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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of singer Johnnie Ray's death. He shot to prominence in 1951 with the double-sided US no.1 hit 'Cry' and 'The Little White Cloud That Cried'. I failed to mention him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, but Dylan has said that he was "The first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with". I remember seeing him on TV in the 1950s - probably on Sunday Night at the London Palladium - and thinking he was amazing, while my father sat there scoffing indignantly . . . and then about five years ago I saw a clip of him gulping and whimpering his way through one of his hits on a piece of old footage and thought my father had been right: he seemed embarrassingly bad.

Others disagree, of course. According to the fan site "The memory of Johnnie Ray lives on in current popular music today; Johnnie Ray is mentioned in the lyrics of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' ... & Jimmy Ray's 'Are You Jimmy Ray?' from 1997 in which all the famous 'Rays' are mentioned, like Link Wray, Faye Wray, etc. It is 'Johnnie Ray' who is mentioned in the first verse of the song. Johnnie Ray's voice can be heard sampled in Portishead's 'Biscuit' ... and Johnnie is the topic of the first three verses of the number one hit 'Come On Eileen' by Dexys Midnight Runners (Johnnie is also in the video). Johnnie Ray can also be seen in the Billy Idol video 'Don't Need A Gun' ... Johnnie Ray is a favorite among the likes of Ringo Starr, Morrissey, Marshall Crenshaw and even David Bowie liked Johnnie Ray... Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones once said 'Johnnie Ray was one of the first to make me really open my ears. That was like 2 or 3 years before Elvis.' "

Elvis must have taken notice too, for one of the great recordings on the marvellous Elvis Is Back album from 1960, recorded as soon as Elvis came out of the US Army, was a pent-up version of a song he'd heard from Johnnie Ray's 1954 recording of it, 'Such A Night' (written by pianist Lincoln Chase, who made records himself and also managed Shirley 'Name Game' Ellis). Johnnie's record was banned by the BBC for being too suggestive - too many orgasmic grunts, apparently.

Here's Johnnie Ray performing the song on Dutch TV in 1958. I was surprised, seeing this, to find him morphing between Sinatra and Rex Harrison:


Blogger Brent White said...

I've honestly never heard Johnnie Ray before now (although I'm aware of some of the cultural references you mention). That was frighteningly bad--maybe so bad it's good? But I can't tell. Am I missing something?

5:47 pm  
Blogger LanglandinSydney said...

and then there's Van Morrison's "Sometimes We Cry": "I'm not gonna fake it like Johnnie Ray."

1:51 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

I can't tell either, Brent. Either he limbos easily underneath any bar of critical judgment or else he is a personable, confident crooner with a likeable voice - a Bobby Darin before his time - with just enough weirdness to pass for charisma. And Langland, thank you for both your suggestions (Piers Plowman and Van Morrison).

2:26 pm  

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