Oregon Magazine    Kick the habit atSerenity Lane

      Cover |   Table of Contents   |  Around Oregon News Digest  |  Oregon Travel Links
  Life&Styles  |  SciTech  |  Outdoor  |  Natural History  |  Sports  |  Business  |  Arts&Lettres

The tracks of his tears

 by Tom Henderson of the Polk County Itemizer Observer  (Dallas, OR)

Dallas legend Johnnie Ray is remembered as a film crew takes a sentimental journey through his boyhood years.

(photo by Daniel Hurst)  Singer and Dallas native Johnnie Ray (January 10, 1927 to February 24, 1990)  will be the subject of a British television documentary. Film crews will arrive this week to retrace the legendary Prince of Wails' childhood footsteps in Polk County. Ray is buried in Hopewell Cemetery. 

Sunday, October 14, 2001 -  Just walkin' in the rain, so alone and blue, all because my heart still remembers you."
   Johnnie Ray made those words famous. He knew a lot about rain -- and not just because he grew up in Dallas.
   For all his fame and hit records in the 1950s, Ray lived and died a sad man. His was a life filled, as one magazine headline put it, with "tears, fears and too many beers."
   Ironically, Friday's forecast calls for rain.
   Polk County historian Arlie Holt and a British film crew may find themselves walking in the rain as they retrace Johnnie Ray's childhood footsteps and remember the man himself.

   So alone and blue.
   Few in the MTV generation have probably ever heard of Johnnie Ray. But with hits like "Cry," "Just Walking in the Rain," and "The Little White Cloud That Cried," Ray was as big as any performer around today.
   Bigger, actually.
   Ray's quivering voice brought an emotional element to music that earned him such nicknames as "The Prince of Wails," "The Crying Crooner" and "The Nabob of Sob."
   "Never before has an artist dared to weep on stage, to take the microphone off its stand, to fall to his knees and venture deep into the adoring audience," Holt said.
   "He whipped them into a frenzy of emotion."

   In the early '50s, his offbeat vocals paved the way for rock 'n' rollers such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Singer Tony Bennett credits Ray as being the true father of rock 'n' roll.
   Although Ray's voice eventually went out of fashion in the United States, his popularity in Great Britain has never waned.
   "He still holds the record for topping the bill at the London Palladium," Holt said.
   Ray attracted the interest of British television director Ken Howard of the "South Bank Show."
   Holt said having a crew from the show come to Dallas is quite an honor.
   "This prestigious series has been running for 25 years in Britain and around the world and in that time has featured almost every major artist."

   Howard has created award-winning profiles of Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra and John Lennon, among many others.
   Howard is particularly intrigued with Ray, Holt said. "Ken saw him there when he was a youngster and was astounded by Ray's stage presence."
   Looking for information on Ray, Howard called reference librarian Gary Coville at the Dallas Public Library. Coville, it so happens, is a major pop culture buff.
   Coville connected Howard with Holt, a walking encyclopedia of Polk County history.
   That walking will take the form of a tour of Johnnie Ray's life this Friday.
   Howard and his crew actually arrive Thursday night to plan the day's activities. One of the first stops will be Dallas City Park.
   It was the scene of a fateful incident in Ray's life.

   It was 1937. Ray was a member of the Boy Scouts. He and his fellow Scouts were doing a blanket toss in the park. Ray flew up into the air but missed the blanket coming down.
   No one knows quite what happened. A common theory is that he landed on a piece of stubble. Whatever the cause, Ray lost 53 percent of his hearing.
   "Despite this real handicap he went on to compose hundreds of songs and to pursue a singing career," Holt said.
   In later years, Ray proudly wore a hearing aid during his performances.
   Holt said film crews want to stage a re-enactment of the accident with the help of current Scoutmaster Wade White.
   The tour will also include Ray's childhood homes on Hayter Street and Polk Station Road.

   His old school, now the Academy Building, will also be part of the tour.
   Filmmakers will spend the afternoon at the Polk County Museum in private interviews with people who grew up with Ray.
   Saturday's agenda includes a trip to the Spring Valley area and the home of Ray's pioneer grandfather George Curvy Gay.
   "He was a very important figure, in both Polk County history and statewide," Holt said.
   One of the last stops will be the Hopewell Cemetery where Ray is buried. While music figures like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix have elaborate -- even garrish -- gravesites, Ray's is simple.
   There is no mention of his fame. Just his name and the years he lived -- 1927 to 1990.

   After leaving Polk County, Howard and the crew plan other stops. Most notably Roseburg and the banks of the Umpqua River.
   Ray supposedly wrote one of his biggest hits, "The Little White Cloud That Cried," while standing on the banks of the river.
   The song sold 25 million copies in 1951.
   Ray's genius for music surfaced early, Holt said. "His musical ability was spotted when he was found happily playing the old pump organ at the age of 3."
   Ray attended the First Christian Church, constructed during his early childhood, and sang in the choir.
   "Between church choir and country music, that was my introduction to music," Ray said during in an interview with the Itemizer Observer just five months before his death.

   Ray's father played the fiddle. Ray himself attended local hoedowns and other musical gatherings.
   He also sang for pennies and nickles from field workers. "That was my first professional work," he said.
   After a long, hard apprenticeship in Portland clubs and throughout the Midwest, Ray was spotted by a talent scout for Columbia Records.
   His first recordings came out on the specialist Okeh! label, but when ace producer Mitch Miller heard the tracks he transfered him to the main label.
   Ray became one of Columbia's biggest-selling artists.
   Director Ken Howard said he owes Ray a personal debt of inspiration. In addition to being a television director, he has also penned dozens of million-selling records himself -- including two for Elvis Presley.
   "I think watching Johnnie Ray began it all," Howard said.

   The one person Ray couldn't impress was himself.
   He remained a sullen and aloof figure throughout most of his life. He had, by his own admission, only one mature relationship -- with his wife, Marilyn Morrison.
   The marriage ended after only 19 months. Morrison said Ray needed a nursemaid more than a wife.
   Although millions of screaming teenage girls adored him, Ray had no interest in them. He drank himself to sleep every night.
   Ray hated the taste of whiskey, so he guzzled beer instead.
   He died of liver failure shortly after a concert at Salem's Grand Theater.
   "I hate to drink," Ray once told an interviewer.
   "But I have to. I don't have any friends."

(Link to the sequel to this article .  The BBC films in Dallas)

(C) 2001 Polk County Itemizer Observer   Reprinted by permission

CoverTable of Contents   |  Around Oregon News Digest  |  Oregon Travel Links | Life&Styles
SciTech  |  Outdoor  |  Natural History  |  Sports  |  Business  |  Arts&Lettres  | Contact (email)