Who Was Poor Old Johnnie Ray?

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.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Elvis Presley’s Movie Debut: “Love Me Tender”

    On November 15, 1956, Elvis Presley made his movie debut in Love Me Tender as the film premiered at New York’s Paramount Theater.   The film is set in Texas after the U.S. Civil War.

    In the movie, Elvis plays Clint Reno, the brother of a former Confederate soldier.  If you are going to make a movie with the most popular rock and roll star of the era, apparently someone thought it would be a good idea to put him in a period piece.

    Presley started his music career with Sun Records in 1954, and then his first album for RCA was released in March 1956.  So at the time of the release of Love Me Tender, Presley had only been recording music for a few years.  Also, he had made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956, only a few months before the release of Love Me Tender.

    The film initially had the title, The Reno Brothers.  But after advance sales of the single “Love Me Tender” went through the roof, the movie was renamed after the song.  Elvis sang “Love Me Tender” in the movie, along with three other songs.

    The film was similar to Elvis’s later films in that it combined a story with Elvis singing. But it differed from many of his later films in that he did not play the lead role in Love Me Tender.  Additionally [spoiler alert!], Presley’s character died at the end, which would have been unthinkable in his later movies.

    You may watch the entire Love Me Tender below.

    What is your favorite Elvis Presley movie? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    3 a.m. Albums: Elvis Presley’s “The Jungle Room Sessions”

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    If only for the circumstances surrounding Elvis Presley’s recording of The Jungle Room Sessions, the album constitutes the perfect “3 a.m. album.” The songs on The Jungle Room Sessions come from Presley’s final two studio recording sessions on February 2-7 and on October 29-30, 1976 in the late night and early morning hours. Presley was emotionally and physically drained, no longer wanting to go outside his home at Graceland even as he worked hard to fulfill his obligations for concerts booked by Colonel Tom Parker.

    Because of Presley’s reluctance to leave Graceland, RCA brought a studio to him, setting up recording equipment in Presley’s famed “Jungle Room,” the den at the back of Graceland behind the kitchen. Although the room was not built for recording, Nashville engineer Brian Christian helped figure out how to adapt the room in ways such as draping the walls with heavy blankets to dampen the acoustics. Considering the obstacles, the music that came out of these sessions sounds fantastic.

    These sessions produced the final two official albums of Elvis’s career: From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976) and Moody Blue (1977). The Jungle Room Sessions compiles unreleased songs from these recording sessions that according to Ernst Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, generally started after 9:00 p.m. and went all through the night.

    And it is these gems and alternate takes — sometimes stripped down, sometimes featuring false starts and comments by Presley — where Presley through his beautiful voice sacrifices his own anguish to help heal yours. As his weakened body gives his lifeblood to each song, you find a close companion in the night. Allmusic describes the album as “one of the most revealing and emotionally draining releases ever issued by Elvis. Hear it and weep.”

    The Jungle Room Sessions generally follows the order in which the songs were recorded, beginning with “Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall.” This recording includes some opening conversation by Elvis and two short takes before getting to the complete fifth take of the song. The missteps and chatter draw you into the sessions, so you feel you are sitting with Elvis and the band in the middle of the night in Graceland, or maybe they are with you wherever you are.

    Other songs include a nice take on “The Last Farewell,” “Moody Blue,” “Danny Boy,” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Another highlight is “She Thinks I Still Care,” a George Jones classic that was written by written by Dickey Lee and Steve Duffy.

    The collection of songs also includes alternate takes on “Hurt,” a song where in Presley’s cries of anguish Greil Marcus found an “apocalyptic attack.” Similarly, Dave Marsh wrote, “If [Presley] felt the way he sounded, the wonder isn’t that he only had a year left to live but that he managed to survive that long.” This alternate take matches that description.

    Finally, the album ends with the rocking “Fire Down Below.” But you no longer hear Presley on this track, except for a brief clip of Presley singing “America” after the track ends. The instrumental recording for “Fire Down Below” was made for Presley to later add his vocals. But he died before he got the chance to do that.

    “Fire Down Below” is a fitting way to end the album, with the listener missing Presley, wondering what he might have done with the music, a track that sounds more like a sunrise than a 3 a.m. song.

    The Jungle Room Sessions appears on Graceland’s special collector label Follow That Dream and is available through Graceland’s official store.

    What is your favorite 3 a.m. album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    In this video, Johnny Cash shows that he could have had another career as an Elvis impersonator. The clip is apparently from 1959 when Cash was 27 years old and touring as an opening act for Elvis Presley.

    Before his performance of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Cash clarifies that he is not impersonating Elvis directly. He explains it is “an impersonation of a rock and roll singer impersonating Elvis is what this really is.”

    Perhaps he wanted to add the extra layer of making fun of an impersonator rather than Elvis to somewhat insulate himself from making fun of his former colleague at Sun Records. In fact, the two men admired each other, and Elvis Presley even introduced Cash’s future wife June Carter to the wonder of Johnny Cash’s music.

    Who is your favorite Elvis impersonator? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Tom Jones: “Elvis Presley Blues”

    The 75-year-old Tom Jones continues to create interesting music, and he is releasing a new album that includes a cover of Gillian Welch‘s “Elvis Presley Blues.” While it may seem unusual for Jones to cover a folk/Americana singer-songwriter like Welch, Jones has always been willing to sing great songs, no matter what the genre.

    Jones’s cover of “Elvis Presley Blues” is also interesting because Jones was friends with Elvis Presley. Welch’s song is a tribute to Presley and a lament, as the singer thinks “about the day he died,” comparing Presley’s world-changing shaking to the steel-driving man John Henry. Jones, who also was famous for “shaking it,” seems the perfect person to sing the song. His version and the video featuring Jones watching video of his friend makes the song more personal, adding a new poignancy to the lyrics.

    “Elvis Presley Blues” appears on Jones’s upcoming album Long Lost Suitcase. Check out the video for the song.

    Long Lost Suitcase, a CD being released as a companion of sorts to Jones’s recent autobiography Over the Top and Back, hits stores December 5. Jones’s website describes the new album as “a catalogue of tracks that have impacted on Tom throughout his legendary career.”

    What do you think of the new Tom Jones video? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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