BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
By the time he was 49, Johnnie Ray had dried the tears that carried him to stardom with such hits as “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” He had replaced the weepy histrionics of his early singing career with a somewhat tempered – if still melodramatically intense – version of the stage act that once saw him releasing ecstasies of torture and agony and then collapsing into helpless sobs. Ray continued to affect this persona of a troubled spirit as he grew older. What seemed most remarkable to me when I saw him do a nightclub show in 1976 was not that he continued to inject this level of intensity into his performance, but that he sang at all.
He had been deaf since childhood, he told me. At a Boy Scout jamboree in his native Oregon at the age of 10, Ray had been tossed high in a blanket, landing on his head. That impaired his hearing and turned him from a happy, well-adjusted child into a permanent introvert, solitary, withdrawn and sad. “Little White Cloud” was the classic result of a long walk Ray took with his dog after the accident. He sat down on a riverbank, looked up at the sky, and noticed “one small puff of white cloud.” The rest, as his publicity machine would say later, was pop music history.
His deafness, for whatever reason, wasn’t detected until he was in high school. He said he didn’t tell his parents about it because he thought it might be just a temporary injury. A teacher could see there was something wrong and suggested to his parents that they send Ray to a school for the deaf and dumb. Instead, they bought him a hearing aid. When he started singing professionally, his hearing impairment caused him to adopt an exaggerated declamatory style.
He was wearing what he said was a more sophisticated hearing aid when I spoke with him. Without it, Ray said, he couldn’t sing it all. He adjusted it for volume and sound separation as he performed, yet it seemed to work only intermittently. Occasionally he sang out of tune, and frequently his voice couldn’t be heard over the sound of the band. “But like John Osborne’s Entertainer or the late Judy Garland,” I wrote in my review, “it’s impossible not to feel involved with him. When he winds himself up, takes a deep breath and explodes into the opening bars of a number like Cry (‘If yore swe-eetheart sends a le-etter of goodbye…’) – whether you think it’s contrived or silly or whatever – you’re compelled to pay attention.”
He had quit singing for a few years in the early 1960s – “I fired everybody: my manager, my musical director, everybody” – and moved to Europe for a while. After 10 years of trying to compete with the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and the other rock ’n’ roll artists then dominating the best-seller charts, Ray had decided to throw in the towel. He had also decided to deal with what he later admitted was a severe alcohol dependency.
He acted in movies – something he had wanted to do since childhood – before returning in the early 1970s to the musical career that brought him three million-selling records in the 1950s. “I’d found where I belong: in front of an audience,” he told The New York Times. “I can’t wait six months for editors to work on a picture to see how it came out. I can’t live with that kind of insecurity. I’m insecure enough without that.” No longer a teenage idol, he was now content to appeal nostalgically to the middle-aged fans who had screamed at him hysterically when he was in his 20s.
His insecurities were still on full display when I saw him perform in 1976. He now seemed more controlled on stage than in the 1950s, when The New York Times reported that he “tears a passion to tatters and then stamps on the shreds.” But the feigned pathos and strident emotional delivery were still there. His agonized performance was still tortured enough to generate a feeling of discomfort – or sympathy – in his audience. “With his frail appearance, awkward movements, troubled expression and faltering voice,” I wrote, “one wonders if he isn’t trying to tell us something when he sings ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night.’ You have to know whether he really is going to make it through the night and, when he does, the feeling of relief is palpable.”
Ray had stopped recording by the time I caught up with him. Aside from a couple of greatest-hits compilations, he had released nothing since 1960. But he had found steady work in the nightclubs on both sides of the Atlantic and – starting in the early 1970s – had made regular appearances on such television programs as The Andy Williams Show and The Tonight Show.
During the 1980s, Ray’s career slumped. The club work dried up and the television invitations stopped arriving. Some commentators suggested Ray never had any real talent to begin with. “He’s a living example of how far and how long a performer can go on the strength of a novelty vogue backed by showmanship and promotion,” wrote Blaik Kirby in The Globe and Mail.
After being a recovering alcoholic in his 40s, Ray took to the bottle again in his 50s. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis and died of liver failure in 1990 at age 63. “His popularity at its peak was comparable to the hysteria generated by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley,” said The New York Times obituary. “Though in Mr. Ray’s case, the glory was fleeting.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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