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Ray, Johnnie (1927-1990)  
 
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Singer and songwriter Johnnie Ray caused a sensation in the 1950s with energetic concert performances of hit songs, including the chart-topping "Cry." Because of his emotional on-stage style he was dubbed the Prince of Wails. Teen-aged girls squealed at the sight of the handsome heartthrob, but Ray's principal romantic attachments were with other men.

John Alvin Ray was born on a farm near Dallas, Oregon on January 10, 1927. Several years later, at the height of the Great Depression, the family lost the property and moved into town, where Ray's father found work at a lumber mill.

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Young Johnnie Ray showed musical talent early. At the age of three or four he began playing tunes by ear on a pump organ. His parents arranged for him to take lessons from the church organist, and soon Ray was playing at services.

The boy's musical taste ran to pop, however, and he and his older sister began performing together at schools.

By the time he was five Ray knew that he wanted to be an entertainer. When his father took him to see George Archainbaud's Murder on the Blackboard (1934), he immediately decided that he wanted to star on the silver screen.

An accident in the summer of 1940 nearly derailed his plans. During a blanket toss at a Boy Scout Jamboree, Ray fell to the ground, suffering a concussion and severe ear injuries that cost him about fifty percent of his hearing.

Neither Ray nor any of the other boys reported the incident at the time, and so he received no medical treatment. In the months that followed, he became withdrawn and felt like "the loneliest boy in the world." It was not until late 1941, after a teacher suggested that he be sent to a school for the deaf, that he saw a doctor, was fitted with a hearing aid, and "got the world back."

When World War II broke out, Ray's family moved again, this time to Portland, where his father worked in the shipyards.

Ray pursued his interest in acting with appearances in high school plays, but it was his singing that began drawing attention. He played at weekend dances at the YMCA that promoted the sale of war bonds. At one such event he met Sophie Tucker, an idol of his, who advised him, "If you want to make it in show business, kid, get the hell out of Portland."

He did not take her advice immediately. During high school and for several years thereafter he performed in Oregon, but at twenty-two he headed for Hollywood. Although he found some jobs, he did not enjoy much success in California. Within a year he was broke and on his way home.

Ray was delighted when the male-female comedy team of Bob Mitchell and Jay Grayton came to perform in Portland. The couple had helped him get some bookings in Los Angeles and had also made him part of a ménage à trois. Ray's participation in sexual activities with both Mitchell and Grayton is paradigmatic of his bisexual tendencies; although he seems to have been mostly homosexual in orientation, Ray also participated in heterosexual liaisons. Once again the couple took him under their wing and, through their agent, got him a two-week gig in Ashtabula, Ohio.

He played there and at various other clubs in northern Ohio without great success. When Grayton and Mitchell, who were performing at the Flame Showbar in Detroit, persuaded the management to give Ray an audition, he barely had enough money for a bus ticket to Michigan.

The Flame was a "black and tan club," one that had a mixed-race clientele. Most of the singers who appeared there were African-American, but Ray fit right in: his musical style had been strongly influenced by black artists. Before there was Elvis Presley there was Johnnie Ray.

His stage presence was unique: he expended enormous energy, pounding on the piano, singing at the top of his lungs, and often shedding tears. The last would earn him such nicknames as the Prince of Wails and the Nabob of Sob.

While playing at the Flame in 1951, Ray was "discovered" by disk jockey Robin Seymour of WKMH in Dearborn. He brought him to the attention of record producer Danny Kessler, who said of his first view of Ray's performance, "I was probably more overwhelmed with what I heard and saw than by anything else I ever encountered artistically in my life." He signed Ray to a record contract.

Ray recorded two songs of his own composition, "Whiskey and Gin" and "Tell the Lady I Said Goodbye."

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Johnnie Ray as featured in a still from a trailer for the film There's no Business Like Show Business (1954).
  
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