John Alvin "Johnnie" Ray (January 10, 1927 - February 24, 1990) was one of the most popular American singers of his day. He is considered by many people to be the father of rock 'n' roll.
He was born in Dallas, Oregon, and spent part of his childhood on a farm, eventually moving to Portland. He is often mistakenly said to be of American Indian origin, due to the erroneous claims of a publicity agent. He became deaf in his right ear at age 12 due to a freak accident, and would often perform wearing a hearing aid. A later operation left him almost completely deaf in both ears.
Ray first attracted attention while performing at the Flame Showbar in Detroit, an r&b nightclub where he was the only white performer. Inspired by rhythm singers like Kay Starr, LaVern Baker and Ivory Joe Hunter he developed a unique rhythm-based style that was far closer to what would become known as "rock 'n' roll" than any other music of the time. Much like Frankie Laine before him, he was often mistaken for a black artist when his records first started hitting the airwaves.
His first record, the self-penned r&b number for OKeh Records, "Whiskey and Gin," was a minor hit in 1951, but by the end of the year he would be dominating the charts with the double-sided monster hit single of "Cry" backed by "The Little Cloud That Cried" (the latter also a Ray composition). His emotional delivery struck a chord with teenagers, and he quickly the biggest teen idol since Frank Sinatra almost ten years earlier (he has been cited as the historic link between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in the development of popular music).
Ray's unorthodox performing style included many theatrics later associated with rock 'n' roll, including beating up his piano, writhing on the floor and (famously) crying. Also like Laine, his shows were often compared to religious revival meetings with the audience often getting worked up into as profound an emotional frenzy as the singer. He quickly earned a plethora of nicknames including "The Atomic Ray," "Mr. Emotion," "The Nabob of Sob," "The Cry Guy" and "The Prince of Wails."
More hits followed, including "Please Mr. Sun," "Such A Night," "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," "A Sinner Am I" and "Yes Tonight Josephine." His last hit was "Just Walkin' in the Rain," in 1956. He was even more popular in the U.K. than in the U.S., breaking the record at the London Palladium formerly set by Frankie Laine.
As wild off the stage as on, Ray soon became fodder for tabloids like "Confidential" and "Hush-Hush" which conspired to destroy his phenomenal popularity (at one point he had four of the top the top ten hits). But, ironically, he was ultimately a victim of the rock 'n' roll genre he did so much to establish. As younger and younger artists came to dominate the charts, the thirty-something Johnnie Ray was soon left by the wayside.
His career revived in the 1970s, but it is only since the late 1990s that he is beginning to receive some of the recognition he deserves. He died of liver failure in Los Angeles at the age of 63.
Classic Johnnie Ray songs include
(1951) Cry (with The Four Lads), Give Me Time, Here Am I Brokenhearted (with The Four Lads), The Little White Cloud That Cried (with The Four Lads), She Didn't Say Nothin' At All, Tell The Lady I Said Goodbye and Whiskey And Gin
(1952) All Of Me, Candy Lips (with Doris Day), Coffee And Cigarettes, Don't Blame Me, The Lady Drinks Champagne, Let's Walk That-A-Way (with Doris Day}, Mountains In The Moonlight, Out In The Cold Again, Please Mr. Sun (with The Four Lads), A Sinner Am I, and Walkin' My Baby Back Home
(1954) Alexander's Ragtime Band, As Time Goes By, Going-Going-Gone, Hernado's Hideaway, Hey There, If You Believe and Such A Night"
(1955) Flip Flop And Fly, I've Got So Many Million Years, Ooh! Aah! Oh!, Paths Of Paradise and Song Of The Dreamer
(1956) Everyday I Have The Blues, How Long How Long Blues, I Want To Be Loved, I'll Never Be Free, "I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town, Just Walkin' In The Rain, Lotus Blossom, Sent For You Yesterday and Shake A Hand(all backed by Ray Conniff and his orchestra).
(1957) Look Homeward Angel, Should I?, Soliloquy Of A Fool, Street Of Memories, Up Above My Head (with Frankie Laine) and You Don't Owe Me A Thing (all backed by Ray Conniff and his orchestra).
(1958) I'm Beginning To See The Light, I'm Confessin', The Lonely Ones and Up Until Now
(1959) Cool Water, Empty Saddles, I'll Never Fall In Love Again, It's All In The Game, Red River Valley, Twilight On The Trail, Wagon Wheels and When It's Springtime In The Rockies
(1960) I'll Make You Mine
(1962) Lookout Chatanooga
Featured role in "There's No Business Like Show Business," 1954.
Cry: The Johnnie Ray Story, Jonny Whiteside, Barricade Books, 1994.