It may be that these days most people only know the name Johnnie Ray from the opening lines to Dexy’s Midnight Runners Come On Eileen, or maybe the first verse of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, but he was – according to Tony Bennett (and who am I to argue) – the true father of rock and roll, the Missing Link between the Crooners like Crosby, Como Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Bob Dylan said Johnnie Ray was the first voice he totally fell in in love with. Nik Cohn, author of some of the best and maddest books about rock and roll I’ve ever read, said that if Elvis was the great pop messiah, then Johnnie Ray was John the Baptist.
He was huge in the 1950s. There were three Number Ones here in the UK and a couple in the USA. Most of his songs seemed to be about crying – Cry, The Little White Cloud That Cried and Just Walking In The Rain, which let’s face it is just a metaphor for crying
He famously wore a hearing aid as a result of childhood accident which left him completely deaf in his left ear and he had an over the top, heart-wrenching vocal delivery. Histrionic is not the word. His theatrics included tearing at his hair, falling to the floor, throwing the mike stand around, and – in particular – crying, earning him the nickname the Nabob of Sob. And Mr. Emotion, The Cry Guy, , the Atomic Ray, the Golden Tearjerker, the Million Dollar Teardrop, the Cheerful Tearful, the Howling Success and The Prince of Wails.
But what he mainly did was generate the most extraordinary levels of hysteria among young girls and young women, in particular in England, when he toured here in March 1953. And one of them was my mother, who saw him at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. It was utter bedlam, she told us, and she had to be helped by the St John’s Ambulance Brigade when she fainted.
Johnnie Ray was born on 10 January 1927, in Oregon, and grew up on a farm. The family later moved to Portland, the largest city Oregon, where Ray attended high school. At 13, he damaged the nerves in his left ear and lost all hearing in it. He knew something was wrong but thought it would get better so it went untreated for a year until he got him a hearing aid aged 14. Not the discreet types you have now but a huge piece of audio equipment that led to playground teasing. He had to have it on full volume. The trauma meant he became more introverted and became the odd ball in the school and bottom of the class. On top of all that, he was gay.
If his sexuality was an issue for him at that age and throughout his career, so was drinking. He had started early aged only 13 or 14 and it was to stay with him on and off – but mainly on – for the next 45 years. He left Oregon for Los Angeles aged 20 at which point he became a complete hedonist, a 5-beers-for-breakfast kind of guy with 10 vodka tonics between the early show and the late show. In his early days , when he maybe made $350 a week, he ended up owing a club in Chicago money once he settled his bar tab.
In LA the only work he could get was singing and playing piano in low-rent, mobbed up bars and strip clubs, mostly in black neighbourhoods. He watched the black singers closely and learned all about singing R&B. The loudness, the phrasing too, stretching the syllables on ballads and the stage craft. A unique sight for a tall white guy with a hearing aid who would kick the piano stool over, playing the piano standing up, twirl the mike stand, pull the stage curtains down when he jumped on them. After most shows a waitress would have to go out into the audience to retrieve piano splinters or his cufflinks which had invariably shot off during his performance.
Many thought he was black especially when in 1951 he signed with Okeh Records, part of CBS but which specialised in what were known as race records, later R&B records but essentially black artists. In the US you could be huge in a particular city but nowhere nationally and his first single Whiskey & Gin – some have described as the first rock and roll record – was a huge hit in Cleveland. He moved to Detroit where he was a huge hit too, but was arrested for importuning in June 1951. He was still an obscure singer so when he appeared in court, he pleaded guilty there was no publicity. In less than a year, he was a national headliner and rumours about his sexuality began to spread.
What changed was Cry. He recorded Cry recorded in New York in October 1951 and used all the vocal tricks he had learned, stretching and bending the words and creating a unique sound. He appeared on the national TV show Toast of the Town presented by Ed Sullivan and it sold 500,000 in the few days after the show. All of a sudden he was a big star. Comedians and impressionists added him to their repertoires, including Sammy Davis Jr. There was pandemonium wherever he performed. He made $1 million that year, 1952. He was one of the first performers to aggressively market his own lines of merchandise including the Johnnie Ray Cry-Kerchief, a hankie with Johnnie’s image on it into which you too could blub, which sold like mad. There were Johnnie Ray sports shorts, ladies’ blouses, a Johnny Ray Teardrop suit, Johnny Ray bobby socks.
But he was always a risk with his sexuality, which was at self-destruct levels given he was so indiscreet. His manager had him photographed with voluptuous starlets but there were always rumours. As I said he was bisexual if anything and there’s no doubt he enjoyed the company of many of strippers he met in those clubs he worked when he first got to LA. His managers thought he needed to get married so in May 1952 he married Marilyn Morrison, the daughter of the owner well-known LA club, the Mocambo after what was a show-mance conducted in the press. She knew all about his sexuality but told a friend she would “straighten him out.” However the couple separated after 18 months in December 1953 and divorced the following year.
He was arrested a lot because he acted without any caution whatsoever because a) he was famous and b) he usually drunk so he was arrested for D&D, or in the case of Boston Airport, urinating in a plant pot when he couldn’t find the loo, then lay down and fell asleep until he woke up two hours later expecting to be on a plane to Cleveland but was actually in jail.
In December 1953 a small newspaper printed a story that they had the real scoop of the end of the marriage: Johnny Cry Ray Arrested on Homosexual Charge and info red readers of his bust 2 years earlier for importuning. Thankfully the story was not picked up for publication by any other papers but everyone now knew. And his marriage was definitely over and she was paid off. The combination of the public marriage failure, rumours of his importuning arrest and stories about his drinking meant he lost some popularity in the USA, so he booked a tour of the UK for the Spring
He arrived here in late March 1953 for a three-week tour of Britain, starting with two sold out weeks at the London Palladium. Johnnie Ray had sold a lot of music here but the critics couldn’t get past the crying and other antics but regardless of what they wrote, the Palladium rocked like it had never rocked before. There was pandemonium at every show because we had never seen a performer move like that. They were monochrome times, still recovering from the war and there were no cool role models yet.
After the show, fans spilled out into Great Marlborough Street, to the stage door, blocking the traffic not least for Johnnie who was unable to get back to his car back the Savoy. He had to climb out onto the roof at the back of the theatre and wave and blow kisses to the crowd to get them to leave which they eventually did. He had to do the same thing back at the Savoy and there were mobs of fans outside who wouldn’t leave until he came out on his balcony and give them a wave. It was the same story when he played shows in the provinces. In Glasgow his clothes were ripped off him by screaming crowds so he started wearing cheap shirts and trousers because he lost so many. Everyone wanted a souvenir.
He returned the next year to play the Palladium again and tour the country, to ever bigger crowds. When his plane arrived, thousands met him at London Airport. At the Palladium, hysteria reached a fever pitch. Fans smashed the stage door barrier and dozens of additional police were called in. In Edinburgh 1,000 fans followed his limo from the airport to his hotel. When he got there, he stepped out of the car and got about two feet as hands grabbed his hair, coat, £80 suit … and hearing aid. He was pushed back into the car almost unconscious and driven to the back entrance. 30 minutes later, recovered, he appeared on his balcony and sang Cry to the crowd of fans below. He quipped If I’d known I was going to get this kind of reception, I’d have worn cheaper clothes
Back at the Palladium the next year, 1955, he was arrested running naked in the corridors at the Dorchester, banging on hotel doors, but was not charged. Hysteria continued though in the street, and he had a phalanx of 8 policemen to protect him when he went out. A local councillor complained about the waste of resources but the senior police officer said We are not protecting Johnnie Ray, we are controlling the one thousand strong crowd of irresponsible teenagers following him.
Hr remained extraordinarily popular here, with three Number One hits, but back in the US, there was a bit of a backlash. One or two scandal sheets had picked up the story of his 1950 importuning bust, which in turn implied that his very public marriage had been a sham. He needed a slightly dirty, raunchy record to get back to the top of the chart so he chose Such A Night, originally a Drifters song but later a hit for Elvis of course. It backfired because many radio stations refused to play it mainly because the lyric Came the dawn and my heart and her love and the night was gone suggested they’d spent the night together, a bit racy for the mid-1950s.
There were no more hits till 1956, the year of Elvis who he had influenced so much especially in the Pelvis department, with Just Walking in The Rain, although he made so much money all over the world from live show he didn’t bother recording much. And when he did his records limped into the lower reaches of the charts. But Walking in the Rain got to Number 2, kept from the top by Love Me Tender. It was sort of his last hit on the US although he had several more here up to 1959.
In 1958, a wealthy man despite his extraordinary spending on booze and hedonism, he went into hospital to have an operation to restore his hearing. In fact, he had two operations, after the first was a failure. If the first was a failure, the second was a disaster and he was completely deaf in his left ear and lost 60% of the hearing in his right ear.
His chart career was over in the USA although he was still popular here in the UK and could always sell out. By 1963, after years of extraordinary boozing and pill popping, his health was poor and there were spells in hospital and a complete collapse. He got sober after cirrhosis was diagnosed and moved to Spain with his new manager, also his partner off stage. He was sober for the rest of the Sixties but in 1969 he went back to New York for his annual physical and amazingly his doctor said he’d done so well that it was probably be alright for him to enjoy the occasional glass of wine now and then. Inevitably now and then quickly became every day and an occasional glass became a bottle. Within a few months was a fully-fledged boozer again.
He was back at the Palladium in 1974 for the first time in 18 years and sold out every night and his run there was extended. He was invited back to headline the 1977 Royal Command Silver Jubilee Performance but tripped over the microphone cable as he walked on stage, fell into the piano and his singing – usually the most reliable thing – was awful. Some even booed. He was actually sober but just in poor health because of booze. He kept going till in 1989, the last year he performed, when his liver just gave up. He tried for a transplant donor but couldn’t find one and he died of liver failure on February 24 1990 aged only 63.