Poor old Johnnie Ray,
Sounded sad upon the radio;
He moved a million hearts in Mono.
Our mothers cried;
Sang along, who’d blame them.
The opening of the 1982-1983 hit song “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners mentions a person named Johnnie Ray. So does the first line of Billy Joel’s 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray. . . .”).
In each of the songs, the songwriters refer to Johnnie Ray in the context of remembering their childhoods. During the period they evoke, Johnnie Ray was a big star. But by the 1980s, when these songs were released, and today, many ask, “Who was poor old Johnnie Ray?”
Who Was Johnnie Ray?
Johnnie Ray, who passed away on February 24, 1990, was born in Oregon on January 10, 1927. He rose to stardom as a singer in the early 1950s. Some, like Tony Bennett, have credited Ray’s work to being an important precursor to rock and roll.
One of Ray’s biggest hits was “Cry.”
Bob Dylan once noted that Ray was the “first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with.” Ringo Starr explained that in the early days, he and the other Beatles listened to “Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnnie Ray.” The Rolling Stones’s Bill Wyman, among others, has commented how Ray opened up his ears even before Elvis Presley began recording.
And when Elvis Presley got out of the army, he covered a song he knew from Ray, “Such a Night.” Elvis’s version appeared on his 1960 album Elvis is Back. Below is Johnnie Ray’s version.
But as rock and roll took off in the late 1950s, Ray’s popularity declined in the U.S. even as he remained popular in other countries. Ray never disappeared and continued to perform until 1989.
Ray even had some fun with Presley’s music in the following comedy bit, where Ray explains he is not declaring war with Elvis. The clip is from a 1957 live episode of the CBS variety show Shower of Stars.
Ray had a great voice and made some wonderful music despite being deaf in one ear from a childhood injury. It is interesting to speculate why he could not maintain his popularity as rock and roll took off.
Maybe his style still was stuck in the 1940s era for rock and roll listeners. Maybe rumors about his sexual orientation hurt him, or maybe it was not cool to be in a movie like There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) with Ethel Merman. (Still, that film also starred Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley’s career would survive being in far worse movies.)
Ray also appeared on What’s My Line? on June 9, 1957.
Other songs have mentioned Ray too. In 1986, Ray appeared in Billy Idol’s “Don’t Need a Gun” video and was mentioned in the lyrics of the song.
More recently, Van Morrison dropped Ray’s name in his song “Sometimes We Cry” on his 1997 album The Healing Game. In the song, Van Morrison exclaims, “I’m not gonna fake it like Johnnie Ray.”
Van Morrison’s reference is not a criticism of Ray but a tribute. He invokes his memory of Ray’s own songs about crying such as “Cry,” along with Ray’s ability to fake cry on cue for his performances. Like the other singers who have invoked Ray’s name, Morrison remembers Ray as a major presence in his childhood. In a 2006 interview, Van Morrison noted that in his childhood home, “Johnnie Ray was like the backdrop, hearing his music on the radio during that period.”
Ray clearly made an impact on those who heard him during his prime. And it is great that the name checks by Van Morrison and Billy Joel will lead others to discover Ray’s music. Ray of course can also thank the writers of “Come On Eileen” (Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams) for his presence in one of the most iconic opening lines of a 1980s pop song.
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