Ray Parker Jr. wrote the theme song for the hit movie Ghostbusters. And you’ll be shocked at how quickly it came together!
Ghostbusters (the song) is a hit song from one of the most pivotal decades in music, the 80s. Released in 1984, the song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, spending 3 weeks in peak position.
Interview with Ray Parker Jr. and Adam Reader
AR: Well, in 1984 how could you prepare for the life-changing event that would be The Ghostbusters song? It was the number one pop song sold in the US, France, Canada, Belgium, Africa. Top five worldwide. It was the number one song on my birthday.
RP: On your birthday? Okay, cool.
AR: I turned eight years old. I was pulling for it coz I was listening to top 40 Canada every week. And of course being a fan of the movie and when I first heard the song I thought you were Lando Calrissian. You know when you’re a little kid you don’t think, “Oh that’s Billy D. Williams.” You don’t think of the actor. Like, “Lando Calrissian singing The Ghostbusters song. This is amazing.”
RP: And later somebody posted on Facebook a picture of me and Billy Dee Williams at the same time with different ages. But they went back and got a picture of him and we look just alike. It’s hard to tell one from the other. We’re facing the same way, our hair there’s same.
AR: You rocked the mustache like nobody else.
RP: Yeah, yeah. We had the old mustache. That’s back when the mustache would’ve been black you know?
AR: You were approached by the film producers to create the theme song. You only had a couple of days, as I remember…
Answering the call to write the Ghostbusters theme song
RP: I’m a spiritual guy and these things happen. My parents were getting sick at the time. And my parents are my favorite people in the world. I talk to my mom and dad on the phone every day. So I sort of went back to Detroit and was hanging out in Detroit for a long time not doing anything and I got a phone call from Gerald Busby to see this band called The New Edition and they were playing in Boston.
I’m in Detroit, it’s winter time. It’s freezing cold in January and he’s asking me to come to Boston. I’m like, “I don’t think so.” So, he being a smart guy, he said, “Let’s get the jet and let’s go to the Bahamas. They’re playing in the Bahama’s next month.”
I’m like, “Oh, the Bahama’s? I’m in”
So we go and we party so hard in the Bahama’s. Which I needed. It was a break from Detroit and all the sickness and stuff that was going on. Then we actually missed the show of The New Edition. I didn’t get to hear them perform the song. So I thought that they wanted me to write a song for them. I didn’t know what he wanted. And he looks at me and says, “No, you don’t have to write a song. They want to cut one of your old songs.” And when I wrote Jack and Jill I wrote this other song called Mr. Telephone.
Well, they wanted to record MR. Telephone. I was like, “Why would anybody wanna record that song? That’s an old song. I didn’t record it. What you doing with that?”
And so they said, “Yeah, we want it. And they want to record it the old way. Just like you cut it back in the day you know what I’m saying?”
I said, “Oh okay. I don’t have that track but I’ll make a track just like it.”
So that was the first time I’d been in L.A in a while and I still had my studio so I flew back to do that. And while I was recording, the same week, the phone rings and it’s Gary saying, “You got to help me on this film. You’re the guy to do it. I know you can do it.”
In fact even Lindsey Buckingham got approached to write it and different people like that. All these famous people were approached to write it. But they don’t like any of the songs. 60 songs they didn’t like any of them.
And a whole year or so was gone by. And Gary says, “Man we got a problem. The director
And he says, “I’ll pay you to stay two or three more days to do it.”
I remember reading that he said, “I need something happy, fun, simple with Ghostbusters in the title.
A challenging song to
He gave me very specific direction. He says, “I want a saxophone line in it.” ‘Cause he wanted it to sound like bar band music.
So I know we’re gonna play those chords. That’s bar band, that’s what a bar band does. You know, to be uptempo. Don’t make it too slow ’cause the movie’s got action in. It needs to get going.
And I was thinking to myself, “I don’t know what to do.” And I thought “Should be simple. He wants some bar band thing.” Then he throws a curve at the end of the meeting, “But I want the word Ghostbusters in the song.
I was like, “Ghostbusters.” And he said, “Yeah, Ghostbusters.”
It sounds stupid when you just sing it. I mean, there’s no way you can say this word. Then it occurred to me… No wonder he got 60 songs and no winners! This is a helluva job.
No wonder they’re paying me. This is impossible. But there’s a part in the movie where the Ghostbusters had their backpacks and they got their things and got the phone number underneath it…
“Pick up your phone and call the professionals. Our courteous and efficient staff is on call 24 hours a day to serve all your supernatural elimination needs. We’re ready to believe you.”
So four in the morning, I’m sleepy. All the music’s done. I got no words. None. And then there’s a commercial that comes on T.V.
And I think it’s a pesticide or commercial. I don’t know what it is but something like that and the guys had their bug machines or whatever it was. The pesticide spray thing. And it had a phone number and it said
I’m like, “That looks like the Ghostbusters.”
Well, I realized I had to say “Who ya gonna call?” If I do that, it allows me to \never say the word Ghostbusters. Then I’m gonna have the crowd answer “Ghostbusters.” It’s who you call.
Because it’s a crowd, they’re not really in the record. They’re not musical. So that takes away the word Ghostbusters. That gets it out of the song. So we can have a song. And I could sing “Who ya gonna call?”
Recording the vocals for Ghostbusters
Then I was dating this girl at the time who’s now my oldest son’s mother but she was pretty young at the time. She got her friends together and they came to the studio and sang the line at like 7:30 in the morning before they went to class. And they just sound so excited!
They were just yelling “Ghostbusters!”
I told them, “All you got to do is scream Ghostbusters a few times and I got it.” Man, they screamed this thing and they were so excited.
And the magic that happened is you got me from Detroit with my sort of Detroit accent. “Who ya gonna call?”
But then you got these valley girls with that Los Angeles Valley accent screaming “Ghostbusters!” So it’s like East meets West and it just worked.
AR: Well, the call response is brilliant because that goes way back in music. It goes back to jazz. Probably further, right? The other thing that’s brilliant about it is you have people shouting it so anybody can sing it.
RP: You’re involving everybody. “Who ya gonna call?”
And then they’re gonna answer.
AR: So, it’s just so brilliant for a movie. The other thing too is that the three most memorable lines have become part of our everyday lingo.
“Who you gonna call?”
“I ain’t afraid of no ghost….”
RP: And, “Busting it makes me feel good.”
AR: And that’s the kind of thing you put on a t-shirt. So, take us through it a little bit if, you don’t mind. I’d love to hear you play it.
RP: Well, first of all, we’re gonna go back to those same two chords. And by the way, people think it’s a simple song and most bar bands mess it up because the magic’s in the guitar part. And the guitar doesn’t play on a down beat like … it plays on two, rest. Then you got to have this rhythm…
So it lands on the interesting beat right? Then the other part is actually triplet time. So it’s actually a little funkier than you would think. But in order to play it right, everything has to be military time. It has to be stiff. So the guitar’s a little loose ’cause it plays that rhythm but everything else is … and it’s very Gestapo, very military.
Everything is marching. And when I hear bands play it in clubs, if they don’t play the marching thing, if they don’t pay attention to that, it starts to sound really corny.
AR: Yeah and it’s got
RP: Well, thank you.
AR: It came together. The nuances and the bridge.
Collaborating with Martin Page
Martin Page: Brian played guitar. My partner and I were literally in town for about a week or something. And Diane who was working with Ray Parker said, “Go across and meet with him.” And he was very interested in Owner of Lonely Heart and all this new stuff that was coming on the radio.
So he said, “Come in and play on this track.” And all we heard was like, “Who you gonna call? Who you gonna call.” And we thought, “Well this isn’t very good. The first thing we’re on sounds crap.”
And then, within two weeks, it was a number one hit and we had played on the track. Ray was instrumental in helping us get through the door.
And they came up with some of those great little parts and stuff and was just … I’m telling you there was nothing we could do wrong to this song.
RP: Everything fit in.
AR: You said you’re a spiritual man.
RP: This was one of those moments.
AR: There was a hand in that.
RP: Brian came over with the little guitar lines. It was just perfect. There was just nothing we could do wrong about that song. Everything just locked in.
AR: Well then of course Martin Page a couple of years later wrote some number one hits himself.
So, the video, I mean perfect for the ’80s with the neon lights. And you had the neon microphone, and you’re perfect for the video.
A cultural pronunciation, straight outta Detroit
RP: Let me tell you about the video. We were panic-stricken. Ivan Wrightman called about the line “I ain’t ‘
That’s supposed to be background vocals. I just put that on there so he could see where it’s gonna go.
And then Ivan calls up saying, “I like the way you’re singing it.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He says, “I’m not afraid of any ghosts.”
We’re having this moment on the phone where the culture is conflicting.
He’s like, “What are you saying?” I said, “I ain’t ‘
AR: I ain’t afraid of no ghost.
No. I ain’t ‘
I said, “That’s how we say it in Detroit.” And he just kept saying it over and over and he’s like, “I like the way you’re saying it.”
It was just the conflict of cultures that made it interesting. And so he said don’t put the background singers on I just like it like that. He says, “But it needs to be longer.” This is a couple of days later.
He says, “It needs to be longer.” And he said, “Well maybe we should make a record.” I was like, “Record? I only cut like a minute and a half of it.”
The Ghostbusters theme song becomes a hit
And he’s talking about making it a record. So now that presents a whole ‘
And we’re really getting scared. I mean everybody laughed. Not ’cause it’s the biggest record in the world but at the time we were like, “Well maybe we shouldn’t let it be a single.
And I sort of came up with the idea. I said, “Well you know if you’ve got Dan Aykroyd. If you do the Saturday night live guys on it with me. Maybe it would just be a spoof like for Saturday night live and it won’t be a serious video maybe they won’t take it as serious.”
Then Ivan Wrightman took that idea and just ran with it. He said, “Let’s put everybody in the video.” I was like, “Okay well I guess that could work.”
And so that’s how the video came to be.
AR: And you have all these cameo’s and I remember as a kid thinking, “You got John Candy and Irene Cara…”
RP: Yeah, everybody’s in it. Carly Simon, Chevy Chase swallowing the cigarette.
AR: George Wendt, Al Franken, Terry Garr, and Peter Falk. I mean I can’t even name all of them. There’s so many of them. But I love it when you pull off the shirt like Superman and it’s Ghostbusters, you know? And the shorts. I mean I’ve got a picture of myself when I’m eight years old holding two fish in my hands. And the Ghostbusters shirt.
And then there’s a picture of my son. He’s eight years old, and he’s got a Ghostbusters shirt on. I mean it’s just awesome.
RP: Yeah. The most amazing thing is that the kids know what it is. Doesn’t matter what age they are.
AR: No, they’re excited!
RP: And it’s starting all over because of the new Ghostbusters movie that came out a couple of years ago.
AR: It’s a cultural thing.
RP: Yeah it is. They hear it on the T.V. they know the song, they know the thing and they start smiling you know.
AR: Yeah. Well,
RP: You can’t show Ghostbusters in like a cartoon and reference it somewhere without having the song.
AR: You can’t, you know? Which is good for you.
RP: It’s wonderful for me. They want it!
Creating the Ghostbusters music video
AR: Tell us about jamming with the Ghostbusters at the end. Bill Murray and the rest of the guys. I remember you teaching Bill Murray how to break dance.
RP: I never met the guys till that moment and so I flew to New York and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know why we were flying to New York, but okay. I figured the Ghostbusters guys, they’re in New York.
So Friday at one o’clock they decide to shut down Times Square, the whole thing. I’m like, “Wow, these are some big shots if you can shut down Times Square. Ya gonna stop the traffic? The police are gonna allow you to do this?”
So we’re out dancing in Times Square, you know, and Bill Murray came up with the idea of break dancing. And then he said, “Hey, spin me around.” So now he’s got me spinning him around. It was just the craziest thing and I don’t know where that dance came from.
Then we started to do like the spooky dance. That you do for spooks.
AR: Like the Micheal Jackson Thriller kind of thing. Yeah that kind of spooky dance.
And the Oscar goes to…
RP: The craziest thing was, we were nominated for an Oscar, and we won a Grammy. You know who beat me?
AR: That was the year Stevie Wonder beat you. Just Called to Say I Love You.
RP: And I beat him in England. I got the Bafta award. But you know that’s bittersweet. Had I won the Oscar I don’t think me and Stevie would’ve ever
And they didn’t ask him to perform, they asked me to perform and I’m sitting behind them and I’m talking to him. He didn’t say a word to me. He was like, dead quiet.
AR: Yeah in fact that year they didn’t ask Phil Collins to perform either.
RP: No, no it was just me. And it was dead quite sitting there.
I’m sitting with Stevie Wonder and I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know what to do here. If I win I’m obviously gonna thank him ’cause he showed me how to write songs. But he’ll never speak to me again. That’ll just be the end of that. I know he’ll never talk to me again.”
And so when he won then he gave me a big hug and all was well.
What an honor. The guy who taught me how to write songs who I think is a genius of the 20th century. I’m nominated for an Oscar against him.
AR: That’s amazing. So, talk about Hollywood movies. It’s been used in the cartoon series, the video games, Lego Dimensions, Stranger Things 2.
RP: Yeah, that’s a nice thing, yeah. I saw that the other day.
AR: Anchorman 2, Dancing with the Stars, Big Bang Theory. If I had to list all of the movies or T.V. shows that have used the song we’d be here all day.
Ghostbusters is gonna last. W
The Ghostbusters theme song spans multiple generations
RP: It’s a wonderful thing. One of the best things about it is, when my kids were growing up, I was their hero.
AR: Well, I told you when I was telling my kids that I was coming out to interview you, they freaked out. They love Ghostbusters as much as I did. And when I was a kid I started a rumor at my elementary school after I saw your video and I said, “Yeah Ray Parker Junior’s gonna be in Ghostbusters 2. He’s gonna take over Winston’s spot.”
RP: Yeah. Well I got to tell you the best part of the song is when I see five or 10-year-old kids and they’re smiling and happy. And everywhere I go