JOHNNIE RAY (by Colin Kilgour)

Born John Alvin Ray, 10 January 1927, Oregon
Died 24 February 1990, Los Angeles, California

First up, a nod of appreciation to Dave Penny's BTBWY posting on 10/1/02

Poor old Johnnie Ray sang Dexy in "Come On Eileen"

Johnnie Ray was born at a farmhouse just a few miles from Hopewell, Oregon, near what later became Salem. Johnnie was Elmer and Hazel Ray's second child, his elder sister was named Elma (geddit?)

Johnnie's parents were from Oregon themselves as well, the Northern Willamette Valley. Hazel Simkins was reared in Dallas, Oregon, and Elmer Ray in Zena. They married in 1908, Elma was born January 13, 1922 at Spring Valley where Elmer worked for a local farmer. It's interesting that Johnny was born after his parents had been married some 20 years

Contrary to past bios and press releases (even on album cover liner notes), Johnnie Ray was not part Blackfoot Indian. Press agents circulated a story that Johnnie's childhood Indian name was "Little White Cloud" and when asked in an interview at the height of his popularity, what Indian blood he had, Johnnie looked at his shoes and came up with "Blackfoot" ....... it stuck forever

Elma once said that their parents realised that Johnnie had some kind of talent early on, so they sent him to an organ player in their church named 'Uncle' Will Caldwell. Elma said Will would like to have taught Johnnie, but Johnnie was a source of bewilderment to 'Uncle' Will because if Johnnie heard something once, he could play it

When a 13 year-old at a Scout Jamboree, Johnny sustained a blow to his left ear during a blanket toss session. This left him partly deaf and a botched operation followed which left him hearing-impaired in both ears and he wore a hearing-aid from the age of 14 and throughout his career

Johnnie's distinctive style is attributed to the fact that he had to over-enunciate words and phrases in his performances

In 1941 when Johnnie was 14 and with the arrival of the war to the US, Elmer Ray moved his family to Portland, Oregon, where Johnnie lied about his age and got a job as a welder in the shipyards there

Johnnie's sister Elma's record collection inspired him with Billie Holliday, Kay Starr (who spoke eloquently of Johnnie's early days at his funeral in 1990) and others. One weekend in 1947 Johnnie drove to see Kay perform live and managed to meet her. She told him that with his talents it would be a sin not to pursue a show business career

America's first bisexual superstar, Johnnie has been considered by some musical historians as the 'missing link' between Frank Sinatra & Elvis Presley, arriving on the scene as audiences were losing interest in Sinatra and before Presley emerged. Johnny re-created the bobby-sox mayhem that elevated Frankie, whilst anticipating the sexual chaos that later accompanied The Pelvis

He was certainly a performer who would put on a show that could never adequately be reproduced on a phonograph record and helped to evolve the "teen idol" fan world, that became a permanent staple in popular music since Johnnie's emergence onto the scene in 1951

Ray's effect temporarily condemned Sinatra to the dark ages. Johnnie had the nation's ear and The Voice's records no longer sold in their hitherto high quantities. As a barometer, later in 1956, The Las Vegas Sun would proclaim Elvis Presley as "the most important singing find since Johnnie Ray". Many critics credit Sinatra AND Ray for actually starting the whole genre of Teen Idolism

Johnnie was one of the first, if not the first, to take the microphone off of the stand and roam, run and scream over an entire stage. The first to really move himself and play the audience. He would touch, tease, kiss and hold white-knuckled onto that microphone, for security

Historians often refer to Buddy Holly and Elvis as being the guys who broke the colour barrier by sounding black but Johnnie Ray was the first prominent artist to enter the charts under that guise. He did break the mould. Up until his performances at the dawn of the fifties, all pre-rock crooners were uniformly stylised with a big band background. Crooners had to act cool and give the appearance of never perspiring. Not only did Johnnie sweat buckets, he behaved with the kind of wild abandon that revealed a persona born of an early career working black clubs and gin mills

He was heavily influenced by gospel and R & B music and performed in bars and clubs around Detroit in the late 40s, singing to his own piano accompaniment. He was finally discovered at the Flame Bar, a notorious stop on the black R&B circuit and the No. 1 black nightclub in that city

Dave Marsh in his excellent book 'The Heart Of Rock & Soul' in reviewing 'You're So Fine' by The Falcons, calls it arguably the first soul hit and goes on to describe vocalist Joe Stubbs's mournful lead as "owing much to Detroit's tradition of crying singers, which included Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson and Johnnie Ray"

Radio listeners speculated as to whether Johnnie was man or woman, white or black

A friend and proponent of, and early acknowledged influence on Elvis Presley, he even broke Martin and Lewis's huge attendance record at the Copacabana ........ he was some performer who had some impact on the scene

At the start of the 50s fans were looking for music with more of a kick in it. Big bands may have provided it but bookers were not prepared generally speaking, to fund the wherewithal for up to 20 players. Columbia (Philips in UK) had in Ray, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine, a kind of 'Holy Trinity' of performers who could grab and hold the attention

At this time, Frankie's virile muscle-bound voice was very popular with record buyers. Guy whose records were replete with French horns and hand-clapping choruses, dealt with unusual subjects such as coconuts, red feathers, shirt cuffs and a certain pawnshop on a corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Johnny for his part, became a howling success

His emotional delivery became staple for stand up comics and mimics. He was married to Marilyn Morrison from '52 to '54, when they were divorced

In the early 60s he suffered from financial problems and alcoholism. He eventually turned to cabaret and in the UK where he had always been in demand, he headlined until the late 80s

His death came after a lifelong intake of pills and liquor. Johnnie died quietly in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles aged 63 with no fanfare, in a hospital room in 1990 from complications of liver disease

The Music: Having had his demos rejected by Capitol, Johnnie signed for Columbia Records in 1951, his first releases however were on their small Okeh label, usually reserved for black artists.

As J's first hits were so early it's difficult to track them accurately, as the chart books I use don't kick in until January 1955 (US) and the timing of the first official UK chart in November 52. One of those early Okeh releases 'Cry' sold a phenomenal 2 million+ in its initial run

It has been recorded by many artists from Patti Page to Crystal Gale but no one has been able to top the eleven straight weeks at number one for Johnnie's version in 1951/2

Word has it that Churchill Kohlman, the writer of "Cry" (pictured below) and a night watchman in a Pittsburgh dry cleaning factor was very unhappy with Ray's version. He had wanted it to be a country song. Doubtless he didn't return the royalty cheques!

It was difficult to know which side was the top seller as people would ask for the record by both names. Total sales are said to now be upwards of 40 million copies

'Cry' and it's flip 'The Little White Cloud That Cried' [a Ray composition] were recorded 10/51, the former with Toronto's finest, The Four Lads as 'chorus'. 'Such A Night' was committed to wax in Feb. of '54, some three months after the version by lead tenor Clyde McPhatter and the other Drifters

The arrangement (it seems Ray more or less copied The Drifters') was certainly purloined some six years later by Elvis and the team for ex Private 53310761's first post-army recording session (album 'Elvis is Back')

'Night' was one of 3 logged UK No. 1s, along with 'Yes Tonight Josephine' and 'Just Walkin' in The Rain' which was a catchy remake of The Prisonaires on Sun [other references follow]. Other hits incl. the show tunes 'Hernando's Hideaway' and 'Hey There' and revivals of older standards such as 'Walkin' My Baby Back Home', 'Somebody Stole My Gal', 'Who's Sorry Now' & 'Ain't Misbehavin'. He also had hits with quasi-religious material like 'Faith Can Move Mountains', 'If You Believe' and 'Paths of Paradise'

For the week of March 6, 1952, Johnnie owned half of the Top 6 positions on the national music charts in America. Number 1 that week was "Cry", Number 3 was "Please Mr. Sun," and Number 6 was "The Little White Cloud That Cried"

By the end of 1952 Johnnie Ray Enterprises Inc. was reported as the first business in Pop Music history to come up with marketing merchandise for a star and capitalise on it. He earned one million dollars for the year and for the next decade, worked 40 to 50 weeks out of every year

Johnnie flew to London in March 1953 with a small entourage to start a three-week performance at the world reknowned London Palladium

His last hit was the most excellent (tango-ish) "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" as the fifties became the sixties and a whole new deal was looming which would mean a chart shutdown for Johnny and his kind

John was undoubtedly in that category of artists who were considerably more popular in the UK than back in their home territory. Certainly his open bisexuality and brushes with the law, caused his star to wane in the US

One of his best for me is 'Look Homeward Angel' with its strangely 'High Noon' vamp section of an impressive intro. Great song, great orchestration, superb performance

That track was recorded June 29 1956 along with 'Just Walkin' in The Rain' in New York, session leader Ray Conniff, musicians incl. guitar man Al Caiola

Ray's version of Walkin' in The Rain was cut some three years after the original on Sun and others incl. Gene Autry had recorded the song. Johnnie's session included the input of a 'professional whistler', whatever one of them was ........ clearly a guy who puckered up - or should that be pursed?

Stateside the song was pegged back at #2, unable to budge from top spot, such blockbusters as Elvis' Love Me Tender, Jim Lowe's The Green Door and label mate Guy Mitchell's Singing the Blues

A nice not often heard track is John's version of the Marty Robbins' number 'You Don't Owe Me A Thing' which was the flip-side of 'Angel'. JR did duets with the likes of (label stable mates) Frankie Laine and Doris Day. He also cut a creditable version of Clyde Otis' classic 'Endlessly' in January 1958. That and 'Plant A Little Kiss' were recorded in Hollywood and per the booklet*, Johnnie did criss cross the US for his recording sessions ........ maybe occasioned by his movie-making out west

The 'biggies' however were from when John was in a New York state of mind

The Bear Family notes* for my JR/CD collection 'Cry' incls. in the details for the 26/5/57 session, the minutiae that as well as Caiola, Tony Mottola (later a Sinatra stalwart) also played guitar and that Tony and leader Ray Conniff accrued '1 hour overtime'

Ray moved to the Cadence label in 1960 and thereafter to Liberty in Hollywood where he did a live album with Timi Yuro and a new version of 'Cry'. After a few singles on Decca he concentrated on the lucrative personal appearance circuit

He toured the world extensively incl. 19 tours of Australia - also the Far East & Africa (+36 tours of Europe). Tony Bennett said "He ripped the London Palladium apart, it was the first time pandemonium hit that scene"

Really his movie 'career' was no big thing. I saw a quote that with Hollywood beckoning he side-stepped rock and embraced schlock. If so, it was the wrong decision. His second movie was the acclaimed 'There's No Business Like Show Business' with Johnnie playing a young singer who decides to be a priest

The film had an all-star cast, which not surprisingly outclassed John in the acting department. He said later "I am constantly asked why I never made other films after "There's No Business Like Show Business" - the answer is, I was never asked"

That anecdote doesn't sit quite squarely with an account that he extracted himself shortly before shooting, from 'The Best Things In Life Are Free', reportedly finding the dull routine of filming not suited to his temperament

He also dabbled in the legitimate stage with work in Bus Stop and Guys & Dolls

Ray Trivia Would become enraged if anyone misspelled his name as 'Johnny'

Best man at Judy Garland's wedding to Mickey Deans

Morrissey, the lead singer of The Smiths, often performed with a hearing aid (though not hearing impaired himself) in honour of Johnnie Ray ---------------------- To give a flavour of what it was all about, here's a nice piece by Robert W. Dana from February 1953 at the Copacabana club

Ray's Audience Swells Flood Of His Tears

.......... with Johnnie (Mr. Weeper) Ray as star of the show. While cry boy delivers his lachrymose songs, the on-lookers stamp and clap, weep and groan and by the time Mr. Ray completes his whining, stammering performance, an indescribable hypnotic spell seems to have been cast over the entire audience. Mr. Ray's opening number a peppy tune called "You Go Your Way, I Gotta Go Mine" offered little indication of what was to come. Gradually he became sadder and sadder with renditions of "The Touch of God's Hand" and "The Little White Cloud"

No sooner did he sing the opening notes of "Cry" than a girl sitting at the ringside burst into tears. The gallant Mr. Ray handed her his handkerchief but that only made the girl weep harder, out of sheer joy no doubt. His interpretation of "Walk and Talk With The Lord" was accompanied by vigorous clapping from the audience and then Mr. Ray, his face wet with perspiration and panting from exhaustion, walked off amid a thunderous ovation

Ray never considered himself a singer in the Tony Bennett or Vic Damone bracket but as a song stylist, a performer and communicator. He was a pivotal figure in pulling American popular music out of the post-war doldrums and was aware of the part he played

He said later "My only real claim to fame is that I was an original. Before me there were the people like Russ Columbo, Perry Como, Crosby, Sinatra ........ they were more or less, stand-up singers. I revolutionised all of that. I imagine that I paved the way for what was to come, which was to be called rock and roll ......... and which was really no more than a bastardised version of rhythm and blues. That's the only form of music which is inherently American. America cannot really take credit for the origination of any other type of music, other than blues"

He should be remembered as one of the greatest of the transition singers between the crooners and the rockers


Colin Kilgour: February 2004

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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