|Birth name||John Alvin Ray|
January 10, 1927|
Hopewell, Oregon, United States
|Died||February 24, 1990
Los Angeles, United States
John Alvin "Johnnie" Ray (January 10, 1927 – February 24, 1990) was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. Extremely popular for most of the 1950s, Ray has been cited by critics as a major precursor of what would become rock and roll, for his jazz and blues-influenced music and his animated stage personality. Tony Bennett credits Ray as being the true father of rock and roll.
The publication, British Hit Singles & Albums, noted that Ray was "a sensation in the 1950s, the heart-wrenching vocal delivery of 'Cry' ... influenced many acts including Elvis and was the prime target for teen hysteria in the pre-Presley days."
In the United States in 1952 Ray rose very quickly from obscurity to stardom. He became a major star in the United Kingdom by performing and releasing recordings there in 1953. He matched these achievements in Australia the following year. His career in his native United States began to decline in the late 1950s, and his American record label dropped him in 1960. He never regained a strong following there and very rarely appeared on American television after 1973. His fan base in other countries, however, remained strong until his last year of performing, which was 1989. His recordings never stopped selling outside the United States.
Ray was born in Dallas, Oregon, spending part of his childhood on a farm, lived in Dallas, Polk County, Oregon, with parents Elmer and Hazel (Simkins) Ray and older sister Elma Ray, and attended grade school there, eventually moving to Portland, Oregon, where he attended high school. Ray was not of Native American origin: it was rumored that his great-grandmother was a full-blooded Blackfoot Indian, but in a response to a reporter questioning his heritage in 1952, Ray, puzzled, looked down at his shoes and said "Blackfoot." His great-grandparents were Oregon pioneer George Kirby Gay of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England, and his Native American wife, Louisa, who was born in the Oregon Territory.
He became deaf in his left ear at age 13 after an accident during a Boy Scout "blanket toss," a variation of the trampoline. (Ray later performed wearing a hearing aid. Surgery performed in New York in 1958 left him almost completely deaf in both ears, although hearing aids helped his condition.)
Inspired by rhythm singers like Kay Starr, LaVern Baker and Ivory Joe Hunter, Ray developed a unique rhythm-based style, described as alternating between pre-rock R&B and a more conventional classic pop approach.
Ray first attracted the attention of Bernie Lang, a song plugger, who was taken to the Flame Showbar nightclub in Detroit, Michigan by local DJ, Robin Seymour of WKMH. "We were both excited," Seymour recalls. "We heard two shows that first night." Lang rushed off to New York to sell the singer to Danny Kessler, the "Mr. Big" of the Okeh label, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. Kessler came over from New York, and he, Lang and Seymour went to the Flame. According to Seymour, Kessler's reaction was, "Well, I don't know. This kid looks well on the stand, but he will never go on records."
It was Seymour and Lowell Worley of the local office of Columbia who persuaded Kessler to have a test record made of Ray. Worley arranged for a record to be cut at the United Sound Studios in Detroit. Seymour told reporter Dick Osgood that there was a verbal agreement that he would be cut in on the three-way deal in the management of Ray. But the deal mysteriously evaporated, and so did Seymour's friendship with Kessler.
Ray's first record, the self-penned R&B number for OKeh Records, "Whiskey and Gin," was a minor hit in 1951. The following year he dominated the charts with the double-sided hit single of "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried". Selling over two million copies of the 78rpm single, Ray's delivery struck a chord with teenagers and he quickly became a teen idol. When OKeh parent Columbia Records realized that with Ray being white and had developed a fan base of white listeners, Ray was moved over to the Columbia label. 20th Century Fox capitalized on his superstardom by including him in the ensemble cast of the movie There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) alongside Ethel Merman as his mother, Dan Dailey as his father, Donald O'Connor as his brother and Marilyn Monroe as his sister-in-law.
Ray's performing style included theatrics later associated with rock and roll, including tearing at his hair, falling to the floor, and crying. Ray quickly earned the nicknames "Mr. Emotion", "The Nabob of Sob", and "The Prince of Wails", and several others.
More hits followed, including "Please Mr. Sun," "Such a Night," "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," "A Sinner Am I" and "Yes Tonight Josephine." He had a United Kingdom number 1 hit with "Just Walkin' in the Rain" (which Ray initially disliked) during the Christmas season in 1956. He hit again in 1957 with "You Don't Owe Me a Thing," which reached number 10 in the Billboard charts. Though his American popularity was declining in 1957, he remained popular in the United Kingdom, breaking the record at the London Palladium formerly set by Frankie Laine. In later years, he retained a loyal fan base overseas, particularly in Australia.
Later career influences
Ray had a close relationship with journalist and television game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen. They became acquainted soon after his sudden rise to stardom in the United States. They remained close as his American career declined. Two months before Kilgallen's death in 1965, her newspaper column plugged Ray's engagements at the Latin Quarter (nightclub) in New York and the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. He began his engagement at the Latin Quarter immediately after an eight-month vacation in Spain during which he and new manager Bill Franklin had extricated themselves from contracts with Bernie Lang, who had managed Ray from 1951 to 1963. Ray and Franklin believed that a dishonest Lang had been responsible for the end of Ray's stardom in the United States and for large debts that he owed the Internal Revenue Service.
In early 1969, Ray befriended Judy Garland, performing as her opening act during her last concerts in Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden. Ray was also the best man during Garland's wedding to nightclub manager Mickey Deans in London.
In the early 1970s, Johnnie Ray's American career revived to a limited extent, as he had not released a record album or 45 RPM single for more than ten years. He made network television appearances on The Andy Williams Show in 1970 and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson three times during 1972 and 1973. His personal manager Bill Franklin resigned in 1976 and cut off contact with the singer a few years later. His American revival turned out to be short-lived. He signed with manager Alan Eichler and resumed performing with an "instrumental quartet," as The New York Times described it, instead of the orchestras that had backed him for 25 years. When Ray and the quartet performed at a New York club called Marty's, located at Third Avenue and East 73rd Street, the May 22, 1981 edition of that newspaper said:
The fact that Mr. Ray, in the years since his first blush of success, has been seen and heard so infrequently in the United States is somewhat ironic because it was his rhythm and blues style of singing that help lay the groundwork for the rock-and-roll that turned Mr. Ray's entertainment world around. Recently, Ringo Starr of the Beatles pointed out that the three singers that the Beatles listened to in their fledgling days were Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnnie Ray.
In 1987, Ray performed in small American concert venues such as El Camino College. Australian, English and Scottish promoters booked him for their large venues as late as 1989, his last year of performing.
Some writers suggested that the reason American entertainment bookers and songwriters ignored him in the 1980s was because they simply did not know who he was, or what his sound was like. His exposure during the new era of cable television was limited to a few seconds in Dexys Midnight Runners' 1982 music video for "Come On Eileen", using archival footage of Ray from 1954. The lyrics of the song included "Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio / He moved a million hearts in mono."
Ray remained unknown to American young people as more of them started watching MTV, VH1 and other basic cable channels that shaped their knowledge of pop culture history. Ray's only other MTV video appearance was in Billy Idol's 1986 "Don't Need a Gun," for which he was filmed in Los Angeles in 1986 for an on-camera appearance. He is name-checked in the lyrics.
Ray is one of the cultural touchstones mentioned in the first verse (concerning events from the late 1940s and early 1950s) of Billy Joel's 1989 hit single "We Didn't Start the Fire", between Red China and South Pacific. At the time of the song's release, Ray was alive and details of his poor health were not public knowledge.
Barricade Books published the biography "Cry--The Johnnie Ray Story" by music writer Johnny Whiteside in 1994  and in 1999 Bear Family Records issued two large 5-CD sets of his entire body of work, each containing an 84-page book on his career. Companies like Sony and Collectables have kept his large catalogue of recordings in continual release around the world.
Ray was arrested twice for soliciting men for sex. He quietly pleaded guilty and paid a fine after the first arrest, in the restroom of the Stone Theatre burlesque house in Detroit, which was just prior to the release of his first record in 1951. The incident was not reported in newspapers, and very few people outside Detroit knew about it during his sudden rise to stardom in 1952. Ray went to trial following the second arrest in 1959, also in Detroit, for soliciting an undercover officer in a bar called the Brass Rail, which has been described variously as attracting traveling musicians and attracting gay people. He was found not guilty.
Despite her knowledge of the 1951 arrest, Marilyn Morrison, daughter of the owner of the Mocambo nightclub in West Hollywood, California, married Johnnie Ray in 1952. The wedding ceremony took place in New York a short time after he gave his first New York concert, which was at the Copacabana. New York mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri attended the ceremony, which got a lot of attention via the cover of the New York Daily News. Morrison was aware of the singer's sexuality from the start, telling a friend she would "straighten it out." The couple separated in 1953 and divorced in 1954.
A Ray biography published in 1994 claimed Morrison tried to contact Ray many times in the decades that followed their divorce, sometimes talking on the phone with Bill Franklin, who served as his manager between 1963 and 1976. Ray always instructed Franklin to get rid of her on the phone. The book also claims Morrison seemed very sad while attending a Los Angeles memorial service for Ray in early March 1990 (he was buried in Oregon), and she refused to talk to the biographer in the early 1990s.
Ray also had a relationship with newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, whom he allegedly met for the first time during one of his two appearances as the mystery guest on What's My Line?. Ray told this story to Kilgallen biographer Lee Israel in 1976, at which time neither had access to the kinescopes of those live telecasts that date from August 22, 1954 and June 9, 1957.
The Israel book's summary of the alleged first meeting of Ray and Kilgallen (on-camera) comes from his remembering it for Israel during her 1976 interview with him, not from kinescope film. The book describes the relevant segment of the live broadcast as follows: "In the early part of 1956, Johnnie Ray appeared on 'What's My Line?' as a guest celebrity. ... Dorothy, with her blindfold in place, was mystified. [Her fellow panelist] Arlene [Francis] picked up on him and sallied in for victory. 'Are you a young man who made crying an indoor sport?' she asked."
After Israel's book was published, others came forward saying that Johnnie Ray's relationship with Dorothy Kilgallen had begun a long time before he ever appeared on What's My Line?, and that her job writing a daily newspaper column about entertainment had required her to interview him after crowds had bought all the available tickets for his first New York engagement in 1952.
Regardless of how long the relationship lasted, Kilgallen was a strong support for Ray during the solicitation trial in Detroit in December 1959, possibly communicating by telephone with the district attorney or judge. Ray's fate was decided by a jury composed entirely of older women, one of whom ran to Ray to console him when he fainted upon hearing the "not guilty" verdict.
Later years and death
- Johnnie Ray (Columbia, 1952)
- Johnnie Ray At The Palladium (Philips Records, United Kingdom, 1954)
- I Cry For You (Columbia, 1955)
- The Big Beat (Columbia, 1957)
- At the Desert Inn in Las Vegas (Columbia, 1958)
- 'Till Morning (Columbia, 1958)
- On The Trail (Columbia, 1959)
- A Sinner Am I (Philips Records, United Kingdom, 1959)
- Johnny Ray's Greatest Hits (Columbia Records, CL 1227)
- 20 Golden Greats (Columbia Records & Warwick Records, UK PR 5065 - 1979)
- Cry (Bear Family Records, 1999)
- Yes Tonight, Josephine (Bear Family Records, 1999)
|1954||There's No Business Like Show Business||Steve Donahue|
|1955||General Electric Theater||Johnny Pulaski||episode "The Big Shot"|
|Shower of Stars||Himself||episode "That's Life"|
|1968||Rogues' Gallery||Police officer||bit part|
|1953||The Jack Benny Program||Himself||Episode "Johnnie Ray Show"|
|1953–1959||Toast of the Town||Himself||7 episodes, 1953–1959|
|1954||The Colgate Comedy Hour||Himself – singer||1 episode|
|1956||The Jimmy Durante Show||Himself – singer||as Johnny Ray|
|Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium||Himself – Singer – Top Of The Bill||2 episodes, 1955–1960|
|Shower of Stars||Himself|
|Frankie Laine Time||Himself|
|1957||The Jackie Gleason Show||Himself – Guest Host|
|What's My Line?||Himself – Mystery guest||2 episodes, 1954, 1957|
|1959||Johnnie Ray Sings||Himself – Singer/Host||Special|
|1968||The Hollywood Palace||Himself – Singer|
|The Joey Bishop Show||Himself||Episode dated January 25, 1968|
|Frost on Sunday||Himself||Episode dated December 8, 1968|
|1970||The Andy Williams Show||Himself||Episode dated October 10, 1970|
|1972–1973||The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson||Himself||3 episodes|
|1977||American Bandstand's 25th Anniversary||Himself|
|Fall In, the Stars||Himself|
|The Merv Griffin Show||Himself||Episode dated September 21, 1977|
|1979||Juke Box Saturday Night||Himself||(1979)|
|1979–1980||CHiPs||Himself||2 episodes, uncredited|
|“||The mambo craze is passing and rhythm and blues will pass away too – the sooner the better as far as I'm concerned.||”|
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