"Poor old Johnny Ray, Sounded sad upon the radio, But he moved a million hearts in mono."
"Come On Eileen" - Dexy's Midnight Runners
A few weeks ago, I asked people if they knew who the guy in these photos were back in the 80s & 90s, when his name seemed to be dropped into several popular songs.
Yes, 80's and 90's kids, this is Johnnie Ray, the singer mentioned in "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners, "Don't Need a Gun" by Billy Idol, "Sometimes When We Cry" by Van Morrison, "We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel and "Are you Jimmy Ray?" by Jimmy Ray.
You couldn't say his music is forgotten, but the impact of his performing style is. Johnnie Ray was the one-man transition team between the quiet crooners such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como to wild rock and rollers like Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Ray would start off singing a love song in a soft, high-pitched, almost childlike voice, but by the end of the song, he would be screaming, almost in tears, sweating and twisting his clothes. He would sometimes collapse at the end of a song. Many of his biggest hits were songs that were sad and about crying. His biggest hit was "Cry" followed not long after by "The Little White Cloud the Cried." Comedians, like Stan Freberg and Spike Jones (with help from Billy Barty), love to imitate him and make jokes about his style, while teenage girls loved him. You might say Johnnie Ray was the 50s version of Justin Bieber.
Part of the reason for the lack of familiarity of younger generations with his style is because Ray's peak in popularity came during televisions infancy, when many shows were shown live and not recorded for posterity. Also, very little footage of his concerts exist.
Not to brag, but I knew the name Johnnie Ray back in the 80s. I knew of him from two places: my parents and the TV show Happy Days. My parents had an LP of 50s hits that was on the Columbia label. Both of the songs I mention above were included on this LP. I knew of these songs because of Happy Days. One episode ends with the gang having to leave Arnold's because they have been grounded. The only people left are the two waitresses, Marsha and Wendy, and a nerdy girl and a fat boy eating a large banana split. The juke-box begins playing "The Little White Cloud That Cried" and the boy and girl get up and dance with each other. I should point out that the show ends before the point in the song where Ray has one of his famous "meltdowns."
If you watch the closing credits, you will notice that Johnnie Ray receives a special thanks. Apparently, Johnnie Ray rerecorded some of his hits for the the producers to used, because his name and Fats Domino are the only two musical artist who were thank for allowing the use of their recording for most of the run of the show. Oddly, enough the show didn't use Ray's songs after the fifth season, although they used Domino's music right up til the end.
I remember my parents watching nostalgia variety shows on PBS and seeing Johnnie Ray, but he never see perform in the frantic style that made him famous in his younger days. However, he still could sing loud enough to wake the dead. Of course, his trademark sound has been attributed to the fact that he was partially deaf.
Beside appearing to cry, Ray also seemed to give the impression that he was in severe pain. When you read his story you'll find out there was quite a bit of suffering in his life and later career. He lost most of his hearing at a young age and an operation, at the height of his career, to restore his hearing caused him to lose the rest. Problems with a bad manager that caused Ray to have problems with the IRS and may have sabotaged his career. Rumors of bisexuality coupled with two arrest for soliciting sex in a men's room, a bought with tuberculosis and alcoholism led to Ray being on a constant roller coaster of near-comebacks and disappointments.
While the American public never gave Johnnie Ray the comeback that he wanted, Britain and the rest of the world continued to love him. One of the reasons he was mentioned in the songs of Dexy's Midnight Runners and Billy Idol was because he was never forgotten in Britain. Ringo Starr once mentioned that the Beatles were influenced by him. Bob Dylan admits that Johnnie Ray was one of his favorite singers. Once you become familiar with Johnnie Ray's singing style you recognize it as the inspiration for Dylan's famous singing style that he adapted when he went "electric" in the mid 60s.
Just four years after appearing in the video of Billy Idol's song, "Don't Need a Gun" as a man driving around in a classic car, Johnnie Ray died on this day in 1990. So next time you hear his name in a hit from the 80s, you will know more about him.
Here is one of the few TV clips I could find from his heyday in the 50s.