Emotional Commotion : Johnny Ray©2004JCMarion


Before there were "boy bands", before Duran Duran, before The Beatles, and before Elvis, there was Johnny Ray. He was the link between Sinatra and Elvis, the object of a scene nearing mass hysteria among teenage girls on a national scale. And as with the other "idols" of the airwaves and the phonograph record, there was the parental derision toward the object of so much affection from so many. In the case of Johnny Ray, there were factors that made his rise to pop stardom a truly strange and unforeseen event.

Ray was born in January of 1927 in Dallas, Oregon. A bit of childhood horseplay led to his partial deafness and this condition caused his need of a hearing aid from the time of his early teens. By the time of his early twenties he was intrigued by the music business and wanted to try his hand at being a professional singer. In 1951 he found himself in Detroit and was attracted to some of the Black performers of the time. One night in a visit to that city's premier showplace for Black entertainment, The Flame Showbar, he was befriended by R & B performer LaVern Baker known as Lil Miss Sharecropper. Before long Baker and her manager Al Green gave the newcomer some performance tips to help him develop his own personal style. Johnny Ray was on his way as Al Green becomes his manager for the time being. Ray learned enough to interest Danny Kessler who was developing R & B artists for Okeh Records, Columbia's subsidiary label which was looking to move into the R & B field at the time. They must have heard something they could not quite pigeonhole at the time and soon his first record was out. A tune he wrote himself called "Whiskey And Gin" was coupled with "Tell The Lady I Said Goodbye" and recorded with Maurice King & His Wolverines on on Okeh #6809. King was out with his own side on #6800 - "I Want A Lavender Cadillac" with a vocal by Bea Baker (in reality LaVern) and "Spider's Web".

By September, Ray's initial recording was selling well in places like Cleveland where it topped ten thousand copies, and Louisville where it passed the five thousand mark. In late October on the promise of that first record, Ray was back in the studio for Okeh. This time Mitch Miller was the producer and The Four Lads were to do back up vocals. The songs set for release were a Ray original "The Little White Cloud That Cried" and a second tune called simply "Cry". This tune was written by a night watchman for a dry cleaning plant in Pittsburgh named Churchill Kohlman. He originally envisioned the song as a country weeper. Not so. The original version of the tune by Ruth Casey on the Cadillac label did not do much, but someone saw the possibilities. The like sounding subjects and both being ballads did not phase Miller who had a Midas like touch during the early fifties with Columbia Records after a similar stint with Mercury where he developed Frankie Laine and Patti Page. Both tunes were released by Okeh on #6840. The pop music version of the apocalypse was about to be unleashed.

The winter of 1951-52 belonged to Johnny Ray. Both sides of the record broke out all over the country. R & B fans were surprised to find out that he was White, and because of that he was moved to the category of pop music and away from the R & B influence that was being tried by Okeh Records. Once the country got a look at Ray performing, he became a pop icon. He was an emotional performer, sometimes almost with a frenzied delivery with somewhat spastic movements (was a young Elvis watching ?) and his vocal delivery was something to behold with his incredible syllable bending and drawn out phrasing. He soon became target number one for all manner of mimics and impersonators replacing Billy Daniels in that regard. I remember watching that top TV show called "Talent Scouts" all those years ago, when a young performer who didn't have much going for him latched on to a dead on imitation of Ray. That's all he needed because he won hands down over superior talent just by the force of Ray's identity and popularity with young record buyers.

Now Columbia Records had a stick of dynamite on their hands. What to do with Johnny Ray ? Because they still geared themselves to adults and pop music standards, they took the wrong direction (much as Parker and RCA would do with Elvis ten years later) and proceeded to dilute the raw talent of Ray and give him standards to record to try and appeal to Mom and Dad. But for the time in early 1952, "Cry" and "White Cloud" were both monster hits and pulled an unprecedented double of placing in the number one and two positions at the same time. The record sold in excess of two million copies initially, the fastest selling record up until that time in the post war era. In February of 1952 Columbia went ahead and released "Here Am I Broken Hearted" and "Please Mr. Sun" on #39636. Both songs were again backed up by The Four Lads and this time used the orchestra of Jimmy Carroll. Again both sides were big hits, not quite in the league with his breakthrough recording, but top ten sellers. In March Johnny appeared at long time R & B venue the Earle Theater in Philadelphia with The Swallows and Tiny Bradshaw & His Highlanders. In April, Ray once again teamed with The Four lads and Jimmy Carroll's Orchestra for a tune called "What's The Use?" on #39698 (the flip was "Mountains In The Moonlight"). Another good seller for Ray and Columbia, this one was a top fifteen seller and remained on the best sellers list for two months. In May Johnny Ray does another twin bill close to the heart of R & B as he appears with The Dominos at the Oriental Theater in Chicago.

Recorded with just a piano quartet (Buddy Cole), "Walking My Baby Back Home" (b/w "Out In The Cold Again") was another throwback tune, with the sound of a pop standard sung at a late night piano bar setting. It was a far cry from the emotional explosion of his first record but Ray had enough style and talent to pull off another big seller with this tune. Columbia #39750 got up to the number five position in sales across the country and remained a best seller for five months. Johnny started to make in person appearances around the country and in an important engagement at New York City's Copacabana Club wowed the newspaper critics and Ray's popularity soared. Back together with The Four Lads and Jimmy Carroll, another old standard "All Of Me" was given the Ray touch and coupled with "A Sinner Am I" on #39788, gave Johnny Ray his third two sided hit record in less than two years. By now he was fodder for every manner of impressionist, and media wags gave him a number of sobriquets including "the nabob of sob" and "prince of wails". In late 1952, "Gee But I'm Lonesome" / "Don't Say Love Has Ended" goes nowhere on #39814, and two subsequent Columbia releases did very little in sales or airplay and were the first of Ray's recordings not to have an impact on record buyers. "Love Me" on #39837, and trying out a duet with top star Doris Day, "A Full Time Job" / "Ma Says Pa Says" on #39898 charted very briefly on the nation's best seller lists.

In early 1953 "I'm Gonna Walk And Talk With My Lord" with the Buddy Cole Quartet and old friends The Four Lads, another departure for Ray, was released on #39908 and briefly charted in the top twenty five. "Oh What A Sad Sad Day" / "Mister Moonlight" on #39939 gets lost. Going back to their steadfast belief in recycling old pop songs, "Somebody Stole My Gal" was released in early April on #39961 and became Ray's biggest seller in over a year. The top ten seller had a chart life of over two months, and later that spring another duet with Doris Day produced "Candy Lips" on #40001 which was a moderate hit. In May, Johnny Ray finishes in fourth place among male vocalists in a poll of readers of the Pittsburgh Courier. In August Johnny Ray covered Eddie Fisher's "With These Hands" on #40026 with the Cole Quartet and the Lads. That and its following release "All I Do Is Dream Of You" on #40046 did not do much in sales and both barely made the charts for one week. In late October another old pop standard was recorded with the Buddy Cole Quartet, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" on #40090. And again it had a very short life on the pop charts.

In February of 1954 another short lived record was released on #40154 - "You'd Be Surprised". Johnny's next record was not so much of a big hit, but made the news for other reasons. The song was "Such A Night" which was on Columbia #40200. Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters had a well known R & B hit with the song, Bunny Paul also did well with the tune, and Johnny Ray got into the top twenty on the pop charts with his version. The controversy had to do with what were called "suggestive" lyrics ( or "leerics" as they were called in those battleground years). Midwestern powerhouse radio station WXYZ in Detroit banned all three versions after a deluge of protests from parents. The station had run a popularity poll on listener's favorite version and Ray had won that contest hands down. In May Johnny tries something new - two songs from Broadway's hit show "The Pajama Game". The songs are "Hey There" and "Hernandos Hideaway". Despite hit versions of the songs by other musicians - "Hey There" by Rosemary Clooney and "Hernandos Hideaway" by Archie Bleyer and Billy May, Johnny Ray's recording of the songs on #40224 did well. A top fifteen seller nationally and a two month stay on the hit charts resulted in his biggest hit in two years. Ray had one last moderate hit in 1954 - "To Every Boy To Every Girl" on #40252. In 1954 Hollywood beckoned Johnny Ray and he did a musical role in the motion picture "There's No Business Like Show Business" with Dan Dailey, Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe, and Mitzi Gaynor.

In 1955 Ray covers Perry Como's "Papa Loves Mambo" on #40324 without success, "Alexander's Rag Time Band" (from his movie role) follows suit as does "As Time Goes By" / "Nobody's Sweetheart" on #40392, and "Paths Of Paradise" on #40435. Columbia now tries Johnny Ray on R & B covers. First Joe Turner's "Flip Flop And Fly" on #40471, Billy Brooks "Song Of The Dreamer" on #40528, and The Clovers "Love Love Love" on #40578. None of these Columbia releases pan out. The same lack of success results with "Who's Sorry Now" on #40613, "Ain't Misbehaving" on #40649, and "Because I Love You" on #40695. However, just as most music fans wrote off Ray in the middle of the rock 'n roll age, comes Ray's somewhat country flavored cover of the Prisonaires "Just Walking In The Rain" on 40729 (with "In The Candlelight" on the flip side). Johnny Ray's reading of Johnny Bragg's great tune explodes across the nation and is held out of the number one position by only Elvis "Hound Dog". "Just Walking" remains on the nation's top hit charts for an unbelievable six months crossing over to R & B and country charts as well. It is his biggest hit since "Cry" and a multi million seller. Could he do it again ? The answer is yes with "You Don't Owe Me A Thing" on #40803 which hits in early 1957. It is a solid top ten seller and a two and a half month stay on the charts. The flip side "Look Homeward Angel" also makes the best sellers list. In 1957 Johnny Ray has a hit LP for Columbia called interestingly enough, "The Big Beat" on #961. His next effort for Columbia "Yes Tonight Josephine" on #40893 is a good seller during the summer of the year. Unfortunately, this is the last chart hit for Johnny Ray but it has been a great run for six years.

Ray continued to record for Columbia Records for the rest of the decade, mostly with original pop songs. The last side for the label was "Tell Me" / "Don't Leave Me Now" on #41705. Ray then recorded for various labels such as Cadence, United Artists, Liberty, and Decca. His popularity may have waned in the U.S. but Ray remained a popular singer in England and Australia. During the nineteen eighties he was seen in the United States on television infomercials selling CDs of all of his recordings. He remained a consummate performer to the end, passing away in early 1990.

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