Long before he was famous for his band Raydio or solo smashes like “The Other Woman” and the Oscar-nominated Ghostbusters theme, Ray Parker Jr. was an in-demand musician in his native Detroit, from the age of 15 playing and writing with luminaries like Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Bill Withers, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Herbie Hancock and Marvin Gaye. It’s an illustrious career chronicled in his upcoming documentary, Who You Gonna Call?, but the film also examines the unrest of Detroit in the ’60s and Parker’s own mistreatment by police — and how little has changed in the decades since.
“First of all, in the film I think you actually hear me say, ‘We’re right on the brink of a riot, and I don’t know how they’re going to fix it,’” Parker tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “Well, I said that a year and a half ago [when the documentary was filmed]! The world’s been heating up like this for some time. There’s a bunch of crazy people, police shooting at other people and people shooting each other in the back. And I don’t understand. I don’t really get why anybody would want to do anything crazy like that. But I guess we live in a crazy world where some people are taught [racism] from their grandparents or their parents, and they can’t let some of this stuff go.”
Parker recalls being hassled by Detroit cops starting around his preteen years. “That was the reason why I never played basketball. If they caught us playing basketball, they’d take our basketball, hold us up by ankles, take our little 10 cents out of our pockets, take your jelly beans and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “And then they’d smack you around, make you wet your pants. Then the worst part is they’d drive us a mile away from home and drop us off. And then you have to walk back, try to figure out how to get home. They’d scare you half to death. And these are big guys when you’re only 12 years old.”
However, Parker recalls that his “worst beating” happened a couple of years later. “I have no idea why [the police] stopped me. I was just getting on the bus to go to school, and they drew their guns, took me in the alley and that was it. You get a beatdown once they take you in the alley. And they don’t arrest you, they don’t tell you what’s wrong. They just start beating. And I’ve remembered my best friend Nathan, his mother came out on the porch and saved me. She saw what they were doing and she said, ‘What are you doing with him? He’s a good kid!’ And then they just let me go. And that was that.”
Sadly, Parker, who grew up in the neighborhood where the 1967 Detroit riots took place when he was 13 years old, and also had a nephew who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, became accustomed to these near daily situations. “I’m not going to say it changed my mental mind or anything, because that happened a lot. I mean, I wish I could tell you it was an isolated incident,” he says. “Every time the police would come around, everybody would break and just run and hop over fences and disappear. Ever since I was a little kid, 7 or 8 years old, that’s just normal behavior in the neighborhood.”
Parker eventually took up the guitar because he saw music as a “way out,” but once he was traveling the country, he realized that not everyone — not even his wife of 26 years, Elaine — could relate to what he’d gone through.
“My wife is from Oregon. One day we were looking at TV and there was a Black guy running from the police and they had the helicopter on him with the spotlight and police cars were chasing him with a news crew,” Parker recalls. “My wife said, ‘Look at that guy, he’s guilty!’ I said, ‘What makes you think he’s guilty? Just because he’s running from the police doesn’t mean he’s guilty. I grew up in Detroit, and if the police came to us, the first thing you do is run — because if they catch you, you may not live! So you’ve got to outrun the police.’ I said, ‘He may on his way into the police station, so he could find sanctuary at the police station. But of course, you gotta run. When the police come around, that’s just what everybody does. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s guilty.’ So she had to learn something that day. And I had to learn something, because we were watching the same TV show, but we were thinking 180 degrees apart.”
All this being said, even though Parker no longer lives in Detroit and his film features a bittersweet scene of him visiting the city, he still has fond memories of his upbringing; in Who You Gonna Call?, he proclaims that he’s “proud to be a Detroiter and proud to be part of the dream” and calls his hometown the “land of opportunity” because it launched his career. And when speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, he recalls how music was the great unifier and equalizer then — just as it was when he played guitar on Bill Withers’s 1977 hit “Lovely Day” or when he scored the No. 1 song of 1984 with “Ghostbusters,” and just as it continues to be now.
“Even in Detroit, when things got racially tense, I could go into the white neighborhood and play,” Parker says. “I played Jewish bar mitzvahs, weddings, and everybody would come together when it came to music. And I noticed that music made everybody happy. … It didn’t matter whether it be white or black, what mattered was whether you were going to get down! If you were going to jam and get down, then all was forgiven. … And long as you were getting down, you were fine. They listened to the music playing and they were dancing and grooving to the music, so even back then, that’s [how] we were able to repair the whole world.”
“As for what happened to [Ray], him being beaten by some obviously ignorant police using race and their fear and their dislike against someone that God had a greater plan for, it’s sad. And I’m sure that life had beaten them up,” Parker’s friend and mentor Stevie Wonder summarizes in the Who You Gonna Call? film. “As to what he was able to do in his life through that, he was able to achieve a blessing of working on his music and discovering his gift. So in the end, he wins. Those who are haters lost.”
The above interview is taken from a portion of Ray Parker Jr.’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.