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Monday, May 15, 2017

Johnnie Ray - "High Drama: The Real Johnnie Ray" CD, Compilation, 1997 (Columbia)


Johnnie Ray is one of the most underrated singers of the 20th century.  For a man who was such a sensation is to this day, have problems with editors when it comes to the spelling of his name "Johnnie."  I can't count all the times I have read "Johnny" instead of Johnnie."  The causal culture historian may see Ray as one of the symbolic figures of the safe and bland 1950s (Ha!), but the fact is this gay orientated pop singer is more of a Rhythm and Blues performer than anything else.  He also wrote some of his songs, which are generally terrific.   As a performer, there is no one better than him.   His ability to have what looks like a nervous breakdown on stage, as well as his visually chunky hearing aid brings a vulnerability to the package that is downright seductive. 

This package "High Drama" is not the first Johnnie Ray compilation, but it's the first one to see him as a significant recording artist.  This and a collection put together by Bear Family Records (a label that never fails) are superb introductions to the magic that is Johnnie Ray.

Even the song titles bare a sense of wonder, mystery, anxiety, and existential dread, such as "The Lonely Ones," "How Long, How Long Blues," or "She Ain't Say Nothin' at All."  There is also in his songs tied into nature, that is sensual and more emotional than a picture postcard of a beautiful place - for instance, "Mountains in the Moonlight."   It is almost how a classical German approach to nature in the woods or forest.  There is a spirituality that goes hand-in-hand with one's mood, more than anything else. 

"Cry" is, of course, the hit on this collection, but there are two songs here that knock me to my knees, and that's "Soliloquy of a Fool" (perhaps the iconic type title from this singer) and "Such a Night."  Both are passionate somewhere on the scale of 1 to 10 being at least 12.  "Soliloquy of a Fool" is almost a minimal electronic piece but done with orchestration.  For my ears, a recording that is very much ahead of its time, and needs to be re-listen to in the 21st century.   "Such a Night" is Johnnie going wild and over-the-top in sexual overtures.   This collection is an excellent introduction into the mystique and wonderment that is Johnnie Ray.