In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there was a type of singer who bridged the gap between swing era crooners and the pop vocalists who would come along later. They were guys who’d probably come up through the club route rather than as big band vocalists, and often had a sound that was a little different. For example, some – although white – were heard on the radio and assumed at first to be black R&B singers. Frankie Laine was one, and another was a guy who for a while was about the biggest thing around — Johnnie Ray.
At least one music historian has described Johnnie Ray as a cross between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and he was a huge star, but I’d be willing to bet that modern music lovers barely recognize his name. Nevertheless, he was a true phenom, and his biggest hit, “Cry”, was at the top of the pop charts for three months. Quite an accomplishment for a singer who’d been deaf in one ear since childhood and eventually lost most of the hearing in his other ear too.
He grew up in rural Oregon, but as an aspiring young singer his path led him to Detroit, where he began working in R&B clubs — sometimes as the only white singer. He began to get noticed, and his distinctive style that foreshadowed rock and roll helped him get a recording contract with R&B label Okeh Records.
Success eluded him at first, but in 1951 he recorded “Cry”, his own composition, backed by the Four Lads. It was a song that was a little less R&B and a little more mainstream, and it became a monster hit. He followed it with “The Little White Cloud That Cried”, which he’d also written, and continued for the next few years to record hit after hit. Some notable songs included “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”, “Please Mr. Sun”, and “Such A Night”. He was a sensation in person too, with his on-stage histrionics and antics. He’d get more and more wound up as the song progressed, often pounding on his piano and usually crying at some point. He was sometimes called “The Cry Guy”, or “Mr. Emotion”, and sometimes “The Prince of Wails”. The kids who were his fans ate it up and he was often mobbed in personal appearances, like later teen idols.
Throughout the middle of the decade he continued to be a star, but his final hit was 1956’s “Just Walking in the Rain”, and the advent of edgier rock and roll artists spelled the beginning of the end for his fame. His personal life also began to intrude into his public self and erode his popularity. It was a much less tolerant time, and although he had married in 1952, Confidential magazine and others had questioned his sexual orientation. When he was arrested in Australia for public indecency, it pretty much finished off a career that was already going downhill. In the 1970’s he enjoyed a brief resurgence of popularity, and was recognized by Bob Dylan as a major influence in his music, but Johnnie never regained much momentum as a performer himself. He died in 1990 of liver failure, possibly caused but certainly exacerbated by alcoholism.