‘Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio
He moved a million hearts in mono.’
Immortalised in the video and opening line of Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners, it’s a shame that it seems to be what US singer and songwriter Johnnie Ray is best known for these days. As great a song as it is, he deserves better. In many ways the prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star, he was troubled, sexual and most of all, different. He wasn’t a cardigan crooner or your typical teen idol, but for a time he was just as popular. He was a big influence on Elvis Presley, who later covered this song, and Morrissey wore a hearing aid in the early years of the Smiths. He did this because Ray became deaf in his left ear as a child. This no doubt contributed to his unique vocal performances. Ray was one of the first, if not the first star to show you could turn your weaknesses into your greatest strengths. He was influenced by, among others, Kay Starr, whose jazzy, rhythmic singing on previous number 1, Comes A-Long A-Love was one of the earliest signals of rock’n’roll to make the charts. In 1952 he enjoyed his first big success with the double-A side (a rarity in itself back then) of Cry/The Little White Cloud That Cried. On 30 April, his cover of Such a Night became his first UK number 1.
Such a Night had originally been hit for soul group The Drifters. It was songwriter Lincoln Chase’s first big hit, and caused some controversy for being a bit too racy for the 1950s. Johnnie Ray had no qualms about not only covering it, but making it sound positively filthy by the usual standards of the day. The lyrics and rhymes are very basic, but it’s all about the delivery with this song, produced by hitmaker Mitch Miller. Ray doesn’t hold back, he grunt and groans, and makes it clear he’s not just talking about kissing his girl. Finally, sex had made it’s way to the top of the charts (the nudge-nudge wink-wink of Guy Mitchell’s Look at That Girl barely compares) and already the likes of Frankie Laine started to look old-fashioned by comparison. It’s not quite there yet, and Ray would do better, but the ingredients of rock’n’roll and pop are noticeable.
Like many of the best entertainers, be they musicians, actors, or comedians, Ray had personal issues, which no doubt helped with the intensity of his live performances. He would pull his hair, drop to his knees and cry, earning the nickname ‘Mr Emotion’ (in this television performance of Such a Night, he reminds me of Jarvis Cocker). He had alcohol problems, probably in part due to his sexuality. Being gay and in the public eye in 1954 wasn’t easy, to put it lightly. In 1951 he was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for sex. As he wasn’t famous back then, the newspapers didn’t make a big deal of it. A year later, he married Marilyn Morrison, who knew of the arrest but reckoned she could change his ways. She couldn’t, and they divorced in 1954.
On 6 May, the day before Secret Love by Doris Day returned to the top of the charts, athlete Roger Bannister made history by becoming the first person to break the four-minute mile, despite terrible weather conditions.
Written by: Lincoln Chase
Producer: Mitch Miller
Weeks at number 1: 1 (30 April-6 May)
Journalist JC Forbes – 6 May