|Johnnie Ray; Why I Cry for the Legend Who Should Have Been|
|Written by Barrett "Buddy-Rey" Reynolds|
He enjoyed a steady string of Top Ten hits lasting almost a decade. He influenced Elvis, and infuriated Sinatra. He broke through more racial and musical barriers than any performer since Al Jolson. So why is it that a mere fifty years after his dramatic explosion onto the pop music charts, the name Johnnie Ray evokes blank stares and questioning glances? For an answer, I suppose you have to go back to where everything started for this talented, tragic figure who sobbed and shook his way to international celebrity, and then experienced an equally abrupt and inexplicable fall from grace.
John Alvin Ray started life on January 10, 1927 in the simple Mid-Western farming town of Dallas, Oregon and enjoyed the upbringing of a typical free-roaming country boy. Even through the tempestuous years of the Great Depression, the Rays were a tight-knit, loving family who always supported their young son and his musical talents, which were already beginning to show themselves when Johnnie was three years old. He had grown big enough to reach the pedals on the household organ and his mother Hazel stood still in complete amazement one day when she heard her young son play "Rock of Ages" completely by ear.
If he had continued in a normal childhood, Johnnie Ray might never have tapped in to the raw musical style that he would one day adapt. But fortune, both cruel and merciful as it is, had different plans for the talented farm boy from Oregon. He was twelve years of age, and as happy as any boy could possibly be. An extrovert all of his life, he never had any trouble making friends. So one night, at a Scout get-together, Johnnie and his school chums were having a blanket toss. His turn came up and he was hurled several feet into the air, as is customary in the sacred boyhood past-time. But somehow, something went wrong.
Whether it had been a freak accident, a mischievous prank, or the result of Johnnie's own childhood carelessness, nobody will ever know. Somehow, he had fallen off of the blanket and onto the dry ground. A single straw had been driven straight into his left ear. He got up, rubbing his head and trying to ignore the strange distortion buzzing around him. At first, he hadn't really known what he had done, or how severe it had been. What had happened was that young Johnnie Ray had punctured the membrane of his eardrum and had instantly lost all hearing in his left ear. Even if he had sought medical attention, it would have already been too late.
He didn't tell his parents about the accident that took fifty percent of his hearing for almost two years, thinking it may have been a temporary injury related to his fall. But as his grades slipped and as he found himself unable to understand what friends and relatives said to him, he realized the seriousness of the situation. The formerly extroverted boy drew introspectively within himself and became a sad, lonely child. It was from this dark time in his life and from his own self-made cocoon of isolation and bitterness that the unabashed sadness and fury of his singing persona would one day emerge.
He found his solace in music. Eased and comforted by the latest black music of the era, Johnnie was perhaps the first anguished white youth to embrace the new sound. He found an idol in Billie Holiday. After being fitted with his first hearing aid and regaining the ability to revel in the sounds around him, his new goal in life became music, first and foremost. Most authorities on the subject credit Johnnie's lifelong hearing problems with the discovery and cultivation of his thundering, tumultuous, and tear-drenched vocal style.
As the years passed, the young Johnnie grew into a tall, fair-skinned, alarmingly thin young man, an unlikely candidate for a "rockstar", some might say. But that's exactly what he soon became. Performing in black nightclubs in Detroit, most notably the Flame Showbar, he honed his smoky, soulful voice and adapted a heart-wrenching, melancholy delivery that would become his calling card. The delivery was the product of his own inner torment. It had grown directly from his childhood experience and manifested itself on stage with every wailing, mournful note that he sang. He was no slouch on a piano either.
It's a very credible argument that Johnnie Ray was the very first of a breed that would later be known as the singer-songwriter. And though he hadn't himself penned the dynamic 1951 smash hit "Cry" that made him a household name, he wrote a great deal of his own hit records early in his career, most notably "Whiskey & Gin" a gut-wrenching, bluesy ballad that made Columbia Records take notice. The very first executives who heard his impassioned, soul-inflected vocal thought that they were listening to a black female blues singer and the fact that this voice was coming from a gangly white country boy from Oregon would shock the world.
He was signed, oddly enough, to Columbia's R&B subsidiary Okeh Records where he became the first white artist ever to release pop hits on an honest-to-goodness blues label, and one of the first to land on the R&B charts. In 1951, you couldn't tune in to any self-respecting radio station and NOT hear Johnnie Ray. He was the hottest performer in America, and the national buzz he created could be felt by everyone, everywhere, on radio, television, music magazines, and even motion pictures. "There's No Business Like Show Business" gave Ray the perfect showcase for some of his more Gospel-oriented material, as he played a talented musician who gives up "the biz" to become a priest.
Soon, Ray was working with some of the most respected singers, arrangers, and band leaders in the business, including Doris Day, Frankie Laine, and Ray Conniff. The Four Lads, a Canadian vocal quartet that he recorded with early in his career, later became stars in their own right. And the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Mitch Miller oversaw and directed most of Johnnie's studio output. Some purists (myself included) blame Miller for making Johnnie blindly abandon his R&B roots in favor of more bland, watered-down material that mainstream white audiences of the early 1950s could palette more easily.
All was well in Johnnie Ray's blossoming career. His albums sold like hotcakes to a hungry public, and he was one of the youngest, most promising talents in the music world. But soon, the irresponsible scandal sheets and vicious tabloids of the day dug up something on Johnnie that he probably wished had never been found out—his brief but devastating arrest record.
In the early morning hours of June 5, 1951, just a few months before "Cry" made him an overnight smash, he had been carousing in a Detroit dive that was well-known by the local Vice Squad as a notorious hangout for young gay men. The Vice Squad had been a sworn enemy of Ray's ever since he played seedy "Black & Tan" joints early in his career, gaining a reputation as a rebel and a troublemaker. Now, they had a perfect chance to take him down.
Written reports suggest that Johnnie Ray solicited an undercover cop. Nobody will ever know for sure, but the damage done to his career when the police report and his mug shots were discovered, was significant. Teen rebels and bobbysoxers still heralded Johnnie Ray as their hero, but to parents across America, he was Public Enemy Number One. Five years before Elvis Presley evoked a similar kind of mass parental dread, Johnnie had all of button-down America shaking in their boots, fearing for the souls of their children.
He had a small circle of close friends and since his death, many of his dearest confidants have given confirmation to the rumors of Johnnie Ray's secret homosexuality. Still others have refuted the claims. But whichever way the sexual pendulum actually swung for Johnnie, there was one thing that nobody could ever deny. In the early 1950s, everybody wanted a piece of him. While the tabloids raged against him, his millions of teenage admirers and his loyal fans of all ages shook off the negative publicity.
He was so unquestionably "on fire" in his day that he was even asked to travel "across the pond" and play the London Palladium, one of Great Britain's most prestigious entertainment venues. His fierce, quaking performance style and his stage-shaking zeal permanently endeared Johnnie in the hearts of the British audiences. Britain was experiencing a national economic and emotional recession at the time, and some would say that the downhearted and frustrated citizens found a trusted hero in Johnnie. Even after his popularity had faded and he had been the subject of ridicule in his own country, he could always play to a packed house of adoring fans and friends in the UK.
The scandal associated with his notorious personal behaviors, his fondness for alcohol and pills that lead to some very high-profile public drunkenness arrests, and the emergence of a brand-new burgeoning force in American pop music that would soon be called "rock & roll" continued to chip away at Johnnie's public credibility as a role model and viable musical force. Though he could still turn out a chart hit, he could never find the "lightning in a bottle" that he had for those three magical first years of his career. Also, the material that he was being given by Mitch Miller was becoming increasingly sappy and irrelevant.
His focus soon shifted from recording to live performance, as is the natural evolution for a great singer who suddenly finds that his target audience has matured beyond the pop radio demographic. During a 1956 engagement at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Johnnie happened upon an up-and-coming singer who had just played the middle-aged, sophisticated venue and bombed. The singer was a twenty-one-year-old hillbilly cat by the name of Elvis Presley, trying his hand at Vegas and failing, years before he himself would become one of the city's entertainment icons.
As it turned out, Johnnie Ray had been one of Elvis Presley's biggest inspirations as a young teenager reveling in the rhythm & blues scene of Memphis, Tennessee in the early 50s. Elvis had the performance style and caused the stage-shaking mania that Johnnie produced, but now the torch of stardom had clearly been passed. The two entertainers struck up a friendship that lasted until Presley's early death in 1977.
Despite the turmoil going on in his personal life and career, 1956 proved to be a pretty good year for Johnnie Ray. He had a very solid chart comeback with "Just Walkin' in the Rain" and the song's unexpected success provided Johnnie with some much-needed momentum. He would continue faring moderately on the pop charts to some degree or another for the remainder of the decade.
He was also enjoying a steady romance with celebrated news columnist Dorothy Kilgallen (which the media ate up like cotton candy) and the two became inseparable, despite the wrath incurred upon both of them by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra had loathed Johnnie Ray from the moment the young musical upstart hit the scene. Ray's conquest of the pop charts in '51 (the top three spots all at once occupied by the same artist) had come at a time when the once (and soon to be again) successful Sinatra couldn't draw headlinesunless it was for indulging in his penchant for punching paparazzi. So in '51, Frank was outraged to see that his place in pop music's upper echelon had been replaced by a skinny, half-deaf, androgynous cry-baby who all the scandal sheets proclaimed as a raging homosexual, and he was further incensed by the fact that the love of his life Ava Gardner had a star-struck obsession with the singer. Frank harbored a lifelong grudge.
Dorothy Kilgallen had been less than flattering to Sinatra in her popular opinion columns, citing his violent behavior and brooding public persona. Frank responded virulently to Kilgallen, referring to her childishly as "The Chinless Wonder". Ridiculing her became a regular staple of his Vegas act. But even with Frankie's ongoing nastiness directed toward both of them in the papers on a regular basis, Johnnie and Dorothy were a match made in Heaven. Sources close to the singer state emphatically that she was the only woman he had ever really loved, and the two seemed destined for happiness. But happiness had a bad habit of avoiding Johnnie Ray.
In 1964, Dorothy Kilgallen, the woman who had nurtured and supported Johnnie through some tempestuous ups and downs, was found sprawled dead in her apartment. There are many conflicting arguments surrounding her death, but the most prevalent theory holds that she was murdered by someone who thought that she was delving a little too deeply into the John F. Kennedy assassination. She had reportedly uncovered some very damning evidence that linked Jack Ruby to a criminal plot. But whatever she found, or how much she knew, she took her secrets to the grave.
The death of the only woman who could be called the love of his life sent Johnnie Ray into an emotional and personal tailspin. He began to dive ever deeper into a fruitless, manic-depressive lifestyle of booze, pills, and anonymous lovers of both genders. The performer was facing abject ruin and complete self-destruction. His recordings became fewer and farther between, and his stage performances suffered from a sharp decline in production values and in the enthusiasm of Ray himself.
If not for his friends in Great Britain, Johnnie may have remained a nameless, drifting anachronism for the rest of his life. As fate would have it, his fame in that part of the world had never diminished. He toured clubs, arenas, and theaters all over the UK living somewhat of a contented vagabond existence for the rest of his life. He was still fond of the drink however, and at fifty, his liver was already a serious concern. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis and for the first time ever, Johnnie Ray had a definite reason to fear for his life.
He changed his lifestyle as best as he knew how, and continued a rigorous, never-ending stream of tour dates. Even though he was no longer the Atomic Ray who made bobbysoxers swoon, you would never know it from his performing schedule. In Europe, he was still enjoying a modest level of notoriety and in 1974, Johnnie reveled in what was probably the sweetest comeback of his career. He played the London Palladium. Twenty years after he originally shook and wowed Palladium audiences, Ray came back to his old haunt. And this time, he killed! The standing ovation he received lasted fifteen minutes. It was a well-deserved victory. And for just a split second, Johnnie Ray was the "Cry Guy" again. He came back to the US on top of a cloud.
Sadly, Johnnie Ray was one of those performers who was born to destroy himself. When his doctor told him that he looked well enough to have an occasional glass of wine, Ray took it as an invitation to a twenty-four hour guzzle-fest. He had declared open season on his own obliterated liver, and the season would be over sooner than he thought. In early 1990, feeling a bit worse for the wear, Johnnie checked himself in to Cedars-Sinai hospital. The news was less than good. He had destroyed his liver. Worse yet, it was inoperable. On February 24, 1990 in his room in Cedars-Sinai, surrounded by friends and loved ones, John Alvin Ray quietly passed away. No final words, no great speeches, he just laid in a coma until finally, he just slipped away. He was sixty-three years old. The world had lost one of the greatest entertainers in history, and they didn't even know it.
He was the most controversial performer alive in his day. He captured more imaginations and minds with his heartbreaking voice and tearful lyrics than anybody had before. And when you get right down to the heart and soul of the matter, he was a musical innovator of unparalleled potency who made teenaged girls scream and made grown men quake uncontrollably. Johnnie in his heyday probably broke more piano keys with his intense stage performance than anybody since Ludwig Van Beethoven. And also in much the same way as Beethoven had, Johnnie Ray had taken the formidable handicap of hearing impairment and not only learned to live with it, but utilized the personal pain and emotional grief that it had given him to translate his passion into music.
If not for the explosion of rock & roll, Johnnie Ray might still be considered an American musical icon. He was overshadowed by Elvis, but never intimidated by him because he knew that the woeful pain in his voice could touch people, even if it couldn't touch the pop charts. In many ways, Johnnie Ray is the Lost Legend. A vital link between the crooners and the rockers who gave us the best of both worlds, but who was shunned by a world in the dark, whose eyes hadn't yet adjusted properly to meet the overwhelming light of his blinding talent, whose ears hadn't been prepared for the raw truth, the honesty, the blood & guts of Johnnie Ray's artistic statement.
Johnnie Ray literally went from being a prince to a pauper. His life story is one of the most amazing AND tragic to ever unfold under the spotlight of pop music and national scrutiny. The press loved him, then ripped him to shreds without as much as a warning shot. Maybe he was just too shocking for this planet to digest in one sitting. That would explain why humanity's natural instinct to block out bad memories has caused his own legend to fade to obscurity. But I'd like to hope that one day, we'll reach the evolutionary stage at which we can listen hungrily to the beautiful artistic genius we rejected. Then we can all sit...and "Cry"...together, for the memory of a man who should have been a legend.