January 10, 1927– Johnnie Ray
When I was a kid, I thought Johnnie Ray sounded so sad on the radio.
With a steady string of Top 10 hits lasting for most of a decade, Ray influenced Elvis Presley and infuriated Frank Sinatra. He broke through more racial and musical barriers than any other artist in the 1950s. Yet, more than 60 years after his electrifying entrance on to the pop music scene, his name now evokes blank stares when I asked if people know of him. Not one of the seven people that I mentioned I was researching for this post had ever heard of Johnnie Ray. He was a talented, tragic talent who sobbed and shook his way to international celebrity, and then experienced an equally explosive and inexplicable fall.
He was born John Alvin Ray in rural Oregon. Even through the terrible years of the Great Depression, his loving family always supported his musical aspirations.
As a kid, Ray was the victim a freak accident where he landed on hard ground during a blanket toss at a Boy Scout camp out. A single straw on the ground was driven into his left ear, puncturing the membrane of his eardrum. He instantly lost all hearing in his left ear. He didn’t tell his parents about the accident. The formerly happy, outgoing little boy became a sad, lonely teenager. It was this dark time of loneliness and bitterness that informed the shameless sadness and fierceness of his singing.
Ray found solace and strength from the popular black music of his era. Billie Holiday became his idol. After being fitted with his first hearing aid and regaining the ability to experience the sounds around him, his full focus went to music. Ray’s lifelong hearing problems provided his thundering, tumultuous, tearful vocal technique.
Ray became the tall, pale, skinny, young white guy, noted for performing in black clubs in Detroit, where his smoky, soulful voice with its sorrowful delivery became his trademark.
Ray didn’t write the dynamic 1951 smash hit Cry, but it made him a recording star. He did write many of his own songs though, including my favorite Ray tune, Whiskey & Gin, a gut wrenching ballad. The record industry executives who heard his soul inflected vocals thought that they were listening to a black female singer and the fact that the voice was coming from a gangly white farm boy from Oregon was shocking.
Ray got a recording contract to Okeh Records where he became the first white artist ever to release pop hits on a Blues label, and one of the first to land on the R&B charts. In 1951, Ray was the hottest performer in America. His buzz was felt by everyone, everywhere, on radio, television, magazines and films. Ray worked with the most respected singers, arrangers, and producers: Doris Day, Frankie Laine, Ray Conniff, and Mitch Miller.
In the summer of 1951, just a few weeks after Cry went to Number One on the Pop and R&B charts; Ray was arrested twice by the Detroit Vice Squad for soliciting sex from a man at a notorious gay bar. The Vice Squad had been on to Ray ever since he played those black clubs earlier in his career, gaining a reputation as a gay bad boy. When the police report and his mug shots were released, the damage to his career was significant. Teen rebels without a cause and the bobbysoxers still held Ray as a hero, but to the establishment, he was the devil incarnate. A half decade before Elvis, Ray had the parents of America fearing for the souls of their kids.
Ray’s ferocious, fierce stage shaking fervor made him a hit with the Brits. Even after his popularity faded and he was ridiculed in the USA, Ray would play to packed houses of adoring fans all over The UK.
The scandals around Ray’s notorious personal behavior, his fondness for booze and pills that lead to high profile public drunkenness arrests, plus the emergence of Rock ‘N’ Roll, all diminished Ray’s popularity. He continued to have records on the charts but the material he was being given became increasingly irrelevant.
Despite her knowledge of the 1951 arrests, Marilyn Morrison, the daughter of the owner of the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood, married Ray in 1952. Morrison was aware that Ray was gay, but she told her friends she could “straighten him out”. She didn’t. The couple separated a year later and divorced in 1954. Morrison tried to contact Ray many times over the decades that followed their divorce, sometimes talking on the phone with Ray’s lover/manager Bill Franklin. Ray always told Franklin to get rid of her on the phone. Morrison attended the Los Angeles memorial service for Ray a month after his death and she refused to talk about Ray for the next four decades.
During a 1956 engagement at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Ray met the young Presley, who had just bombed at the same venue. Ray had been one of Presley’s biggest inspirations as a teenager in Memphis. The singers had birthdays within 24 hours of each other and they enjoyed a close friendship that lasted until Presley left this world in 1977.
Ray had a beard in news columnist and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen, despite the ire incurred on both of them by Sinatra (read Kilgallen’s #BornThisDay here). Ray’s conquest of the pop charts in 1951, holding the top three spots at once, enraged Sinatra. He was a little unhappy to be replaced by a raging, flaming fag cry-baby, and he was maddened by the fact that the love of his life, Ava Gardner, was obsessed with Ray. Sinatra held a lifelong grudge.
In 1964, Kilgallen, who had nurtured and supported Ray through his many ups and downs, was found dead in her apartment. It was speculated that she was murdered by someone who thought that she was delving too deeply into JFK’s assassination. She had supposedly uncovered the truth about the President’s murder.
After Kilgallen’s passing, Ray went back to booze, pills, and anonymous hookups with guys. His recordings and stage performances suffered. At just 50-years-old, Ray was diagnosed with cirrhosis.
In 1974, Ray gave a concert at the London Palladium. In an echo of his good friend Judy Garland, Ray had an unprecedented comeback culminating with a 15 minute standing ovation. Sadly, like Garland, Ray was one of those performers born to be back on booze and pills. He slipped into a coma on February 24, 1990, surrounded by his friends. When he slipped away for good, he was only 63-years-old.
Ray was one the most controversial performers of the pre-Rock music era. He had taken his formidable handicaps and used his personal pain to bring out the heartbreak in his voice. Ray was a gay man, who most people thought sounded like a girl. He performed with a hearing-aid sticking out of his ear. Is there any way that Ray could have been any more an outsider?
Ray is buried in the pretty town of Dayton, in beautiful Yamhill County, the middle Oregon’s wine country. Some Portland friend should drive me out there to see his grave and taste some Pinot Noir.
Above all thing, a man must be masculine. But when he has the desire to express emotion, he suppresses himself because he doesn’t think it’s manly. Ordinarily a man can’t be as demonstrative as I am when I sing, people wouldn’t understand it. But I get fan letters from men. Women in my audiences see reflected in me all the emotion and tenderness and thoughtfulness that unfortunately the American male doesn’t have time for today.