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 forerunner of what would become rock 'n' roll.
He was born in Hopewell (near Dallas), Oregon, and spent part of his childhood on a farm, eventually moving to Portland, Oregon. He is often mistakenly said to be of American Indian origin, due to the erroneous claims of a malicious publicity agent. He became deaf in his right ear at age 12 due to a freak accident as a Boy Scout involving a blanket toss, when he fell on the ground hitting his ear, and would often perform wearing a mauve 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, Ray 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 White Cloud That Cried" (the latter also a Ray composition). His emotional delivery struck a chord with teenagers, and he quickly became the biggest teen idol since Frank Sinatra fell over himself almost ten years earlier (he has been volubly cited as the historical 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 UK than in the U.S., breaking the record at the London Palladium formerly set by Frankie Laine. Although his star rapidly diminished in the US, he retained a loyal fan base overseas, particularly in Australia.
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 songs on the charts in one week out of the Top Ten). 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 has gained a great deal of recognition. Rumored to be bisexual, he was prosecuted for indecency in a public toilet. A chronic and lifelong alcoholic, he died of liver failure in Los Angeles at the age of 63.