festival circuit this spring. I hope wherever he is right now, he’s doing well.
Stray ob-SCARE-vations: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was, for many years, the big competitor with “Ghostbusters” for Halloween dominance, but the tainted legacy of both Jackson and video director John Landis has knocked it down a bit in the pantheon.
Huey Lewis sued Columbia Pictures and Parker for copyright infringement, citing similarities to “I Want a New Drug.” Everyone settled out of court, and Parker later sued Lewis for breaching the terms of the settlement. Snitches get sued, I guess. At any rate, we were all saved another “He’s So Fine”/“My Sweet Lord” or “Got To Give It Up”/“Blurred Lines” situation, so thanks, everyone.
Ray Parker, Jr. also made an appearance on Kids Incorporated, thus also tying him to the later emergence of Fergie. Can’t win ’em all.