He'd hunch up tight into himself, choke on his words, gasp, stagger, beat his fist against his breast, squirm, fall forward on to his knees and, finally, burst into tears. He'd gag, tremble, half strangle himself. He'd pull out every last outrageous ham trick in the book and he would be comic, embarrassing, painful, but still he worked because, under the crap, he was in real agony, he was burning, and it was traumatic to watch him. He'd spew himself up in front of you and you'd freeze, you'd sweat, you'd be hurt yourself. You'd want to look away and you couldn't. (13-14)
Of course, many black entertainers had been putting on this kind of act for years before Ray, but he was one of the first to bring this type of antics into the mainstream of pop. And as good as many of his studio records are (his catalog has been reissued by the German label Bear Family on two five-CD box sets entitled Cry and Yes, Tonight, Josephine), the art of Johnnie Ray is best appreciated live on stage, when he is working in front of an audience. Perhaps he or his label, Columbia Records, sensed this, because two excellent live albums by Ray were released in the 1950s, his period of major stardom—Live at the London Palladium came out in 1954, and Johnnie Ray in Las Vegas appeared in 1958.
As a kid I heard Johnnie Ray singing "Cry" on the radio and was immediately mesmerized. By that time it was too late for me to get to see him perform live, since he had long quit touring. There is no doubt that Ray's natural habitat was the stage, though, where he could sing and shout and wail and fall down on his knees, where he could single-handedly electrify any audience. Unfortunately, these days not too many people seem to even remember Johnnie Ray at all, but these two live albums are ample proof of the uniqueness of the man's artistry in the perfect context for any listener to enjoy it.
Here is Johnnie Ray himself on television in 1957 singing his signature tune, Churchill Kohlman's "Cry," followed by one of his then-recent recordings, "Soliloquy of a Fool":