Tuesday, July 19, 2016

SHG: Johnnie Ray: "Just Walking in the Rain"

Johnnie Ray: “Just Walking in the Rain”
Entered the chart on: 9/8/1956
Peaked on: 10/13/1956
Weeks at #2: 1 week
Songs at #1: “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley

This is an interesting top 2, artist-wise, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Poor old Johnnie Ray. A big, beloved singing star in the 50s, nowadays reduced to a passing mention in a one-hit wonder by a bunch of English boys play-acting at being Irish folkies until they got bored and moved onto their next image change. Johnnie deserves better, as he’s arguably the most fascinating male solo singer of the 1950s.

Johnnie was undeniably an oddity in 50s pop music with his rich, impassioned vocal delivery. His odd, androgynous voice confused listeners at first; many when they first heard him on the radio pictured a large, black woman, not a slender, white man. Some have claimed him to be a big influence on rock & roll, though to these ears the real inheritors of his pioneering style were the dramatic male balladeers of the 60s, singers like Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney.

It’s helpful to listen to both sides of his breakthrough single. The A-side, “Cry,” is quintessential Johnnie, and boils down his appeal nicely in three minutes. Interesting perhaps more historically than musically is the self-penned B-side, “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” This might be one of the most confessional songs of its era, its lyrics overflowing with subtext.

You see, Johnnie was gay. As in “couldn’t hide it if he tried” gay.

Columbia tried to keep him in the closet, but Johnnie’s effeminate mannerisms couldn’t be covered up. Frank Sinatra carried on a very public (and obviously more than a bit homophobic) hate campaign against Johnnie. But he had many friends as well as enemies, Frankie Laine and SHG alumnus Doris Day were Johnnie boosters, and fellow SHG alumni the Four Lads backed Johnnie on his early singles. He helped give (the also underrated and sadly forgotten) Timi Yuro* her first break. Elvis Presley counted Johnnie as an early influence, as did later stars such as David Bowie. And that’s not even counting the legions of (mostly female) fans he commanded at the time.

Got all that? Good. Because I really dislike this song.

Ugh! Where to begin? Johnnie is just the wrong singer for a song like this. The lyrics are the usual heartbreak theme that Johnnie has done a good job of milking for years. But Ray Conniff does an awful job of trying to turn this into a Pat Boone song, with drippy backing vocals, an annoying whistling hook and inappropriate ukulele accompaniment. It’s like he was trying to sabotage the song, or at least try to make him more acceptable for the squeaky-clean, increasingly conservative tastes of grown-up audiences as the 50s progressed. Johnnie tries, but he can’t save what’s essentially a pretty poor song.

I’d say “go ahead and listen to ‘Cry’ instead,” which would be good sooth, but pretty much any of Johnnie’s songs would be preferable. The follow-up hit, “You Don’t Owe Me a Thing,” is infinitely better as is its B-side, the gorgeous “Look Homeward, Angel.” This isn’t the first time a singer I like has released a song I hate (I’ve mentioned Kay Starr’s “Rock and Roll Waltz” in passing; don’t get me started, it’ll turn into a rant) and it won’t be the last (ask my opinion on Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” some time).

Rating: 2

*their duet on a rendition of Frankie Laine’s “I Believe” must be heard to be believed; both singers are in fine form.

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