Remembering Johnnie Ray
January 10, 1927 - February 24, 1990
One of the greatest of the transition singers between the crooners and the rockers, Johnnie Ray was the only son of Elmer and Hazel Ray. He was born and raised in Dallas Oregon where he loved hiking in nature. He was close with his older sister, sometimes hiking with her. Mother nature eventually would inspire the song lyrics he wrote. After he became famous, he corrected any reporter who asked him whether he preferred living in Los Angeles or New York. He insisted Dallas Oregon always would be his home.
Ray lost a large part of his hearing at age 13 in an accident while at a Boy Scout event. His hearing loss was not known to his immediate family for several months; they knew only that he became more withdrawn. After high school, he began singing locally in a wild, flamboyant style, unlike any other white singer up to that time. At age 25 he became an American sensation. The following year, during his first concert tour of the United Kingdom, Ray started attracting mobs of young people who rioted in front of him. In 1954, at age 27, he became the first American performer to draw crowds in Australia.
Ray's early songs, such as the 1952 45 RPM record, "Cry" / "The Little White Cloud That Cried," were major successes. Following up on that hit single, later the same year (1952) Ray had a #4 United States hit with a cover of the 1930 standard "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." In 1954, he covered The Drifters' R & B hit "Such A Night." Ray's version, released a short time after The Drifters' version, peaked at #18 on the American charts.
In 1954, Johnnie Ray co-starred alongside Marilyn Monroe, Donald O'Connor, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor and Ethel Merman in the 20th Century Fox movie musical There's No Business Like Show Business. Monroe's hatred of the movie was widely publicized, and it was a disappointment at the box office and with critics. After Monroe's premature death, There's No Business Like Show Business was remembered for her dancing and singing "Heat Wave," a scene that contrasts sharply with the wholesome, phony remainder of the movie. Ray's character sings and dances with his family in vaudeville until he surprises them by becoming a Catholic priest. Much later, he returns to the family, explaining that the parish is allowing him to perform with them while wearing clothing that is similar to theirs. Johnnie Ray never appeared in another A-list motion picture.
His cover of "Just Walkin' In The Rain," which had been composed years earlier by two incarcerated men, rose to #2 on the American charts in December 1956. His last major hit song in the United States came in 1957: "You Don't Owe Me A Thing." His recordings reached many more people in the United Kingdom than in the United States for the next four years.
In 1960, Johnnie Ray's record label dropped him. Another label signed him in 1961 then dropped him a short time later. He never released another recording. From 1961 until his death in 1990, his popularity could be measured only by the venues where he performed and the number of tickets sold. Ray never played a stadium or large concert hall in the United States again.
In 1987, Ray performed in the relatively small auditorium at El Camino College in Torrance, California, a far cry from the nearby Hollywood Bowl where he had performed on August 27, 1955. Even that far back, according to a Los Angeles Times display ad for the Hollywood Bowl that can be found in the newspaper's August 23 edition in its database, Johnnie Ray was billed as one of six attractions at the "8:30 Pops" concert. (Performers were billed in this order: Johnny Green, Johnnie Ray, Helen O'Connell, Les Baxter, Four Freshmen, Leo Diamond.) It was the only appearance Ray ever made at the Hollywood Bowl.
Johnnie Ray's brushes with the law during two visits to Detroit (1951 and 1959) resulted from a sting operation that police officers throughout the United States routinely did to apprehend promiscuous gay men. In the aftermath of the 1951 arrest, Ray pled guilty and paid a fine. He was acquitted of the 1959 charge. Some writers have said Ray's trouble in Detroit may have contributed to a decline in his popularity in his home country. Ray's 1951 arrest, however, was not reported in any newspapers at the time because there was no trial and his career did not take off until a few months later. By the time of his arrest and acquittal at the end of 1959, his career already had slipped considerably.
Other music historians have cited an equally important factor in Ray's fade from public view: an operation he underwent in New York in 1958 that he and his surgeon hoped would restore his hearing. The surgeon botched the procedure and his hearing worsened, thereby making it much harder for him to communicate with musicians who backed him and with record producers and sound engineers. They put the name Johnnie Ray on a shelf, and a new generation of songwriters including Burt Bacharach didn't put Ray on the list of singers they wrote for. Ray had to deal with the worst fate that could befall a solo performer in the 1960s as younger fans lionized groups that wrote their own songs: Ray no longer introduced new material to concertgoers or record buyers.
During his heyday, Johnnie Ray had had to endure a marriage to a Los Angeles woman named Marilyn Morrison. Influential newspaper columnists such as Louella Parsons wrote about the couple many times between 1952 and 1954 as they frequently separated and reconciled, or so the columnists claimed. A biographer speculated decades later that music business bigwigs, which included Morrison's father, had arranged the marriage to divert the public's attention from Ray's alleged homosexuality. But during Ray's declining years, he had to cope with a media cover-up that was even more devastating: columnist Earl Wilson reported his 1958 botched surgery untruthfully, saying it was a total success that enabled Ray to hear normally. As new generations came along, no one in the music business knew or cared why Ray was unable to communicate with musicians and other people he needed for a comeback.
The truth about why Johnnie Ray faded is complicated further by the fact that at the very same time Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly replaced him on the Billboard charts, syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen continued to write about him as if he were still on the A list. New Yorkers who saw them together noticed that they were openly affectionate in public. For many years, they speculated that she was blurring the boundary between her career and personal life, using her column to suggest to those in the music business that they should hire Ray with whom she was in love.
Kilgallen's column as it appeared in the New York Journal-American on September 15, 1965 included a plug for his current show at New York's Latin Quarter nightclub, owned by the father of television newscaster Barbara Walters, and it also plugged a gig he had scheduled for October in Las Vegas. Neither Kilgallen nor any other journalist revealed that immediately before the Latin Quarter gig had started, Ray and his new manager lived in Spain for eight months during which time they settled a debt of many thousands of dollars that he owed to the IRS. Ray's manager from the previous decade, Bernie Lang, allegedly had been responsible for the accumulation of the IRS debt, and this presents yet another factor that likely contributed to Ray's disappearance from the public eye. Unlike the trouble that Col. Tom Parker caused Elvis, the way Bernie Lang treated Johnnie Ray has interested few people over the years. Lang was interviewed after Ray's death and maintained his innocence.
Johnnie Ray did make a minor comeback in the United States in the early 1970s, making TV appearances on The Andy Williams Show (1962) and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962). Record labels and songwriters continued to ignore him, however. Americans could not buy his music. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, nostalgia for music without electric guitar distortion drew American television viewers to such prime-time shows as Happy Days (1974) and The Love Boat (1977), but Johnnie Ray never appeared on-camera. His 1950s recordings can be heard playing in the background of two 1974 Happy Days episodes. In 1982, MTV put in heavy rotation the video for "Come On, Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners. The opening verse name-checked Johnnie Ray and the video included 28-year-old news footage of emotional girls greeting Ray as he arrived at Heathrow Airport in London. But most of the target audience for the song and especially for the MTV video had never heard of him. They tuned out the black-and-white footage and the lyrics, which Dexys Midnight Runners sang with a heavy English accent. American listeners were clueless about the words that open the song. They were almost unintelligible in the era before Google: "Poor old Johnnie Ray / sounded sad upon the radio, etc."
Ray continued to perform in Las Vegas but attracted much less attention than headliners Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton and Liberace. His popularity never waned at large concert venues in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, as well as Australia. The summer of 1989 saw Johnnie Ray headlining and filling up those venues, but when he performed in his beloved Oregon in October of that year, more than half the seats were empty.
Very soon after returning from Oregon, which he said was his actual home, to Los Angeles, where he lived out of necessity, he began showing symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver. His overseas fans didn't have access to this information. The American media now included many more entertainment news outlets than it had in the era when Louella Parsons and Earl Wilson had made a fuss over Ray, but all journalists, including those on Entertainment Tonight, ignored the fact that he was dying. In 1990, he was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for three weeks without attracting attention. When he entered an irreversible coma on February 23, 1990, a newspaper wire service finally picked up the story, followed by frequent announcements on CNN until he died the next day. His loyal fans in Europe and Australia had not known he was ill and were shocked and saddened. He was 63.