John Alvin Ray (January 10, 1927 ? February 24, 1990) was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. 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 persona.
Ray was born in Hopewell, Oregon, spending part of his childhood on a farm, eventually moving to Portland, Oregon. Ray was of Native American origin; his great-grandmother was a full-blooded Native American and his great-grandfather was Oregon pioneer George Kirby Gay of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England. He became deaf in his right ear at age 13 after an accident during a Boy Scout event. It was his participation in the "blanket toss," a sort of variation of the trampoline, that traumatized the youngster's inner ear. 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 Danhy Kessler, the "Mr. Big" of the Okeh label, which is 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 re-action 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 Johnnie 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 Johnnie Ray. But the deal mysteriously evaporated, and so did Seymour's friendship with Danny 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 45 single, Ray's delivery struck a chord with teenagers and he quickly became a teen idol.
Ray's performing style included theatrics later associated with rock 'n roll, including beating up his piano, writhing on 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 UK Christmas #1 hit with "Just Walkin' in the Rain" in 1956. He hit again in 1957 with "You Don't Owe Me a Thing", which reached #10 in the Billboard charts. He was 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 who gave a boost to his sagging career during his engagement at the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1965.
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.
Ray's American career revived in the early 1970s, with 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 performed in small American venues such as El Camino College in 1987. 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. He was name checked in the lyrics to "Come On Eileen" (viz "Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio / he moved a million hearts in mono").
His other video appearance was in Billy Idol's 1986 "Don't Need a Gun", in which Ray appeared on-camera.
Ray had issues surface regarding his sexuality several times in his career, including two arrests for soliciting men for sex. Ray 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. Ray went to trial following the second arrest in 1959, also in Detroit, for soliciting an undercover officer in one of the city's gay bars. He was found not guilty.
Despite these issues, Ray married Marilyn Morrison a short time after he gave his first New York concert, which was at the Copacabana in 1952. The wedding ceremony, attended by New York mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri, made the cover of the New York Daily News. Morrison, the daughter of a Los Angeles nightclub owner, 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.
In the years hence, writers have noted that the marriage occurred under false pretenses, and that Ray had a long-term relationship with his manager, Bill Franklin. Ray also had a relationship with columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, whom he met following an appearance on What's My Line? in 1956. Kilgallen was a strong support for Ray during the 1959 solicitation trial.
Ray drank regularly and his alcoholism caught up with him in 1960, when he was hospitalized for tuberculosis. He recovered but continued drinking, and was diagnosed with cirrhosis at age fifty.
On , Ray died of liver failure at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. He is buried at Hopewell Cemetery near Hopewell, Oregon.
For his contribution to the recording industry, Johnnie Ray has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6201 Hollywood Boulevard.
"Cry" (with The Four Lads), Columbia 30th St Studio, NYC,
October 16, 1951; Mundell Lowe (g) Ed Safranski (b) Ed
Shaughnessy (d) Buddy Reed (p)
"Give Me Time" (with The Four Lads)
"(Here Am I) Brokenhearted" (with The Four Lads)
"The Little White Cloud That Cried", Columbia 30th St Studio,
NYC, October 15, 1951; Mundell Lowe (g) Ed Safranski
(b) Ed Shaughnessy (d) Stan Freeman (p) Lucky Thompson (sax)
"She Didn't Say Nothin' At All"
"Tell The Lady I Said Goodbye"
"Whiskey And Gin"
"All of Me"
"A Sinner Am I"
"Candy Lips" (with Doris Day)
"Coffee and Cigarettes (Think It Over)" (with The Four Lads)
"Don't Blame Me"
"Faith Can Move Mountains" (with The Four Lads)
"Let's Walk That-A-Way" (with Doris Day)
"Mountains in the Moonlight"
"Out in the Cold Again"
"Please Mr. Sun" (with The Four Lads)
"The Lady Drinks Champagne"
"Walkin' My Baby Back Home"
"Full Time Job" (with Doris Day)
"Ma Says, Pa Says" (with Doris Day)
"Somebody Stole My Gal"
"Alexander's Ragtime Band"
"As Time Goes By"
"If You Believe"
"Such a Night"
"Flip Flop and Fly"
"I've Got So Many Million Years"
"Paths of Paradise"
"Song of the Dreamer"
"Everyday I Have The Blues"
"How Long How Long Blues"
"I Want To Be Loved"
"I'll Never Be Free"
"I'm Gonna Move To the Outskirts of Town"
"Just Walkin' in the Rain"
"Sent For You Yesterday"
"Shake a Hand"
"Who's Sorry Now"
"Build Your Love (On a Strong Foundation)"
"Good Evening Friends" (with Frankie Laine)
"Look Homeward Angel"
"Soliloquy Of a Fool"
"Street Of Memories"
"Up Above My Head" (with Frankie Laine)
"You Don't Owe Me a Thing"
"Yes Tonight Josephine"
"I'm Beginning to See the Light"
"The Lonely Ones"
"Up Until Now"
"I'll Never Fall in Love Again"
"It's All in the Game"
"Red River Valley"
"Twilight On the Trail"
"When It's Springtime in the Rockies"
"I'll Make You Mine"
There's No Business Like Show Business
General Electric Theater
episode "The Big Shot"
Shower of Stars
episode "That's Life"
The Jack Benny Program
Episode "Johnnie Ray Show"
Toast of the Town
7 episodes, 1953-1959
The Colgate Comedy Hour
Himself - singer
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
Frankie Laine Time
The Jackie Gleason Show
Himself - Guest Host
What's My Line?
Himself - Mystery guest
2 episodes, 1955, 1957
Johnnie Ray Sings
Himself - Singer/Host
The Hollywood Palace
Himself - Singer
The Joey Bishop Show
Episode dated 25 January 1968
Frost on Sunday
Episode dated 8 December 1968
The Andy Williams Show
Episode dated 10 October 1970
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
American Bandstand's 25th Anniversary
Fall In, the Stars
The Merv Griffin Show
Episode dated 21 September 1977
Juke Box Saturday Night
2 episodes, uncredited