Despite being skinny, pigeon-toed, half-deaf (he partially lost his hearing as a child and had to use a hearing aid) and effeminate, this highly emotional performer was the most popular singer of the pre-Elvis era.
Indeed, when Elvis first started out he was often introduced on stage as “the new Johnnie Ray”.
Though mostly remembered for such lip-quivering hits as The Little White Cloud That Cried, Ray definitely started out on an R&B kick.
Known as “The Nabob of Sob” and “Prince of Wails” for his histrionic stage performances in which he would often break down and cry, Ray was one of the most controversial recording artists of the immediate pre-rock’n’roll era.
In an era ruled by the crooner, Johnnie Ray (born in Oregon in 1927 of American Indian ancestry) was so sensational and so unconventional that Columbia Records placed his first record release on their R&B-oriented Okeh label, giving the impression that the singer was black.
In doing so, they created the first artist of importance to cross the white/black music dividing line.
Though he would later slip from vaudeville (Somebody Stole My Gal) and show tunes (Hey There) into jukebox hits (Just Walkin’ In The Rain), he was always at his most potent preaching his own take on the blues (witness Such A Night or Flip Flop and Fly).
His 1954 recording of Such A Night was the first chart hit to be banned not only by the BBC but also by many American radio stations. It still ended up topping the British charts.
Until Just Walking in the Rain (1956), Ray had greater success outside America, particularly in Britain where his melodramatic style won him a large following. His British hits included Somebody Stole My Girl (1953), a pair of duets with Doris Day – Ma Says, Pa Says and Let’s Walk Thata-Way (1953) – a revival of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1956), Just Walking in the Rain and Yes Tonight, Josephine, a chart-topper and his last major British hit.
These records saw Ray edging closer to a mainstream approach, which was confirmed by his appearance in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business (1955) in which he played a singer who decides to become a priest and sang Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band and If You Believe.
His chart career at an end, Ray turned to cabaret where his sobbing performances made him a regular attraction at the Las Vegas casinos throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
Johnnie Ray died on 24 February 1990 at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles of hepatic encephalopathy resulting from liver failure.