Ray, Johnnie (actually, John Alvin)
Ray, Johnnie (actually, John Alvin)
Ray, Johnnie (actually, John Alvin ), melodramatic American singer, pianist, and songwriter; b. Dallas, Ore., Jan. 10, 1927; d. Los Angeles, Calif., Feb. 24, 1990. Ray’s emotive singing, influenced by gospel and blues music, marked a change from the calmer singers of classic pop and looked forward to the development of rock ‘n’ roll. He scored 22 pop hits in the U.S. between 1951 and 1959, the most popular being “Cry,” “The Little Cloud That Cried,” and “Just Walking in the Rain,” and he was even more popular in Great Britain.
Ray’s father, Elmer Ray, was a fiddler; his mother, Hazel Simkins Ray, sang and played piano. He began picking out tunes on the piano at a young age. His hearing was injured in an accident when he was 13 and he was forced to wear a hearing aid for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, at 15 he was singing on local radio. In 1949 he moved to Los Angeles to become a singer. He spent a year there playing small clubs, returned home for a while, then tried his luck in the Midwest in 1950. By April 1951 he was at the Flame Showbar in Detroit, where he was spotted by record executive Danny Kessler, who signed him to the Columbia Records R&B subsidiary OKeh Records.
Ray’s second single on OKeh was “Cry” (music and lyrics by Churchill Kohlman)/” The Little White Cloud That Cried” (music and lyrics by Johnnie Ray). “Cry” hit #1 in December 1951, becoming the biggest hit of the year, “The Little White Cloud That Cried” made the Top Ten, and the record sold a million copies. “Cry” had also topped the R&B charts, but after the single’s success Ray was transferred to Columbia Records proper and promoted more to the pop market. Both sides of his next single, “Please, Mr. Sun” (music by Ray Getzov, lyrics by Sid Frank)/ “Here Am I—Broken Hearted” (music by Ray Henderson, lyrics by B. G. De Sylva and Lew Brown), hit the Top Ten in the late winter of 1952, and the record was another million-seller.
Ray’s first album, Johnnie Ray, entered the charts in April 1952 and hit the Top Ten; that same month he opened at the prestigious Copacabana nightclub in N.Y. His next major hit was a revival of the 1931 song “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” (music and lyrics by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert); it was also his first chart single in Great Britain. His first British Top Ten came with “Faith Can Move Mountains” (music by Guy Wood, lyrics by Ben Raleigh), which entered the U.K. charts in December but was not a hit in the U.S. On May 25, 1952, he married Marilyn (actually Carol Elizabeth) Morrison; they divorced in January 1954.
Ray’s recording of the 1918 song “Somebody Stole My Gal” (music and lyrics by Leo Wood) peaked in the Top Ten in May 1953; it also reached the Top Ten in Britain, where “Let’s Walk That-a-Way” followed it into the charts in July and also made the Top Ten and “Such a Night” (music and lyrics by Lincoln Chase), a minor U.S. chart entry, hit #1 in April 1954. That December, Ray made his film debut acting in a supporting role and singing in the movie musical There’s No Business Like Show Business, but although he occasionally appeared on television and on film in subsequent years, acting never became a significant part of his career.
Ray scored three Top Ten hits in the U.K. in 1955: “If You Believe,” “Hey There” (music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), and “Song of the Dreamer” (music and lyrics by Eddie “Tex” Curtis). He returned to the U.S. Top Ten in October 1956 with “Just Walking in the Rain” (music and lyrics by Johnny Bragg and Robert S. Riley), which went on to sell a million copies; in Britain it topped the charts. Its follow-up, “You Don’t Owe Me a Thing” (music and lyrics by Marty Robbins), did slightly better at home, reaching the Top Ten in February 1957; in the U.K. it was that single’s B-side, “Look Homeward Angel” (music and lyrics by Wally Gold), that hit the Top Ten. In March, Ray had his second U.S. chart album, The Big Beat. His last significant hit came with “Yes Tonight, Josephine” (music and lyrics by Winfield Scott and Dorothy Goodman), which peaked in the U.S. Top 40 in May and hit #1 in Britain in June.
Ray’s records continued to reach the charts through 1959, but his career was eclipsed by the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Nevertheless, he continued to record and perform over the next 30 years. He died of liver failure at 62 in 1990.
Johnnie Ray (1951); At the London Palladium (1954); Cry for You (1955); Johnnie Ray (1955); The Voice of Your Choice (1955); Johnnie Ray Sings the Big Beat (1957); Johnnie Ray at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas (1959); A Sinner Am I (1959); ’Til Morning (1959); Johnnie Ray on the Trail (1959); / Cry for You (1960); Johnnie Ray (1962); Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1980); Yesterday—The London Sessions 1976 (1993).
C. Roberts, The Complete Life ofj. R .(N.Y., 1955); R. Sonin, ed., The J. R. Story (London, 1955); J. Whiteside, Cry: The j. R. Story (N.Y., 1994)