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 was supported by 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 toPortland, 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 OKeh parent Columbia Records realized that Ray had developed a fan base of white listeners, he was moved over to the Columbia label.
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 on the Billboard chart. 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.
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. 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 Malmö, Sweden. Ray was also the best man during Garland’s wedding to nightclub manager Mickey Deans in London.
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.
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, 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 the Beatles listened to in their fledgling days were Chuck Berry, Little Richard. and Johnnie Ray.”
In 1986, Ray appeared as a Los Angeles taxicab driver in Billy Idol‘s “Don’t Need a Gun” video and is name-checked in the lyrics of the song. During this time period, Ray was generally playing small venues in the United States such as Citrus College in Los Angeles County, California. He performed there in 1987 “with a big-band group,” according to a Los Angeles Times profile of him during that year.
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.
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. 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 January 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.
Ray, along with some of his friends, denied publicly throughout his life that he was gay. Two years after his death, several friends shared with biographer Jonny Whiteside their knowledge of Ray’s homosexuality.
Later years and death
In 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.
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 Collectables have kept his large catalogue of recordings in continual release worldwide.
Here’s a Ray clip from There’s No Business Like Show Business….
- Johnnie Ray (Columbia, 1952)
- 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)
- High Drama: The Real Johnnie Ray (Columbia/Legacy, 1997)
- 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)