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.
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 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. 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.
Johnnie Ray was born January 10, 1927, in Dallas, Oregon, to parents Elmer and Hazel (Simkins) Ray. Along with older sister Elma, Ray spent part of his childhood on a farm in Dallas 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. He began singing professionally on a Portland, Oregon, radio station at age 15.
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.
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 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.
Ray in There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)
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.
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 fellow Columbia Records artist Frankie Laine. In later years, he retained a loyal fan base overseas, particularly in Australia.
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. When he appeared in court, he pleaded guilty. He paid a fine and was released. Because of his obscurity at the time, the Detroit newspapers did not report the story. After his sudden rise to fame the following year, rumors about his sexuality began to spread.
Despite her knowledge of the solicitation arrest, Marilyn Morrison, daughter of the owner of West Hollywood's Mocambo nightclub, married Ray on May 25, 1952. The wedding ceremony took place in New York a short time after he gave his first New York concert at the Copacabana. Aware of the singer's sexuality, Morrison told a friend she would "straighten it out." The couple separated in 1953 and divorced in 1954.Several writers have noted that the Ray-Morrison marriage occurred under false pretenses, and that Ray had a long-term relationship with his manager, Bill Franklin. Ray later blamed rumors about his sexuality for the breakup of his marriage to Morrison.
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 and by another biographer as a gay bar. Ray went to trial following this second arrest and was found not guilty.
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 gave long magazine interviews that included their revelations of sexual preferences, Ray was not among them. 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.
n 1960, Ray was hospitalized after contracting tuberculosis. In 1965, he was 38 years old when he was emotionally devastated by the death of close friend Dorothy Kilgallen. Biographer Jonny Whiteside claimed that Ray managed to stay sober despite his grief. He began to regain his health. Shortly after he returned to the United States from a European concert tour that he headlined with Judy Garland, an American doctor informed him that he was well enough to drink an occasional glass of wine. Ray resumed drinking heavily and his health quickly began to decline. He continued touring until he gave his final concert, a benefit for the Grand Theater in Salem, Oregon, on October 6, 1989. In early 1990, poor health forced him to check into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. On February 24, 1990, he died of liver failure at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. He is buried at Hopewell Cemetery near Hopewell, Oregon.
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. Companies like Sony and Collectibles have kept his large catalogue of recordings in continual release worldwide.
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