Broke a billion hearts in mono
October 5, 2010 4:57 AM   Subscribe

"Teen rebels and bobbysoxers still heralded Johnnie Ray as their hero, but to parents across America, he was Public Enemy Number One. Five years before Elvis Presley evoked a similar kind of mass parental dread, Johnnie had all of button-down America shaking in their boots, fearing for the souls of their children."

He's considered a missing link between Sinatra and Elvis (an admirer and acquaintance).
He was known as Mr. Emotion, the Prince of Wails, the Nabob of Sob, The Sob Throb, The Cry Guy, The Million Dollar Teardrop, The Atomic Ray, and sometimes The Guy with the Rubber Face and Squirt Gun Eyes. His first single topped both the pop and R&B charts in 1951. His performances were known for their direct emotion, a distinct contrast to the cool, distanced style popular with the crooners of the time. Bob Dylan called him "The first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with."

His single "Such A Night" was banned by ASCAP and the BBC as being too suggestive.

Hearing impaired since a blanket-toss accident at age 12, Johnny was later rendered almost totally deaf by an attempt at corrective surgery; he depended on hearing aids, and became a spokesman for the Better Hearing Institute. He was Judy Garland's opening act and best man, Marilyn Monroe's co-star, he carried on a notorious affair with Dorothy Kilgallen, and was an occasional house guest of Noel Coward.

Johnnie Ray died of liver failure in February of 1990, having paved the way for rock and roll's most expressive performers (478-page PDF dissertation).

Whiskey and Gin
Tell The Lady Goodbye
Lotus Blossom (original title: Sweet Marijuana)
Just Walkin' In The Rain (featured in Bioshock)
Mountains In The Moonlight
I Miss You So
After You've Gone (duet with Shani Wallis)
When's Your Birthday Baby
Pretty-Eyed Baby
No Wedding Today
Please Mr. Sun
posted by MrVisible (17 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I always found it curious that Johnny Ray's records were released on Okeh, which I always believed was primarily a 'race records' label. Presumably it was because he had a very R&B style?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:19 AM on October 5, 2010

Excellent post!
posted by timshel at 5:25 AM on October 5, 2010

Nowadays, you'll find a large majority of people know him as "what comes after Harry Truman, Doris Day, and Red China".
posted by Wolfdog at 5:37 AM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

That "Little White Queer That Cried" link has all sorts of a style of writing that I despise:

"As far as pop stars go, he was a strange creature, an abomination of sorts."

"Upon reaching his majority, Ray headed for Hollywood-- following in the footsteps of so many worthless others-- he would be in pictures and show the folks back home that he was no spazz."

"Johnnie Ray's liver packed it in, and the little white queer cried no more. "

I mean, Jesus -- it's like the aesthetic is "tell the story in the ugliest, most contemptuous way possible." This is not a complaint about the FPP, which is excellent, but, despite years of reading zines, many of which took on this sort of "isn't life hysterical because it's so fucked up" attitude as a badge of pride, it's still a shock to be exposed to it.

Hey, blog writer guy -- that style of sobbing while sining wasn't something Johnny Ray came up with. It was quite common in rhythm and blues music. I give you "The Bells" as just one example. I don't like that this author highlights Ray's deafness and sexual preference as some sort of hilarious freakishness, and behaves as though his emotive singing style were some sort of delicious weirdness to be highlighted. Ray was remarkable for many reasons, but it wasn't because he was some extraordinary oddball who finally needs a blogger to pull him out of obscurity to highlight just how very, very strange he was.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:51 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

...or from the first verse of "Come On Eileen"...
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:52 AM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

posted by The Whelk at 6:02 AM on October 5, 2010

At one such event he met Sophie Tucker, an idol of his, who advised him, "If you want to make it in show business, kid, get the hell out of Portland."
posted by The Whelk at 6:05 AM on October 5, 2010

Slight correction: Johnny Ray was Mickey Dean's best man. He barely knew Garland or Dean, but was invited because Dean had booked him for the upcoming tour with Judy. It's probably a good thing too- Johnny Ray seems to be the life of the rather sad and pathetic party that was Mickey and Judy's wedding.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:00 AM on October 5, 2010

And now look where we are. Button-down America was right!
posted by five fresh fish at 8:47 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

At one such event he met Sophie Tucker, an idol of his, who advised him, "If you want to make it in show business, kid, get the hell out of Portland."

What the hell? Was she insane? Portland is home to the world's only pirate-themed Vegan restaurant/strip club, the Pirate's Tavern/Casa Diablo! That's not something you just walk away from!
posted by Naberius at 9:19 AM on October 5, 2010

I've got some Johnnie Ray on vinyl.
posted by DaddyNewt at 10:02 AM on October 5, 2010

I love this post -- thanks. Both my parents loved this guy, which was particularly strange in my homophobic father's case, but my dad was, after all was said and done, an unreconstructed sentimentalist, and Ray's music was nothing if not sentimental.

I like that nobody seems to know what to make of him now, because he's not really categorizable -- comments on some of the blog posts linked run along the lines of "Is he a more freakish Bobby Darin?" or "Is he trying to be a more out-of-control Sinatra?"
posted by blucevalo at 11:01 AM on October 5, 2010

Johnny Ray did a strange skit on the Jack Benny TV show in the 1950s. It begins with him and Jack arguing about his contract, and (at about 7:31) he starts singing and playing the piano, sending Jack into a wild, homoerotic frenzy.
posted by Faze at 11:41 AM on October 5, 2010

I can't think of him without thinking of this song.
posted by mike3k at 12:34 PM on October 5, 2010

Glad the post is going over well. I started off on this research quest after a conversation with my mom; I asked whether she was into Sinatra or Elvis, and she told me a bit about her teenage obsession with Johnnie Ray (including an anecdote about how, years later, she saw Dorothy Kilgallen throw a drink in his face at a restaurant in New York).

I sent her the link to the post; she hadn't heard Johnnie since high school. She's enjoying the memories. However, she pointed out that the video for Cry that I included below isn't to the original; she says there should be an audible sob somewhere in the song. I've checked out a few other versions on YouTube, and haven't heard one featuring a sob. Anyone know where I can find it?

AZ, I really thought hard before including that blog post, for just that reason, but it really put across the sort of frenzy that Johnnie inspired. I do wish it had been better written, though.

And Faze, that was... really, really odd.

This interview from 1981 gives some interesting background; watch all four parts and you get to see Johnnie discuss a movie that was near production at the time that would have featured David Bowie playing him.
posted by MrVisible at 2:25 PM on October 5, 2010

Great post!

Bowie would have been great, I think, as Johnnie.

My absolute favorite Johnnie Ray song is Paths of Paradise. Mr. Midnight is really good too. I prefer his minor keyed songs.
posted by ericthegardener at 3:34 PM on October 5, 2010

Wow. I always wanted to know more about Johnnie, I guess I got my wish! thanks, Mr. V.

From my notes: He was partly deaf after a blanket-toss accident when he was 13. Maybe he didn't realize how loud he sang - or sang louder so he could hear himself (like Beethoven). A botched 1958 operation left him almost completely deaf. In 1969 he opened for Judy Garland in her last Europe concerts.

OKEH is a very different label story ... it was started just after WW1, back when people were still running all over the world to make 'exotic records' ... still a very under-documented phenomenon ... Parent label ODEON was itself early and exotic ( 'World Music' hah ... nothing new about the popularity of that.) Odeon's blue shellacs are the first, uhh, colored records I know of - mostly sold in Europe if memory serves.
posted by Twang at 9:31 PM on October 5, 2010

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