Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) has recently released a new documentary about Johnnie Ray, an Oregon-born singer, songwriter and 1950s teen idol. This new, half-hour program examines the singer’s life, career and legacy–one that is practically forgotten today.
Born near Dallas, OR in 1927, Ray was once arguably one of the biggest pop stars in the world. His unique sound and performance style thrilled audiences. Hard of hearing from a young age, Ray was a pioneer for the Deaf community while helping usher in the age of rock and roll.
He combined a wailing, bluesy sound with emotional, full-body performances. It has been said of Ray that musically, he’s considered the link between Sinatra and Elvis because he brought a rhythm and blues feeling to pop music.
Ray began his professional singing career as a teenager on the Portland radio show “Stars of Tomorrow” with fellow Oregonian Jane Powell. Through the 1940s, he sang in local war bond drives, played for tips in regional bars and spent time writing his own music.
He spent his twenties playing in clubs in Detroit and landed a contract with the Columbia subsidiary Okeh Records. His first recording featured two of his original songs written when he was just a teenager in Oregon, “Tell the Lady I Said Goodbye” and “Whiskey and Gin.” Both became regional favorites with local disc jockeys.
His next release, “Cry,” changed everything. It was an overnight hit and shot to the top of the Billboard record charts for both Pop and R&B sales, earning him a gold record and millions of fans. In 1952, four of his songs made Billboard’s 30 top-selling records for the year.
Throughout the 1950s, Ray made numerous TV performances and, for a time, hosted his own show in the United Kingdom. His concerts drew thousands of fans, with record-breaking performances.
His star began to dim, though, as Elvis and other bold new acts dominated radio airwaves. Though he faded from the limelight, Ray still maintained loyal fans. He continued to perform until his death in 1990. In fact, one of his last concerts was a fundraiser in Salem in October 1989.
“Johnnie Ray” is the latest episode from “Oregon Experience,” an original OPB series that explores Oregon’s past and helps to provide a deeper understanding of the historical, social and political fabric of the state and region.
For more information and to watch the documentary, visit opb.org/show/oregonexperience.