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Johnnie Ray was born on January 10, 1927, at a farmhouse just a few miles from Hopewell,Oregon, near what later became Salem. John Alvin Ray was Elmer and Hazel Ray's second child, Johnnie's sister was Elma Ray.

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Contrary to past bio's and press releases (even on album cover liner notes), Johnnie Ray was not part Blackfoot Indian, press agents circulated a story that Johnnie's childhood Indian name was "Little White Cloud" and was asked in an interview at the height of his popularity what Indian blood he had. Johnnie looked at his shoes and came up with "Blackfoot", it stuck forever.

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Johnnie Ray's parents were from Oregon as well, the Northern Willamette Valley to be precise. Hazel Simkins was reared in Dallas, Oregon, and Elmer Ray in Zena, they married in 1908, Elma was born January 13, 1922 at Spring Valley where Elmer worked for a local farmer.

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Elma Ray once said that their parents realized that Johnnie had some kind of talent early on, so they sent him to an organ player in their church named "Uncle" Will Caldwell. Elma said "Uncle" Will would like to have taught Johnnie, but Johnnie was a source of consternation to "Uncle" Will because if Johnnie heard something once, he could play it.

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Joy Hanni of Florida, USA, interviewed Rosalie Johnson early in the year 2000. Rosie is from Myrtle Creek, Oregon, a childhood friend of Johnnie's:

Johnnie was a great kid, we went to school together. When Easter rolled around my parents used to take Johnnie and my girlfriend to Portland to buy our Easter clothes. Johnnie practically lived with us, he beat my piano to death! Johnnie took me to a Bonneville Park Adm. Formal dance that I will never forget. Neither one of us were old enough to drink, he picked me up in a cab and stopped at the corner vacant lot and got out of the cab and began digging in the dirt and pulled out a bottle of Southern Comfort. We were both dressed in formal wear of course and Johnnie came out as clean as he went in, except for the hands. I will never forget it. When we arrived at the hotel in Portland, we proceeded to get out of the cab and he dropped the bottle on the sidewalk, he got down on his hands and knees and pretended he was licking it off the sidewalk! He was such a character and very loveable. (Rosie is mentioned in the Jonny Whiteside book "Cry: The Johnnie Ray Story" in a quote by Johnnie Ray, chapter 1, page 20)

During the summer of 1940 in Dallas, Oregon, Johnnie Ray was at a Boy Scout Jamboree with troops from all over the Pacific Northwest. Johnnie was a 13 year-old scout envied by a lot of the boys for his musical talents. During a blanket toss Johnnie was hurled up into the air, about ten or twelve feet (according to childhood scout friend Jim Low), the boys holding the blanket lost their grip or let go and Johnnie slammed hard onto the ground, ramming a dry, stiff straw into his left ear. Johnnie immediately lost 50% of his hearing, no first aid was given, and 13 year-old Johnnie didn't mention it to his parents, thinking it would pass. But it didn't.

In 1941, at age 14, Johnnie got his first hearing aid, then the War came. Elmer Ray moved his family to Portland, Oregon,   where Johnnie lied about his age and got a job as a welder in the shipyards there. Portland turned out to be THE place for our Johnnie; Portland had radio stations, theatres, nightclubs, beer joints and dance halls, he became involved with youth dances sponsored by the Starlight Club at the Y.M.C.A. while attending Franklin High School.

Johnnie Ray's sister' Elma's record collection inspired him with Billie Holiday, Kay Starr (who spoke eloquently of Johnnie's early days at Johnnie's funeral in 1990) and others. One weekend in 1947 Johnnie drove (he borrowed his sister's car, Johnnie quit driving altogether shortly thereafter) to see Kay Starr live and managed to meet her, she told him that with his talents it would be a sin not to pursue show business.

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The following contributed by Tad Mann, Johnnie's road manager:

After moving to Hollywood and kicking around at no avail, Johnnie headed for Detroit, Michigan, amid the racial tensions, bigotry, violence and hatred and found himself welcomed at the all black "Flame Show Bar" around 1950. As the only white performer at The Flame, Johnnie Ray exhibited his ability  to be a blues singer performing "Whiskey & Gin", "Pretty Eyed Baby", "Tell The Lady I said Goodbye" among others. Johnnie Ray sang along with some of the greats of the time, including LaVerne Baker, and those who who later found great success. Johnnie Ray was well accepted as an artist and as a person.

Overcoming great odds, including his hearing loss from the childhood accident, Johnnie Ray wore his then cumbersome hearing aid in his left ear to help in the difference of hearing loss. Johnnie's unique style is attributed to the fact that he had to over-enunciate words and phrases in his performances, thus Johnnie established his distinctive style. Johnnie wore his trade-mark hearing aid up to his death in 1990.

There are many people who claim they discovered Johnnie Ray. The one fact that holds true is that Johnnie performed regularly at the Flame Showbar in Detroit, that is where Columbia/Okeh Record's Rhythm & Blues Chief Danny Kessler first heard Johnnie and was so impressed he urged Johnnie to sign with Columbia/Okeh. Both Bill Randle and Robin Seymour (two Detroit Radio DJ's) have said words along the lines of "directing" Kessler to the Flame Showbar to see Johnnie's act. Johnnie Ray is 23 years old at this time, his career is about to take off like none other before. Radio DJ Bill Randle, who was instrumental in gaining Columbia Records interest in Johnnie Ray in 1950, died at the age of 80 early in the morning on July 9, 2004 in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was still on the air on weekends at WRMR-AM. The station aired Randle's last recorded show the following Sunday and then the following day ceased all music as they fliped to all talk as WHK.

Johnnie Ray didn't rush into it, maybe because he was still under contract exclusively to The Flame Showbar by a signed agreement with Al Green, or he was just keen that way, who knows? It is said that he preferred to be on Capitol Records, because Frank Sinatra was now on Capitol. The executives at Capitol Records heard a Johnnie Ray demo record and thought the vocals were by a black female blues artist. Johnnie's first publicity photo (below, right) had not been taken yet.

   After chasing record companies with a demo (no one knows what the demo song was, much less where it is now), Danny Kessler was persistent. As Johnnie Ray was such a unique soul and Jazz singer, he was signed to Okeh Records in 1951, an R&B company of Columbia Records aimed at the black music market. Johnnie's first Okeh release was a quick Detroit recording of  "Whiskey & Gin", a stomping R&B number, and "Tell The Lady I said Goodbye", a torchy ballad, both recorded May 29th, 1951, possibly in a radio station, with Maurice King and the Wolverines. Johnnie was thought at first by the radio listening audience to be a black blues singer, but soon it was revealed that he was a tall, thin, very fair complected, handsome boyish looking man of 24.

Johnnie's first publicity photograph

Original Okeh 78rpm

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Australian version of "Cry" sheet music.


Columbia Records switched Johnnie from Okeh to the Parent label & the promotion began. Johnnie Ray & Columbia now had the first two-sided hit on their hands, "Cry" and "Little White Cloud That Cried", recorded in October 1951 and produced by Mitch Miller with backing vocals by Columbia's Four Lads.
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Mitch Miller and Johnnie Ray
It was difficult to to know which side was the the top seller as people would ask for the record by both names, now "Cry" has sold nearly 35 million copies.
JOHNNIE RAY & the Four Lads Johnnie Ray in a recording session with The Four Lads. Click to enlarge.

Original 78rpm

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"Cry" has been recorded by many artists from Patti Page to Crystal Gale, and was also a top 20 hit by Ronnie Dove in November 1966. No one has been able to top the eleven straight weeks at number one for Johnnie Ray's version of "Cry" in 1951.

Word has it that Churchill Kohlman, the writer of "Cry" (pictured below) and a night watchman in a Pittsburgh dry cleaning factory, was very unhappy with Johnnie Ray's version, he had wanted it to be a country song. No word as to whether Mr. Kohlman sent the royalty checks back. 

kohlman.gif (10085 bytes) Johnnie with Kohlman

  Unlike band singers of the forties such as Sinatra, Dick Haymes or Bob Every, of which if you see any film of them they simply stood behind the microphone and rolled their words into the mike, Johnnie Ray was one of the first, if, in fact, not the first, to take the microphone off of the stand and roam, run and scream over an entire stage. Johnnie was the first to really move himself and play the audience. Johnnie would touch, tease, kiss and hold onto, white-knuckled, that microphone for security.

   Up until someone talked Johnnie into having ear surgery, he would do his shows without the hearing aid as he thought it was a distraction to the au- dience. Finally the hope of regaining the hearing loss became a reality for Johnnie, doctors operated to increase hearing in his left ear, and were successful surgically. The doctors had removed a blockage, but in doing so Johnnie lost all hearing in his left ear and now had to wear a hearing aid in the right to support the loss. Johnnie Ray officially established the Ray Foundation in February, 1953, for the hearing impaired with his donation fee of $1,000 on Ed Sullivan's "Toast Of The Town" and placed his hearing aid in his ear on television for the first time.

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    A Johnnie Ray fan doesn't "jump on the band wagon for a while and jump to the next new one to come along", they are there from the beginning to eternity, a key word is dedication. There are many Johnnie Ray fans around the world who have been "dedicated" to The Nabob Of Sob for more than 47 years!

   Unfortunately, hearing aids of the time were not music friendly, they were made for speech. Johnnie had to constantly adjust his hearing aid on stage which was a distraction to him as well as the audience. His performances were greatly affected and his speech was affected, so he had to learn how to phrase words differently while the band was playing to old scores. It was a test I am not sure he completely over-came, I am sure it caused him a great deal of frustration.         -Tad Mann

   Johnnie Ray's fantastic gift of communicating emotion in song completely over-shadowed the hearing aid delima. Within only a few months in 1951, Johnnie's style had swept the country, with Columbia Records and the nation's juke boxes taking the claim to be the chief public instruments that built Johnnie's quick celebrity status. A third influence was the early faith of a few professional associates and radio disc-jockeys who had the insight to recognize a new and completely original entertainment talent of major importance. Fourth and far from the least of influences in the Johnnie Ray World are his fans. From the very beginning they responded to the dedication apparent in Johnnie's performances with an equal dedication of their own that lasts to this day.

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In The Beginning

bernie.gif (10410 bytes)Bernie Lang (who became Johnnie's personal manager, photo above, left, and was called "Mr. Commotion") was working Midwest radio stations as a "song-plugger" in 1950.

By chance, he saw Johnnie Ray perform, with an interest in the way Johnnie delivered his music. Bernie took on the unknown singer as a full-time job. Through his contacts at General Artists' Corporation (a huge booking agency known as "G.A.C."), Bernie put Johnnie Ray on tour through America's minor clubs. At Detroit's Flame Club Show Bar, where Johnnie became friends with Flame performer LaVerne Baker, in April, 1951 local radio DJ's Robin Seymour and Bill Randle happened to catch Johnnie's act, they brought 25 year-old Danny Kessler (head of Columbia Records' regional distribution office and a BIG Rhythm & Blues fan) to the club to hear "a guy with the most original and impressive style in years".

Three weeks later, Johnnie Ray was on a New York-bound plane, headed for his first Columbia Records (Okeh) recording date.

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LaVerne Baker, Johnnie & Jazz/Swing artist Salena Jones who still performs today.

Johnnie was labeled at various times throughout his varying career as "the Nabob of Sob", "the Prince of Wails", "The Atomic Ray", "the Guy with the Rubber Face and Squirt Gun Eyes" and in the 1970's "The Silver Fox who created the feel, the smell and the atmosphere of what would be Rock-n-Roll".

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      Mid-western radio DJ's, who were spark-plugged by Cleveland DJ Bill Randle, set off the national juke box revolution. After the initial sale of over two million copies of "Cry", Billboard Magazine tipped off it's readers to watch for "a kid named Johnnie Ray... he's electrifying!" A night club owner who neglected for three days to sign a contract with Johnnie, because he was a newcomer, found the asking price had jumped from $500.00 a week to $1,500.00.

For the week of March 6, 1952, Johnnie Ray owned half of the Top 6 positions on the national music charts in America. Number 1 that week was “Cry”, Number 3 was “Please Mr. Sun,” and Number 6 was “The Little White Cloud That Cried”.

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Thus it was the Midwest, it's night spots, radio DJ's and very devoted teen-age fans, who first discovered Johnnie Ray. This fact wasn't lost at all on some of Johnnie's very nervous rivals of the time, who described his style as a crazy gimmick and predicted that he'd fall flat on his face in the sophisticated East. Johnnie gave them his answer just one year after his appearance as an unknown in Detroit's Flame Show Bar. In April of 1952, Johnnie became the hottest act at New York's Copacabana when his asking price left the $1,500-a-week bracket and hit ten times that amount! The cover charge at the Copa at that time was $3.50, with a $5.00 minimum, and Johnnie performing at 8:30, 12:15 & 2:15am. Ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson and Comedy duo Betty & Jane Kean were also on the same bill. Johnnie is pictured with Jane Kean at The Stork Club below in 1953.

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The Copa performances were also the very first time that Johnnie's sister, Elma, had seen him perform in "the style developed", as she said, since Johnnie left home in 1950.

The next morning, after Johnnie's debut at The Copa, The New York Journal printed "A phenomenon of show business", The New York Herald Tribune printed a story about Johnnie's "phenomenal rise to stardom" and The Daily News said that Johnnie "raised more commotion than all the other crooners put together." It was on that day that Sid Shallett named Johnnie "The Atomic Ray" and Dorothy Kilgalen's column "Voice Of Broadway" called Johnnie "Endsville... spellbound." By the end of 1952 Johnnie Ray Enterprises, Inc. (the first business in Pop Music history to come up with marketing merchandise for a star and capitolize on it) earned one million dollars for the year and our hero, for the next decade, worked 40 to 50 weeks out of the year.

The public was paying to see Johnnie by the thousands, at night club dates. This excluded Johnnie's growing number (and eventually his biggest) of teen-age fans, namely the Bobby Soxers. It became relevant that a tour was the answer, not only to satisfy all ages of fans, but to keep Johnnie's name in the public enough to make it a household word, and to keep those Columbia Record's sales up. Johnnie Ray, Bernie Lang and drummer Sammy Fede flew to london in March 1953 to start a three-week performance at the red-velvet fuzzed and gold-fixtured London Palladium.

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Tony Bennett said "He ripped the Palladium apart, it was the first time pandemonium hit that scene." The photo above was taken during Johnnie's rehearsal for that show.

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Above: Thousands of JOHNNIE RAY Fans gather outside The London Palladium in hopes of getting a glimpse of Johnnie after a show. Johnnie is hoisted up to the roof of The Palladium to the pleasure of the multitude of fans below.

British fans greet Johnnie Ray with as much enthusiasm as his native America, but it is the British and other foreign Countries who remain his fans forever.

       

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Arriving in London.
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rehearsing2.GIF (38317 bytes) Johnnie practicing a dance routine with Shani Wallis at the British Folk Dance Society in Regent's Park, London, for his British television programme 'The Johnnie Ray Show'.
Performing at the "Talk of the Town Theatre Restaurant," in London.> TalOfTheTownTheatre.GIF (35280 bytes)
ParisClub.GIF (19983 bytes) Having a good laugh at the cabaret in a Saint Germain des Pres nightclub in Paris. With him is Bruce Kaye, recently arrived from Hollywood to make three films.

Posing with members of The U.S. Air Force on August 6th, 1957

With Christine Jorgensen at a Polynesian Party at Steve Crane's Luau Restaurant. Guests included Edith Claire, Virginia O'Brien, Scott Brady, Lee Graham and Vivian Blaine.

Keep checking back for the next up-date with the following bio details: TV appearances, Judy Garland, Dorothy Kilgalen, Alan Eichler, Bill Franklin and the passing of our hero with a memory that lives on past death. More to come...