Johnnie Ray, Balladeer of the ‘50s, Dies at 63
Johnnie Ray, the balladeer of tears who brought an emotional intensity to music that was singular to his era, died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The performer, once dubbed “The Prince of Wails” for his impassioned renditions of such songs as “Cry” and “Please Mr. Sun,” was 63 and died of liver failure at 4 p.m., Cedars-Sinai spokesman Ron Wise said.
“He has been in and out of the hospital for the last three months” and lapsed into a coma Feb. 14, Wise said.
Ray, noted for his stormy style, would jump about as he sang, bend his knees and cup his hand to his left ear, where a hearing aid had been in place for many years. He injured the ear while being tossed in the air by friends when he was 10, and his hearing deteriorated through the years. Many said, not unkindly, that he sang as if everyone in the room had similar hearing problems.
As he sang, he contorted his babyish face into a painful expression, tugged at his hair and cried.
Predictably, his first hit in 1950 was called “Cry.” The other side of that record was “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” They quickly became the No. 1 and No. 2 songs in the country, turning an awkward, shy boy into a national figure.
Several years ago, Times rock critic Robert Hilburn wrote that Ray had played a “small but noteworthy role in the evolution of rock,” helping pave the way for the passionate singers that followed him.
His roots actually were in rhythm and blues, for his flamboyant style had forced him away from mainstream nightclubs and in front of black audiences at the Flame Showbar in Detroit.
He soon became the only white artist on Okeh Records’ black R&B; roster.
(Music critics have said the intensity of his early vocals helped open the door for Elvis Presley and other white rock artists.)
After those instant successes he moved into the mainstream of singers and lost favor with the teen-agers who had mobbed him at personal appearances in the early 1950s. But he was never forgotten by the white rockers who followed him.
As recently as last year he shared a stage with Billy Idol. And Billy Joel, who opened last week’s Grammy Awards telecast, sang “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a song of appreciation for long-ago performers that names Ray in the lyrics.
Although young record buyers had largely ignored him for the last three decades, their parents hadn’t. He appeared regularly in New York, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, singing the evergreen favorites that had put him on the national stage.
Born John Alvin Ray in Dallas, Ore., a small town outside Salem (where he made his last public appearance), Ray was the son of a man who played fiddle at square dances and a woman proficient on the piano. He became a self-taught pianist who sang at church and at school.
Initially an outgoing child, friends recall that after his hearing loss he became introverted and his teachers and others chastised him for not paying attention.
“I was the loneliest kid in the world,” he was quoted as saying. From that loneliness came “The Little White Cloud That Cried,” which he wrote in his teens.
But after he was fitted with a hearing aid at 15, his horizons expanded and he decided to become an actor, performing in local plays and amateur shows.
He met Sophie Tucker, the raucous and lightly ribald singer, as she was passing through Portland where Ray was singing at a burlesque house.
“If you want to make it in show business,” she told him, “get the hell out of Portland.”
He came to Hollywood in 1949 to act in films but found only odd jobs as a bartender and piano player in clubs he described as “upholstered sewers.”
He went to New York and then to Detroit, where he found work at the Flame Showbar. A local disc jockey persuaded a Columbia Records representative to give him a chance and the result was “Whiskey and Gin” and “Tell the Lady I Said Goodbye” for Okeh, a Columbia subsidiary.
Those songs became popular in the Midwest, but it wasn’t until he returned to New York to record “Cry” and “Little White Cloud” that he became fully established.
He followed those hits with “Please Mr. Sun” and “Brokenhearted,” arranged by Mitch Miller. All four became million-sellers.
In 1952 he opened at the Copacabana in New York and the standing-room-only crowds (and press agents) began to call him “The Prince of Wails,” “The Nabob of Sob” and “The Atomic Ray,” among other sobriquets.
He became the first performer to earn $25,000 a week in Las Vegas and on March 23, 1953, made the first of nine appearances at the London Palladium.
The following year he came back to Hollywood to make the film debut he had sought earlier. He appeared as the son of Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey in the Irving Berlin musical “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
But records were his forte and he returned to the studio. In the next five years he made hits of “Just Walking in the Rain,” “Walking My Baby Back Home,” “Yes Tonight, Josephine,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” “Such a Night,” “Somebody Stole My Gal” and more.
“Cry,” his original hit, had sold 25 million copies at his death and Columbia recently released a compact disc of his many hit singles.
He married once, in 1952, to Marilyn Morrison, daughter of Mocambo nightclub owner Charlie Morrison, but they divorced. He is survived by a sister and nieces and nephews.
His personal life was sometimes as pained as his music. He developed a drinking problem, he told The Times in 1976, but indicated he had conquered it.
Ray credited his success with “showing people the emotion they’re afraid to show” and also said he had grown more appreciative of his career over the years.
Last October, in Salem at what proved to be his final appearance, he told his audience:
“It doesn’t get any better than this.”