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KELLY'S KORNER: Johnnie Ray always gave it his all

Joe Kelly
Sentinel columnist
Posted 3/5/23

A Johnnie Ray song came on the radio the other day. Johnnie Ray songs never come on the radio.

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KELLY'S KORNER: Johnnie Ray always gave it his all


A Johnnie Ray song came on the radio the other day. Johnnie Ray songs never come on the radio.

Well, hardly ever because as I just said one of his songs, “Cry,” was on the radio the other day as I drove north on Route 12.

Mention Johnnie Ray’s name to someone these days and most of the time you’ll get a blank stare. I mentioned his name to someone not too much younger than me yesterday who said, “It rings a bell. Did he play for the Phillies or the Pirates?”

No, but he did sing in Philadelphia back in the 1950s, probably in Pittsburgh, too.

I know he sang in Philadelphia’s baseball park because he told me so. He was proud that he filled the stadium.

Johnnie Ray said the streets around the stadium were so packed with fans trying to get in that he had to be brought in by helicopter.

“How’s that for an entrance?” 

Johnnie Ray said that to me over coffee. It was 1985. He had a one night stand singing at the appropriately named Hotel Oneida in Oneida.

I had spotted a four paragraph news item in the newspaper and a small one column ad in the same newspaper. The news item and ad appeared a week or so before his scheduled appearance at the hotel.

There had to be a mistake, I thought. Maybe this was a Johnnie Ray tribute show or something. 

No, said the front desk person at the hotel, it’s the real Johnnie Ray. So, of course, I made arrangements to go interview the real Johnnie Ray at the Hotel Oneida on the morning of his performance.

He arrived exactly on time, dressed in pressed blue jeans and a T-shirt under a thin brown leather jacket, penny loafers and white socks. He said hello with a smile.

Right away I noticed his hearing aids, which were big, the old fashioned kind, hard to miss. He said he had had a hearing problem since he was a kid in Oregon. 

We talked about his career, which included chart topping songs such as “Cry,” “Walkin’ in the Rain” and his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, headlining in Las Vegas and the time Tony Bennett called him the “father of rock and roll.” 

Johnnie Ray smiled and shrugged at the Tony Bennett compliment and said, “But there was a time when there was police protection everywhere I went. The crowds were too massive to control. … Sometimes I snuck out after a performance dressed as a policeman.”

And now on this day in 1985 he was singing at the Hotel Oneida. He said he was happy to be there and still able to entertain. We sat at the empty bar, he drinking soda and me a coffee. Out of nowhere he said, “I had a drinking problem 10 or 15 years ago. I wasn’t an alcoholic, but there was a problem.” 

Some reports are that his drinking problem was a bad problem.

Anyway, I went back to the Hotel Oneida that night to see his performance. He came out in a classic black tuxedo.

There were 75 people in the audience. I counted them.

After all those years of sold out performances in venues as big as major league baseball parks and number one records and being as hot as an entertainer can be, he sang his heart out, as they say, to 75 people that night. 

His voice was still good. He was animated. He interacted with the audience, including the drunk in the back of the room.

At the end of singing “Cry,’ he was down on one knee, arms extended to the audience. Except for the drunk, Johnnie Ray’s performance brought the audience to its feet, all 74 of us. 

I’ve always been impressed with the way Johnnie Ray handled himself at the end of his career. He had gone from filling a baseball stadium in Philadelphia to a room of 75 people at the Hotel Oneida, but he still gave it all he had. That’s impressive no matter your line of work. 

Although he faded from popularity in the United States in the early 1960s, Johnnie Ray continued to be popular in Europe and toured Australia several times.

He died of liver failure in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 1990. Johnnie Ray was 63.


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