A Rockapaedia Obituary
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Johnnie Ray died aged sixty-three of hepatic encephalopathy resulting from liver failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre on 24th February 1990 . In early 1990, poor health had forced Johnnie to check into Cedars-Sinai near his home in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. He is buried at Hopewell Cemetery near Hopewell, Oregon, in a grave plot alongside his mother, father, and sister.
For his contribution to the recording industry, Johnnie Ray was honored with a star in 1960 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6201 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
In 1999, Bear Family Records issued two five-CD sets of his entire body of work, each containing an 84-page book on his career. Companies including Sony and Collectables have kept his large catalogue of recordings in continual release worldwide.
Johnnie Ray suffered from alcoholism throughout his life, though during the 1950s at the height of his fame, newspaper and magazine pieces about Johnnie Ray did not disclose the extent of his drinking problem. On 2nd September 1952, Johnnie Ray was arrested in Boston for public intoxication, but was released four hours later. In 1960, he was hospitalized for tuberculosis. Shortly after his recovery, apparently, he quit drinking but his music was not available for sale and he did not appear on American television during the first half of the 1960s. Consequently, American newspapers ran ads for his concerts but reported nothing about his life. Not until December 1966 did Johnnie Ray return to American television, and even then it was a program telecast locally in Chicago but not elsewhere called 'An Evening With Johnnie Johnnie Ray'.
In nineteen-sixty-nine, shortly after Johnnie Ray returned to the United States from a European tour with Judy Garland, an American doctor informed him that he was well enough to drink an occasional glass of wine. He resumed drinking heavily and his health began to decline again. Despite this, in the early nineteen-seventys he appeared several times on prime-time network television in the United States. After the offers for television stopped, he continued touring, attracting major media attention outside the United States, until he gave his final concert, a benefit for the Grand Theater in Salem, Oregon, on 6th October 1989.
During nineteen-fifty-one, prior to Johnnie's fame, he was arrested in Detroit for accosting and soliciting an undercover vice squad police officer for sex in the restroom of the Stone Theatre, a burlesque house. When he appeared in court, he pleaded guilty to the charges, paid a fine, and was released. Due to his obscurity at the time, Detroit newspapers did not report the story. After his rise to fame the following year, rumors about his sexuality began to spread as a result of the incident.
Despite her knowledge of the solicitation arrest, Marilyn Morrison, daughter of the owner of West Hollywood's Mocambo nightclub, married Johnnie Ray at the peak of his American fame. The wedding ceremony took place in New York a short time after he gave his first New York concert, which was at the Copacabana. The New York Daily News made the wedding its cover story for May 26th, 1952.
Aware of Johnnie's sexuality, his new wife told a friend she would "straighten it out." However, the couple separated in nineteen-fifty-three and divorced in 1954. Several writers have noted that the Johnnie Ray-Morrison marriage occurred under false pretenses, and that Johnnie Ray had had a long-term relationship with his manager, Bill Franklin. However, a biography of Johnnie Ray points out that Franklin was 13 years younger than Johnnie Ray and that both their personal and business relationships began in nineteen-sixty-three, many years after the Johnnie Ray-Morrison divorce. In a nineteen-fifty-three newspaper interview with James Bacon, Johnnie Ray blamed rumors about his sexuality for the breakup of his marriage to Marilyn.
In 1959, Johnnie Ray was arrested again in Detroit for soliciting an undercover officer at the Brass Rail, a bar that was described many years later by one biographer as a haven for musicians and by another biographer as a gay bar. Johnnie Ray went to trial following this second arrest and was found not guilty. Two years after his death, several friends shared with biographer Jonny Whiteside their knowledge that Johnnie Ray was homosexual.
According to Johnnie Ray's two biographers, Jonny Whiteside and Tad Mann, he did not have a close relationship with a man or a woman during the 13 years he lived after Bill Franklin stopped interacting with him and phoning him. Johnnie Ray did maintain a loyal friendship with his road manager Tad Mann, who was married and raising five children. When Johnnie Ray gave parties at his Los Angeles house in the late nineteen-seventys and throughout the 1980s, frequent guests included Mann, whose real name was Harold Gaze Mann III, and actress Jane Withers.
Johnnie Ray had a close relationship with journalist and television game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen. They became acquainted soon after his sudden rise to stardom in the United States. They remained close as his American career declined.
Two months before Kilgallen's death in nineteen-sixty-five, her newspaper column plugged Johnnie Ray's engagements at the Latin Quarter in New York and the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. He began his gig at the Latin Quarter immediately after an eight-month vacation in Spain during which he and new manager Bill Franklin had extricated themselves from contracts with Bernie Lang, who had managed Johnnie Ray from nineteen-fifty-one to nineteen-sixty-three. Johnnie Ray and Franklin believed that a dishonest Lang had been responsible for the end of Johnnie Ray's stardom in the United States and for large debts that he owed the Internal Revenue Service.
In nineteen-sixty-nine, Johnnie Ray headlined a European concert tour with Judy Garland. He served as the best man at her wedding to her last husband, nightclub manager Mickey Deans, in London on 15th March nineteen-sixty-nine. Denmark and Sweden were among the countries where Johnnie Ray and Garland performed together; they played Stockholm on 19th March 19 nineteen-sixty-nine.
In the early nineteen-seventies, Johnnie Ray's American career revived to a limited extent, as he had not released a record album or single for more than ten years. He made network television appearances on The Andy Williams Show in nineteen-seventy and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson three times during 1972 and 1973. His personal manager Bill Franklin resigned in 1976 and cut off contact with the singer a few years later. His American revival turned out to be short-lived as his career had already begun to decline as the 1980s approached. ]
In nineteen-eighty-one, Johnnie Ray hired Alan Eichler as his manager and resumed performing with an instrumental trio rather than with the large orchestras he and his audiences had been accustomed to for the first twenty-five years of his career. When Johnnie Ray and the trio performed at a New York club called Marty's on Third Avenue and East 73rd Street in nineteen-eighty-one, the New York Times stated that the fact that Mr. Johnnie Ray, in the years since his first blush of success, has been seen and heard so infrequently in the United States is somewhat ironic because it was his rhythm and blues style of singing that helped lay the groundwork for the rock-and-roll that turned Johnnie's entertainment world around. It added that recently, Ringo Starr of the Beatles pointed out that the three singers that the Beatles listened to in their fledgling days were Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnnie Johnnie Ray.
In nineteen-eighty-six, Johnnie Ray appeared as a Los Angeles taxicab driver in Billy Idol's "Don't Need a Gun" video and is name-checked in the lyrics of the song. During this time period, Johnnie Ray was generally playing small venues in the United States such as Citrus College in Los Angeles County, California. He performed there in nineteen-eighty-seven "with a big-band group," according to a Los Angeles Times profile of him during that year. Other 1980s appearances included the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, Resorts International in Atlantic City and the Vine St. Bar and Grill in Hollywood, where his show was broadcast live by KJAZZ radio. In February nineteen-eighty-seven, a high school gym in Alexandria, Louisiana was the venue for a Big Band Gala of Stars that included short sets by Johnnie Ray, Barbara McNair and other aging singers.
In nineteen-eighty-six, Johnnie Ray and sitcom actress Marla Gibbs were among the notables who helped dedicate Billie Holiday's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
While Johnnie Ray's popularity continued to wane in the United States throughout the 1980s, Australian, English and Scottish promoters booked him for large venues as late as 1989, his last year of performing.
Johnnie Ray was born on tenth of January 1927, in Dallas, Oregon, U.S.A. to parents Elmer and Hazel Ray. Along with older sister Elma, Johnnie Ray spent part of his childhood on a farm and attended grade school in Dallas. Johnnie Ray began playing the piano at age three, and beginning at age twelve, sang in the local church choir. After the United States entered World War II, the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where Johnnie Ray attended Franklin High School.
At age thirteen, Johnnie Ray became deaf in his left ear following a mishap that occurred during a Boy Scout ritual called a "blanket toss." In later years, Johnnie performed wearing a hearing aid. Surgery performed in 1958 left him almost completely deaf in both ears, although hearing aids helped his condition. Johnnie Ray credited his deafness as pivotal to his career and performance style saying: "My need for sincerity traces back to when I was a child and lost my hearing. I became withdrawn. I had an emotional need to develop a relationship to other people." After graduating high school, Johnnie Ray worked as a soda jerk, bus boy, and as a mill worker in Salem, Oregon. In the interim, he did jobs playing piano at clubs in Salem and Portland.
Inspired by rhythm singers like Kay Starr, LaVern Baker and Ivory Joe Hunter, Johnnie Ray developed a unique rhythm-based singing style, described as alternating between pre-rock R&B and a more conventional classic pop approach. He began singing professionally on a Portland, Oregon, radio station at age 15, sharing billing with Jane Powell, then a local young singer herself.
He later performed in comedy shows and theatrical productions in Seattle, Washington, before relocating to Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit, Johnnie Ray would regularly perform at the Flame Showbar, an African American nightclub, where he developed a local following. While performing at the Flame Showbar, Johnnie Ray attracted the attention of Bernie Lang, a song plugger, who saw him perform with local DJ, Robin Seymour of WKMH. Lang went to New York to sell the singer to Danny Kessler of the Okeh label, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. Kessler came over from New York, and he, Lang and Seymour went to the Flame. According to Seymour, Kessler's reaction was, "Well, I don't know. This kid looks well on the stand, but he will never go on records."
It was Seymour and Lowell Worley of the local office of Columbia who persuaded Kessler to have a test record made of Johnnie Ray. Worley arranged for a record to be cut at the United Sound Studios in Detroit. Seymour told reporter Dick Osgood that there was a verbal agreement that he would be cut in on the three-way deal in the management of Johnnie Ray. But the deal mysteriously evaporated, and so did Seymour's friendship with Kessler.
Johnnie Ray's first record, the self-penned R&B number for Okeh Records, "Whiskey and Gin," was a minor hit in nineteen-fifty-one. The following year he dominated the charts with the double-sided hit single of "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried." Selling over two million copies of the 78rpm single, Johnnie Ray's delivery struck a chord with teenagers and he quickly became a teen idol.
The live television broadcast of Toast of the Town on sixth January 1952 included the first of his several appearances on the widely seen American program that officially changed its title in 1955 to The Ed Sullivan Show.
Johnnie Ray's performing style included theatrics later associated with rock and roll, including tearing at his hair, falling to the floor, and crying onstage. Johnnie Ray quickly earned the nicknames "Mr. Emotion", "The Nabob of Sob", and "The Prince of Wails", and several others.
20th Century Fox capitalized on his stardom by including him in the ensemble cast of the movie There's No Business Like Show Business in 1954 alongside Ethel Merman as his mother, Dan Dailey as his father, Donald O'Connor as his brother, Mitzi Gaynor as his sister, and Marilyn Monroe as his sister-in-law. This was his only film other than a cameo as a police officer in Rogue's Gallery. Rogue's Gallery was intended for release to cinemas in 1968 but was withdrawn and was not seen publicly until NBC telecast it in 1972. When Johnnie Ray was questioned why he never made another film, he replied, "I was never asked."
In the 1950s, after both sides of the single "Cry"/"The Little White Cloud That Cried" ran their course, more hit songs followed. They included "Please, Mr. Sun", "Such a Night," "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," "A Sinner Am I" and "Yes Tonight Josephine." Johnnie had a United Kingdom number 1 hit with "Just Walkin' in the Rain" during the Christmas season in 1956. He hit again in 1957 with "You Don't Owe Me a Thing," which reached number 10 on the Billboard charts. Though his American popularity was declining in 1957, he remained popular in the United Kingdom, breaking the attendance record at the London Palladium formerly set by fellow Columbia Records artist Frankie Laine. In later years, he retained a loyal fan base overseas, particularly in Australia.