Johnnie Ray in a rather peculiar publicity photo.
Detail from 10 Inch LP That Doesn’t Quite Fit In My Scanner
Early TV Appearence
Johnnie Ray and Fats Domino– What Did They Have In Common?
He was not the first white man to attempt to sound black, nor was he the first man to sing like a woman. Johnnie Ray (b. John Alvin Ray, 1927 in Dallas, Oregon) was, however, the first white man to sing like a black woman and top the charts. As far as pop stars go, he was a strange creature, an abomination of sorts. And his story is worth retelling one more time.
The first real excitement that found our hero was a savage game of blanket toss that left Ray deaf at the age of nine. Until a hearing aid was fitted to his concha, his teachers considered him retarded.
In this manner he passed through high school, a young man of little promise. Upon reaching his majority, Ray headed for Hollywood– following in the footsteps of so many worthless others– he would be in pictures and show the folks back home that he was no spazz.
Hollywood, however, had little use for the challenged young man and Ray soon abandoned his hopes for the silver screen and set his sights on a career in music. No mean trick for a deaf kid. No matter how loud he turned up his hearing aid, he could not hear the bass player, which made singing in time a great struggle. He did, however, play a little piano– and inspired by the tortured instrument that was Billie Holiday’s voice and R&B crooners like Ivory Joe Hunter, Little Jimmy Scott and Dinah Washington — he forged his own style. By 1951, after being run out of clubs everywhere for being too weird, Ray found an appreciative audience in Detroit at the Flame Show Bar, the best sepia room in town (Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker were both discovered there, the latter doing biz as “Little Miss Sharecropper”). Johnnie Ray played piano and crooned ballads between sets by Maurice King’s Wolverines (King would go on to a job at Motown, teaching young acts how to shave their armpits and to not belch in public).
It was at the Flame that Danny Kessler, president of Okeh Records, Columbia’s newly reactivated R&B wing, discovered Ray, inking him to a record deal and recording him with King’s band. Johnnie Ray’s first disc, a spare, bluesy, original titled Whiskey and Gin was released in August, 1951 on the purple and gold Okeh label. Billboard’s astute reviewer called Ray’s voice “a cross between Kay Star and Jimmy Scott”. When Whiskey and Gin sold well in R&B markets and with teenage girls, Columbia’s prexy Mitch Miller took interest and signed himself on as Ray’s producer. His first matter of biz was to match Ray with the song Cry.
Cry had gone nowhere when it was originally recorded by Ruth Casey for the obscure Cadillac label. Ray took the song and working out a head arrangement with studio musicians and the vocal group the Four Lads– rewrote it into an emotion filled plea. Stretching syllables ridiculously, his voice reached into a choking upper register that bordered on a whine. It was either moving or pathetic, depending on your stand, but with Cry, Johnnie Ray had stuck paydirt.
Cry went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts where it stayed for eleven weeks in the fall of 1951. There was something in the sound of Ray’s whimper that roused women to seismic enthusiasm. This unlikely pop idol– gangly, effete and adorned with a clumsy hearing aid was met at the airport in Cleveland by 5,000 screaming girls who tore the clothes from his limbs. The successor to Sinatra, and the precursor to Elvis had arrived. He started wearing cheap suits rather than lose the good ones to the paws of howling teenage girls.
Although the flipside of Cry, an original tune called The Little White Cloud That Cried also climbed the charts to peak at #2, Ray’s freakishness soon ignited a controversy that overshadowed his music. Ava Gardner was said to be obsessed with Ray, leading to a punch in the snout from pseudo-tough guy Frank Sinatra. As a gay man he was subjected to many degrading exposes, such as can be found in early 50’s issues of the vile and fascinating Confidential magazine which ran feature stories like “Is It True What They Say About Johnnie Ray?”, “Why Johnnie Ray Likes To Go In Drag” and “When Johnnie Ray Was Noel Coward’s House Guest”. There was an “incident” in a public toilet, one critic claimed the hearing aid was a gimmick. The hoopla hurt Ray, yet through it all he remained childlike and amazed, almost innocent, often self deprecating: “I never considered myself a singer. I classify myself as a song stylist, a performer, an actor…you’re either pro-Johnnie Ray or you hate my guts”. He was kicked upstairs to Okeh’s parent label Columbia, alongside Sinatra and Tony Bennett and the hits kept coming– Please Mr. Sun, Walking My Baby Home, R&B tunes like Clyde McPhatter’s Such A Night, Joe Turner’s Flip Flop and Fly, and the Prisonaires’ Just Walkin’ In The Rain. Also in his catalog are some oddball items with a distinct pre-rock’n’roll feel– Oooh! Aaah! Oh! and the bluesy I Want To Be Loved should be singled out.
During these gravy years, Johnnie Ray made many TV and movie appearances, worked the best clubs and concert halls, hid from nosy reporters (often in Spain) and eventually the success waned, helped along by the ugly rumors and the bad publicity.
One of his most loyal audiences was found in England, where he appeared many times at the London, Palladium, even recording a live (ten inch) LP there, a record which gives us an idea of the hysteria created both by Ray onstage and by the Ray-worshipping audience. From that LP I present his rousing set opener Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, the overboard Glad Rag Doll, a hysterical reading of Such A Night and the big finale of Little White Cloud That Cried/I’m Gonna Walk and Talk With My Lord. Listen to that crowd!
Soon Elvis arrived and eclipsed even the controversy, and Johnnie Ray returned to the bars and lounges, making a comfortable living crying all over his piano. They still came, the little girls, now old and fat, wearing stretch pants and girdles. They came and they cried along with Johnnie Ray. Through the psychedelic 60’s, the leisure suit 70’s and the greed worshipping 80’s, they still came out– Johnnie’s fans never let him down. They filled the rooms, put bread on the table and wine in the jug. It was the jug that did him in. On February 24, 1990, Johnnie Ray’s liver packed it in, and the little white queer cried no more.