The man Tony Bennett called ‘the father of rock and roll’, singer/songwriter Johnnie Ray was born January 10, 1927. Billed as the Cry Boy singer, the partially deaf pop star required police escorts during the fifties to stop riotous teenyboppers tearing his clothes off.
At the age of 12, the Oregon farm boy lost fifty per cent of his hearing. But that never stopped him. As a teenager, Johnnie performed at local dances, in shopping centres and even car lots. He wore the large, clumsy hearing aids of the era and either accompanied himself on piano or positioned himself where he could hear the drummer.
But he wanted to be an actor so, at 22, he caught a bus to Los Angeles. Although the movie career never happened, he found work as a piano man in dingy Hollywood clubs, places he later remembered as ‘upholstered sewers’.
Bill Franklin, later Johnnie’s manager and live-in lover, said the singer discovered himself sexually in Hollywood.
“There were women and there were men. He was a cute little kid with a big dick. He liked to talk about that and people liked to hear about it.”
The Little White Cloud That Cried
However, the club work eventually dried up and Johnnie returned home within a year. Always a songwriter, his failure to make it in Hollywood deterred him from attempting to write hits. Instead, he wrote what he felt. His sister said he returned from strolling by the river one day and played her the song he’d composed in this head.
I went walkin’ down by the river,
Feeling very sad inside.
When all at once I saw in the sky,
The little white cloud that cried.
The recollection of his teenage struggles to understand his bisexuality later became one of his biggest hits. (Video below)
Johnnie Ray then moved to Detroit and found work in an African-American club. A childhood fan of jazz, rhythm & blues, and gospel music, his time working with the black musicians in Detroit profoundly influenced his future direction.
But another of his Detroit experiences also profoundly affected his future. After a few drinks one night, he visited a local burlesque theatre. Men excited by the skimpily attired performers sometimes sought sexual release in the theatre toilets. Johnnie was arrested after speaking to a plainclothes cop loitering there who claimed the singer offered him a blowjob. Johnnie Ray pled guilty, paid the fine and got on with his life.
A year later, he was a star. The double-sided single of ‘Cry’ and ‘The Little White Cloud That Cried’ sold over two million copies.
Johnnie ‘Cry’ Ray Arrested
Then, at the height of his success, a scandal rag headlined a front-page article, ‘Johnnie ‘Cry’ Ray Arrested on Homosexual Charge’.
Although mainstream media ignored the exposure of his 1951 arrest, word spread through the entertainment industry and affected his future bookings. However, in 1959, he was arrested again for soliciting a cop, and again in Detroit. This time the arrest made headlines nationwide.
Johnnie Ray hired the best local lawyers and friends exerted pressure on politicians, the media and perhaps even the judiciary. In court, the undercover cop claimed the singer invited him to his room for a nightcap and made an indecent proposition. Johnnie took the stand and argued the man asked him for an autograph in a club and that he merely offered an innocent invitation back to his room.
After the all-female jury found the singer innocent, Johnnie fainted and the jury forewoman rushed to help him.
“Oh. The poor boy!”
In fairness to the cop, it appears both sides agreed Johnnie exposed his dick to the cop outside the club. Johnnie claimed he took it out to piss. But, in fairness to Johnnie Ray, two other cops witnessed him exposing himself. They’d been hiding in the bushes. Why? It seems obvious with hindsight that it was a set-up. Aware of Johnnie Ray’s sexuality from the previous arrest, and his renowned heavy drinking, the cops lured him into a trap.
The Cry Boy’s US career never recovered. But his fans in the UK and Australia stuck by him and he made numerous tours over the following years.
Johnnie Ray took many lovers of both sexes during his life but two affairs stand out. He enjoyed a long relationship with Dorothy Kilgallen, one of America’s most famous female journalists. Many, including Dorothy’s husband, believed Johnnie fathered her youngest child. Not that her husband was faithful. He was a notorious womaniser and she once caught him f_cking a guy in her own bed.
Later, Johnnie had a long-term relationship with his manager until Bill Franklin could no longer hang around to watch the man he loved drinking himself to death. Johnnie started drinking as a kid and struggled with alcoholism throughout his life.
Jonny Whiteside, author of Cry: The Johnnie Rae Story (available to read free at The Internet Archive) summed up Johnnie’s appeal.
“Energetic and lithe, Johnnie was an androgynous mix of ragamuffin country boy and torch-singing gamin.”
A Sinner I Am
But the Cry Boy was not only energetic and lithe. Johnnie Ray was also incredibly brave and ahead of his time.
His 1952 hit ‘A Sinner I Am’ blatantly declares his truth to those able to read between the lines. And leaving no room for misunderstanding, he studiously omits male/female pronouns, then almost obligatory for love songs.
Johnnie Ray died in 1990.
A sinner am I
For falling in love with you
A sinner am I
For thinking, you’d make this dream come true
A love like this
Was never meant for man’s imagination
But you know darn well that I can never be blamed
That’s because you know that I’m not ashamed
A sinner am I
Read more: January 9 <— On this day —> January 11
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