Johnnie Ray

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This article is about the singer. For the other people with similar names, see Johnny Ray.
Johnnie Ray
Johnnie Ray Allan Warren.jpg
Ray in 1969, as best man at Judy Garland's wedding in London, by Allan Warren
Background information
Birth name John Alvin Ray
Born (1927-01-10)January 10, 1927
Hopewell, Oregon, United States
Died February 24, 1990(1990-02-24) (aged 63)
Los Angeles, United States
Genres Traditional pop
Occupation(s) Singer, songwriter
Instruments Vocals, piano
Years active 1951–1989
Labels Okeh, Columbia

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.[1] Tony Bennett credits Ray as being the true father of rock and roll.[2]

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."[3]

In 1952, Ray rose very quickly from obscurity to stardom in the United States. He became a major star in the United Kingdom by performing and releasing recordings there in 1953 and shared billing there with many acts including Frank Holder. 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.[4][page needed] He never regained a strong following there and very rarely appeared on American television after 1973.[4] 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.

Early life[edit]

Johnnie Ray was born January 10, 1927, in Hopewell, Oregon, to parents Elmer and Hazel (Simkins) Ray.[5] Along with older sister Elma, Ray spent part of his childhood on a farm in Dallas, Oregon and attended grade school there. The family later moved to Portland, Oregon, where Ray attended high school.

At age 13, Ray became deaf in his left ear following a mishap that occurred during a Boy Scout "blanket toss." In later years, Ray performed wearing a hearing aid. Surgery performed 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 singing style, described as alternating between pre-rock R&B and a more conventional classic pop approach.[1] He began singing professionally on a Portland, Oregon, radio station at age 15.[6]

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. Lang went to New York to sell the singer to Danny Kessler 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.[7]

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".[5] Selling over two million copies of the 78rpm single, Ray's delivery struck a chord with teenagers and he quickly became a teen idol.[8] When executives of Columbia Records, the parent company of OKeh, realized that the Caucasian Ray had developed a fan base of white listeners, he was moved over to the Columbia label.[9] The live television broadcast of Toast of the Town on January 6, 1952 included the first of his several appearances on the widely seen American program that officially changed its title in 1955 to The Ed Sullivan Show.[10][11]

Ray's performing style included theatrics later associated with rock and roll, including tearing at his hair, falling to the floor, and crying.[12] Ray quickly earned the nicknames "Mr. Emotion", "The Nabob of Sob", and "The Prince of Wails",[5] and several others.[13]

20th Century Fox capitalized on his stardom 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.

More hit songs 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)[5] during the Christmas season in 1956. He hit again in 1957 with "You Don't Owe Me a Thing," which reached number 10 on the Billboard charts. Though his American popularity was declining in 1957, he remained popular in the United Kingdom, breaking the attendance record at the London Palladium formerly set by fellow Columbia Records artist Frankie Laine. In later years, he retained a loyal fan base overseas, particularly in Australia.[14]

Later career[edit]

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 in New York and the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.[15] 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.[4] 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.[4]

In the early 1970s, Ray's American career revived to a limited extent, as he had not released a record album or 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 as Ray's career had already begun to decline as the 1980s approached. Speculation why has been attributed to booking agents and songwriters not knowing who he was or what his "sound" was like, thus ignoring him as a commercial talent.[16]

In 1981, Ray hired Alan Eichler as his manager and resumed performing with an instrumental quartet rather than with the large orchestras he and his audiences had been accustomed to for the first 25 years of his career. When Ray and the quartet performed at a New York club called Marty's on Third Avenue and East 73rd Street in 1981,[17] The New York Times stated, "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."[17]

In 1986, Ray appeared as a Los Angeles taxicab driver[18] in Billy Idol's "Don't Need a Gun" video and is name-checked in the lyrics of the song.[19] During this time period, Ray was generally playing small venues in the United States such as Citrus College in Los Angeles County, California.[20] He performed there in 1987 "with a big-band group," according to a Los Angeles Times profile of him during that year.[20]

While his popularity continued to wane in the United States, Australian, English and Scottish promoters booked him for large venues as late as 1989, his last year of performing.

Personal life[edit]

In 1951, when Ray was obscure and not yet signed to a record label, he was arrested in Detroit for accosting and soliciting an undercover vice squad police officer in the restroom of the Stone Theatre, a burlesque house.[21] When he appeared in court, he pleaded guilty. He paid a fine and was released.[22] Because of his obscurity at the time, the Detroit newspapers did not report the story.[21] After his sudden rise to fame the following year, rumors about his sexuality began to spread.[21]

Despite her knowledge of the solicitation arrest, Marilyn Morrison, daughter of the owner of West Hollywood's Mocambo nightclub, married Ray at the peak of his American fame.[23] The wedding ceremony took place in New York a short time after he gave his first New York concert, which was at the Copacabana.[24] The New York Daily News made the wedding its cover story for May 26, 1952, and it reported that guests included Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri.[25] Aware of Ray's sexuality, Morrison told a friend she would "straighten it out."[22] The couple separated in 1953 and divorced in 1954.[26][27] Several writers have noted that the Ray-Morrison marriage occurred under false pretenses,[28] and that Ray had a long-term relationship with his manager, Bill Franklin.[21][22] However, a biography of Ray points out that Franklin was 13 years younger than Ray and that both their personal and business relationships began in 1963, many years after the Ray-Morrison divorce.[21] In a 1953 newspaper interview with James Bacon, Ray blamed rumors about his sexuality for the breakup of his marriage to Morrison.[29]

In 1959, Ray was arrested again in Detroit for soliciting an undercover officer at the Brass Rail, a bar that was described many years later by one biographer as a haven for musicians[21] and by another biographer as a gay bar.[21] Ray went to trial following this second arrest and was found not guilty.[22]

During the era of Johnnie Ray's stardom in the United States, journalists did not ask performers about their sexuality, and what the performers said offstage was often truncated for publication. In the 1970s, when performers began to give long magazine interviews, which included their revelations of sexual preferences, and publications such as Rolling Stone printed everything,[30] Ray was not among them.[30] His career had declined and information about him was no longer newsworthy in the United States. Two years after his death, several friends shared with biographer Jonny Whiteside their knowledge of his homosexuality.[21]

Later life and death[edit]

Throughout the 1950s, newspaper and magazine pieces about Ray did not disclose the extent of his drinking.[21] According to biographer Jonny Whiteside, he drank heavily then. In 1960, he was hospitalized for tuberculosis.[22] Shortly after his recovery, he quit drinking, according to Whiteside.[21] His music was not available for sale and he did not appear on American television during the first half of the 1960s.[21] Consequently, American newspapers ran ads for his concerts but reported nothing about his life: marital status, offstage behavior or health issues.[21]

In November 1965, he was 38 years old when he was emotionally devastated by the death of close friend Dorothy Kilgallen two months after she had encouraged New Yorkers to attend his comeback concerts at the Latin Quarter. Biographer Jonny Whiteside claimed that Ray managed to stay sober despite his grief.[21] He began to regain his health. In December 1966, he won acclaim in Chicago for a locally telecast television special An Evening With Johnnie Ray.[21]

In 1969, Ray headlined a European concert tour with Judy Garland.[31] He served as the best man (or usher in the United Kingdom) at her wedding to her last husband, nightclub manager Mickey Deans, in London on March 15, 1969.[32] Denmark and Sweden were among the countries where Ray and Garland performed together; they played Stockholm on March 19.[33]

Shortly after Ray returned to the United States from his tour with Garland, an American doctor informed him that he was well enough to drink an occasional glass of wine. He resumed drinking heavily and his health began to decline. Despite this, in the early 1970s he appeared several times on prime-time network television in the United States. After the offers for television stopped, he continued touring, attracting major media attention outside the United States, until he gave his final concert, a benefit for the Grand Theater in Salem, Oregon, on October 6, 1989.[9][12]

In early 1990, poor health forced Johnnie Ray to check into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center near his home in Los Angeles.[34] He was confined there for more than two weeks without the knowledge of journalists or talk radio personalities who had interviewed him in various countries throughout the 1980s.[21] On February 24, 1990, he died of liver failure at Cedars-Sinai.[8][34] He is buried at Hopewell Cemetery near Hopewell, Oregon.[35]

For his contribution to the recording industry, Johnnie Ray was honored with a star in 1960 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6201 Hollywood Boulevard.

In 1999, Bear Family Records issued two five CD sets of his entire body of work, each containing an 84-page book on his career.[36] Companies like Sony and Collectables have kept his large catalogue of recordings in continual release worldwide.[37]

In popular culture[edit]

Archival footage of Ray arriving at London Heathrow Airport in 1954 was featured in the 1982 music video for Dexys Midnight Runners' single "Come On Eileen". The lyrics of the song also mention him: "Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio / He moved a million hearts in mono."[38]

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.[39]

Ray was name-checked by Van Morrison in his duet with Tom Jones titled "Sometimes We Cry" that was released in 1997.[40]

In the 2016 Netflix series "The Crown," about the life of Elizabeth II and her family, Princess Margaret is shown entering a party with a room full of guests. The phonograph is playing Johnnie Ray's recording of "Cry."

Selected discography[edit]

Chart hits[edit]

Year Title Chart Positions
1951 "Cry" (w/ Four Lads) 1 1
"The Little White Cloud That Cried" (w/ Four Lads) 2 6
1952 "Please, Mr. Sun" (w/ Four Lads) 6
"Here Am I-Broken Hearted" (w/ Four Lads) 8
"What's the Use?" (w/ Four Lads) 13
"Walkin' My Baby Back Home" 4 6 12
"All of Me" 12
"A Sinner Am I" (w/ Four Lads) 20
"Love Me (Baby Can't You Love Me)" 25
"Faith Can Move Mountains" 20 7
"Gee, But I'm Lonesome" 37
"A Full-Time Job" (w/ Doris Day) 20 21 11
"Ma Says, Pa Says" (w/ Doris Day) 23 28 12
1953 "I'm Gonna Walk and Talk With My Lord" (w/ Four Lads) 24
"Somebody Stole My Gal" 8 24 6
"Candy Lips" (w/ Doris Day) 17 18
"Let's Walk That-a-Way" (w/ Doris Day) 31 4
"With These Hands" (w/ Four Lads) 29
"All I Do Is Dream of You" 27
"Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" 29
1954 "You'd Be Surprised" 25
"Such a Night" 19 18 1
"Hey There" 27 5
"Hernando's Hideaway" 14 20 11
"To Ev'ry Girl-To Ev'ry Boy" 26 40
1955 "As Time Goes By" 35
"If You Believe" 7
"Paths of Paradise" 42 20
"Song of the Dreamer" 10 10
"Johnnie's Comin' Home" 100
1956 "Who's Sorry Now" 17
"Ain't Misbehavin'" 17
"Just Walkin' in the Rain" 2 3 1
1957 "You Don't Owe Me a Thing" 10 10 12
"Look Homeward, Angel" 36 42 7
"Yes Tonight Josephine" 12 24 1
"Build Your Love (On a Strong Foundation)" 58 31 17
"Up Above My Head" (w/ Frankie Laine) 25
"Good Evening Friends" (w/ Frankie Laine) flip
1958 "Up Until Now" 81 87
1959 "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" 75 76 26

Studio albums[edit]

Live albums[edit]




Year Title Role Notes
1954 There's No Business Like Show Business Steve Donahue
1968 Rogues' Gallery Police officer
Year Title Role Notes
1953 The Jack Benny Program Johnnie Ray Episode: "Johnnie Ray Show"
1953–1959 Toast of the Town Himself 7 episodes
1954-1955 The Colgate Comedy Hour Himself – singer 2 episodes
1954-1957 What's My Line? Himself (Mystery guest) 2 episodes
1955 The Martha Raye Show Himself Episode #3.4
1955 General Electric Theater Johnny Pulaski Episode: "The Big Shot"
1955 Shower of Stars Himself Episode: "That's Life"
1955-1960 Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium Himself 2 episodes
1955-1957 The Jackie Gleason Show Guest Host 4 episodes
1956 The Jimmy Durante Show Himself – singer Episode #2.23
Credited as Johnny Ray
1956 Frankie Laine Time Himself Episode #2.5
1957 A Santa for Christmas Television movie
1957 The Big Record Himself Episode #1.11
1957 Spectacular Himself 3 episodes
1958 The Dick Clark Show Himself Episode #1.1
1958 The Garry Moore Show Himself Episode #1.8
1959 The Patti Page Oldsmobile Show Himself Episode #1.16
1959 Johnnie Ray Sings Himself – Singer/Host Television special
1962 The Jack Paar Tonight Show Himself Episode #5.194
1963 American Bandstand Himself Episode #6.121
1967 The Woody Woodbury Show Himself Episode #1.16
1968 The Hollywood Palace Himself Episode #5.16
1968 Frost on Sunday Himself Episode #1.19
1968-1969 The Joey Bishop Show Himself 3 episodes
1970 The David Frost Show Himself Episode #2.129
1970 Della Himself Episode #1.192
1970 The Andy Williams Show Himself October 10, 1970 episode
1970-1973 The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Himself 3 episodes
1972 The ABC Comedy Hour Himself Episode: "The Twentieth Century Follies"
1974 The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club Himself Episode #1.11
1975 Dinah! Himself Episode #1.61
1977 Sha Na Na Himself Episode #1.17
1977 American Bandstand's 25th Anniversary Himself Television special
1977 All You Need Is Love Himself Episode: "Good Times: Rhythm and Blues"
1977 Fall In, the Stars Himself Television special
1977 The Merv Griffin Show Himself September 21, 1977 episode
1979 Juke Box Saturday Night Himself Television special
1979–1980 CHiPs Himself 2 episodes
1987 Royal Variety Performance 1987 Himself Television special


NME – June 1955[42]


  1. ^ a b Ruhlmann, William. "High Drama: The Real Johnnie Ray". Retrieved March 4, 2008. 
  2. ^ Henderson, Tom. "The tracks of his tears". Oregon Magazine. 
  3. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums. Guinness World Records Limited. p. 451. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  4. ^ a b c d Whiteside, Jonny (1994). Cry: The Johnnie Ray Story. New York: Barricade. ISBN 1-56980-013-8. 
  5. ^ a b c d Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 2 – Play A Simple Melody: American pop music in the early fifties. [Part 2] : UNT Digital Library". Retrieved December 11, 2012. Johnnie Ray was to become ... the overnight success, as soon the press stepped in with its bouquet of clever, clever epithets: he was the Cry Guy and the Prince of Wails. 
  6. ^ "Johnnie Ray Rocked Music World". St. Petersburg Times. September 2, 1956. Retrieved 1 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Osgood, Dick (1958). "WKMH's Seymour Can Cry About Ray Deal, Too". Detroit News. 
  8. ^ a b Holden, Steven (February 26, 1990). "Johnnie Ray, 63, 50s Singer Who Hit No. 1 With a Sob in His Voice". The New York Times. Retrieved February 27, 2008. 
  9. ^ a b Beyond the Marquee: Johnnie Ray - Tad Mann - Google Books. Retrieved December 5, 2013. 
  10. ^ confirmation of January 6, 1952 appearance on Ed Sullivan Show
  11. ^ confirmation of 1953 appearance on Ed Sullivan Show
  12. ^ a b Fox, James. "Johnnie Ray (1927–1990)". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 25, 2015. 
  13. ^ Rapp, Linda. "Ray, Johnnie (1927–1990)". Retrieved February 27, 2008. 
  14. ^ "Johnnie Doesn't Like His Own Voice". The Sydney Morning Herald. September 12, 1954. Retrieved October 24, 2010. 
  15. ^ Israel, Lee (1979). Kilgallen. New York: Delacorte Press. pp. 404–5. ISBN 0-440-04522-3. 
  16. ^ Baker, Glenn A; Coupe, Stuart (1984). The New Rock 'n Roll. Toronto: Sound & Vision. ISBN 0-920151-00-0. 
  17. ^ a b Wilson, John S. (May 22, 1981). "Pop Jazz - Johnnie Ray Is Back At East Side Club". Retrieved June 13, 2014. 
  18. ^ 1986 music video for Billy Idol's Don't Need a Gun
  19. ^ "Spins". Spin. SPIN Media LLC. 2 (10): 28. January 1987. ISSN 0886-3032. 
  20. ^ a b Hawn, Jack. No Slowing Down For 'Mr. Emotion', Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1987, accessed October 30, 2014.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Cry: The Johnnie Ray Story: Jonny Whiteside: 9781569800133: Books". Retrieved June 13, 2014. 
  22. ^ a b c d e Rapp, Linda. "Ray, Johnnie (1927–1990)". Retrieved March 4, 2008. 
  23. ^ "Johnnie Ray Says 'I Do' In New York". Schenectady Gazette. May 26, 1952. p. 5. 
  24. ^ "Johnny Ray Gets Married, Then 'Cries'". The Milwaukee Sentinel. May 26, 1952. p. 6. 
  25. ^ Di Lorenzo, Josephine (May 26, 1952). "Johnnie Ray Weds – Bride Cries". New York Daily News. 
  26. ^ "Johnny Ray To Get Mexican Divorce". Reading Eagle. January 12, 1954. p. 13. 
  27. ^ "Johnny Ray To Get Divorce Thursday". The Lewiston Daily Sun. January 12, 1954. p. 7. 
  28. ^ Stephens, Vincent Lamar, PhD. (2005). Queering the Textures of Rock and Roll History (PDF). College Park: University of Maryland. OCLC 76833219. 
  29. ^ Bacon, James (September 11, 1953). "Cryin' Crooner Ray By-Passes Hollywood". Ottawa Citizen. p. 28. 
  30. ^ a b Rolling Stone article from 2011 on history of famous singers coming out as gay or bisexual
  31. ^ Schechter, Scott (2002). Judy Garland: The Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend. Lanham, Maryland: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-12053. 
  32. ^ "Mickey Deans: Drinking to Judy". Jamd. Getty Images. Retrieved 2008-03-04. 
  33. ^ Schechter, Scott (2002). Judy Garland: The Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend. Lanham, Maryland: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-12053. 
  34. ^ a b Reynolds, Barrett (June 2004). "Johnnie Ray: Why I Cry for the Legend Who Should Have Been". The Halcyon Weekly Press. Retrieved March 4, 2008. 
  35. ^ Stanton, Scott (2003). The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. Simon and Schuster. p. 423. ISBN 0-743-46330-7. 
  36. ^ "Ray, Johnnie - Ray, Johnnie Cry 5-CD-Box & 84-Page Book - Bear Family Records Store". Retrieved 2014-06-13. 
  37. ^ "Johnnie Ray ~ Vocals". Retrieved 2014-06-13. 
  38. ^ Mann, Brent (2003). 99 Red Balloons: And 100 Other All Time Great One-Hit Wonders. Kensington Publishing Corporation. p. 185. ISBN 0-806-52516-9. 
  39. ^ DeMain, Bill (2004). In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk about the Creative Process. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 119. ISBN 0-275-98402-8. 
  40. ^ Hage, Erik (2009). The Words and Music of Van Morrison. ABC-CLIO. p. 125. ISBN 0-313-35862-1. 
  41. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 523. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  42. ^ Tobler, John (1992). NME Rock 'N' Roll Years (1st ed.). London: Reed International Books Ltd. p. 15. CN 5585. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]