In a 1986 interview Ray recalled, "I've screwed my way around the world eight times over, minimum. That's sex. "Love" is another giant word. I've scared off my share of nice guys. Anyway, nice guys don't gravitate to guys like me, guys who're famous."
The publication, British Hit Singles & Albums, noted that Ray was "a sensation in the 1950s, the heart-wrenching vocal delivery of the 'Cry Guy' ... influenced many acts including Elvis and was the prime target for teen hysteria in the pre-Presley days".
John Alvin Ray was born in Dallas, Oregon, spending part of his childhood on a farm, lived in Dallas, Polk County, Oregon, with parents Elmer and Hazel Ray and older sister Elma Ray, and attended grade school there, eventually moving to Portland, Oregon, where he attended high school. Ray was not of Native American origin: it was rumored that his great-grandmother was a full-blooded Blackfoot Indian, but in a response to a reporter questioning his heritage in 1952, Ray, puzzled, looked down at his shoes and said "Blackfoot". His great-grandfather was Oregon pioneer George Kirby Gay of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England.
He became deaf in his right ear at age 13 after an accident during a Boy Scout "blanket toss," a variation of the trampoline. (Ray later performed wearing a hearing aid. Surgery performed in New York 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 style, described as alternating between pre-rock R&B and a more conventional classic pop approach.
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. "We were both excited," Seymour recalls. "We heard two shows that first night." Lang rushed off to New York to sell the singer to Danny Kessler, the "Mr. Big" 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. He capitalized on his sudden superstardom by appearing in the hit movie There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) alongside such stars as Marilyn Monroe.
Ray's performing style included theatrics later associated with rock and roll, including tearing at his hair, falling to the floor, and letting the tears flow. Ray quickly earned the nicknames "Mr. Emotion", "The Nabob of Sob", and "The Prince of Wails", and several others.
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 UK Christmas number 1 hit with "Just Walkin' in the Rain" in 1956. He hit again in 1957 with "You Don't Owe Me a Thing", which reached number 10 in the Billboard charts. He was popular in the United Kingdom, breaking the record at the London Palladium formerly set by 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 who gave a boost to his sagging American career during his engagement at the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1965.
In early 1969, Ray befriended Judy Garland, performing as her opening act during her last concerts in Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden. Ray was also the best man during Garland's wedding to nightclub manager Mickey Deans in London.
Ray's American career revived in the early 1970s, with 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. He performed in small American venues such as El Camino College in 1987. Australian, English and Scottish promoters booked him for their large venues as late as 1989, his last year of performing.
Some writers suggested that the reason American entertainment bookers and songwriters ignored him in the 1980s was because they simply did not know who he was, or what his sound was like. His exposure during the new era of cable television was limited to a few seconds in Dexys Midnight Runners' 1982 music video for "Come On Eileen", using archival footage of Ray from 1954. The lyrics of the song included "Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio / He moved a million hearts in mono".
Ray's other MTV video appearance was in Billy Idol's 1986 "Don't Need a Gun", for which he was filmed in 1986 for an on-camera appearance. He is name-checked in the lyrics.
Ray is one of the cultural touchstones mentioned in the first verse (concerning events from the late 1940s and early 1950s) of Billy Joel's 1989 hit single "We Didn't Start the Fire", between Red China and South Pacific. At the time of the song's release, Ray was alive and details of his poor health were not public knowledge.
After Ray's death, he was name-checked by Van Morrison in his duet with Tom Jones entitled "Sometimes We Cry".
Ray was arrested twice for soliciting men for sex. He quietly pleaded guilty and paid a fine after the first arrest, in the restroom of the Stone Theatre burlesque house in Detroit, which was just prior to the release of his first record in 1951. The incident was not reported in newspapers, and very few people outside Detroit knew about it during his sudden rise to stardom in 1952. Ray went to trial following the second arrest in 1959, also in Detroit, for soliciting an undercover officer in a bar called the Brass Rail, which has been described variously as attracting traveling musicians and attracting gay people. He was found not guilty.
Despite her knowledge of the 1951 arrest, Marilyn Morrison, daughter of the owner of the Mocambo nightclub in West Hollywood, California, married Johnnie Ray in 1952. The wedding ceremony took place in New York a short time after he gave his first New York concert, which was at the Copacabana. New York mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri attended the ceremony, which got a lot of attention via the cover of the New York Daily News. Morrison was aware of the singer's sexuality from the start, telling a friend she would "straighten it out." The couple separated in 1953 and divorced in 1954. A Ray biography published in 1994 claimed Morrison tried to contact Ray many times in the decades that followed their divorce, sometimes talking on the phone with Bill Franklin, who served as his manager between 1963 and 1976. Ray always instructed Franklin to get rid of her on the phone. The book also claims Morrison seemed very sad while attending a Los Angeles memorial service for Ray a month after his death (he was buried in Oregon), and she refused to talk to the biographer in the early 1990s.
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 also had a relationship with newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, whom he allegedly met for the first time during one of his two appearances as the mystery guest on What's My Line?. Ray told this story to Kilgallen biographer Lee Israel in 1976, at which time neither had access to the kinescopes of those live telecasts that date from August 22, 1954 and June 9, 1957. Kilgallen was a strong support for Ray during the solicitation trial in Detroit in December 1959, possibly communicating by telephone with the district attorney or judge. Ray's fate was decided by a jury composed entirely of older women, one of whom ran to Ray to console him when he fainted upon hearing the "not guilty" verdict.
Ray drank regularly, and in 1960 he was hospitalized for tuberculosis. He recovered but continued drinking and was diagnosed with cirrhosis at age fifty.
On February 24, 1990, Ray died of liver failure at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. He is buried at Hopewell Cemetery near Hopewell, Oregon.
For his contribution to the recording industry, Johnnie Ray has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6201 Hollywood Boulevard.
Johnnie Ray and Miss Kilgallen by Bonnie Hearn Hill and Larry Hill
Paperback: 290 pages
Publisher: Durban House (June 2002)
Amazon: Johnnie Ray and Miss Kilgallen
He was the world's biggest singing star. She was the most renowned female journalist of her time. They had fame, power, money, connections. The last thing they needed was love.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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