Johnnie Ray still wows audiences with his classic hits

The droves of screaming teen-agers who used to push their way into a Johnnie Ray performance back in the 1950s have given way to a more mature enclave of fans who grew up with Johnny and watched his hits ''Cry'' and ''The Little White Cloud That Cried'' soar to the top of the charts.

''I've found that the public is not fickle,'' commented Johnnie in the dressing room after his first show, opening night at the posh Marty's on the Upper East Side. ''I don't know what they mean by 'the fickle public,' because I've watched my generation grow up with me, and they keep coming back. Tonight there was a standing ovation, they were screaming for more -- what more could I ask for?''

And Johnnie sang the songs he knew they would wanted to hear. After a medley of hits, including ''Please Mr. Sun'' and ''Walkin' in the Rain,'' he gave full-fledged and heartfelt treatments to his two biggies, ''Cry'' and ''White Cloud.'' Backed by an excellent quartet led by pianist Jerry Blaine, a longtime friend, Ray romped through several jumpy numbers like ''After You've Gone,'' ''Mame,'' and even a country-western medley. A big man who performs with grand gestures, Johnnie seemed cramped on the tiny stage at Marty's, but he made it all into a merry joke, turning around and clowning affectionately with the musicians. But the best musical moments came when he sat down at the piano and accompanied himself on the beautiful ballads ''I'll Get By'' and ''Till the Clouds Roll By.'' He had performed the latter number many times with Judy Garland, and his rendition uncannily captured more than just a touch of Garland's style and spirit, and even, it seemed, her voice.

It was a surprise to learn that Ray had written several songs in his teens, not least of which was ''The Little White Cloud That Cried.'' On the subject of songwriting, he tends to underplay his ability.

''It was easy -- they were simple songs,'' he claims. ''It's really not talent -- anybody can get inspired to write good songs. Most of the big hits that I've ever had were not written by professional songwriters. 'Walkin' in the Rain' was written by four convicts in jail. ''Cry'' was written by a night watchman who wrote songs for a hobby.''

So where has Johnnie Ray been since the world went crazy over him in 1951?

''Since 1954 every year has been one tour after another. I've been to South Africa, New Zealand, the Far East, Japan, England. . . .''

''He's worked all the time,'' Jerry Blaine adds. But Blaine had mentioned earlier that with the advent of rock-and-roll, Johnnie, like so many other mainstream pop singers, found himself neither here nor there. So he went to Spain and spent three years there, before jumping back into performing and touring in the mid-'60s. Right from the start, Ray has had a big following overseas, where he gets a star's reception every time he performs.

''I prefer a live audience. That's why I don't do a lot more television - I can't communicate with a camera. Film is all right, but it's a terribly dull way to make a living.

''When I was younger I had a big ambition to make a lot of films, but after I made 'There's No Business Like Show Business' - as much fun as it was working with people like Marilyn Monroe, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, and Ethel Merman - there was still a lot of sitting around and waiting.''

He made a couple of films after that which he refers to as ''very forgettable ,'' then decided movies weren't for him.

''You have to be at the mercy of writers, directors, editors - when I perform live, the audience is the critic, I am the performer, and I know exactly who I am at all times.''

Would he prefer to record live, too?

''I know it's all stop and go these days (referring to the pattern of work in recording studios), but I try to make every recording an actual performance. That's the way we always did it when I started out. I think you're cheating the listener if you record in bits and pieces and go back and put a note in here, four bars there. It's not real to me. I don't think there's any great sin in hitting a bad note - it makes it human.

''I'm not a singer to start with. I do have a style and a sound, but if you want to talk about singers, let's go to people like Tony Bennett or Andy Williams -- people who have the instrument for it.''

Most people would have to disagree with Ray on that one, whether or not one takes into consideration the fact that he's totally deaf in one ear and has only partial hearing in the other, with the help of a hearing aid. His excellent intonation is not only remarkable, but singers who continuously complain that they can't hear themselves on stage because there aren't any monitors or that the monitors aren't working could benefit from a lesson or two from Johnnie Ray!

Jerry Blaine confided that Ray had written a lot of original material that he never got a chance to use during the peak of his stardom. What about those songs now?

''I've got about 150 of them on top of my piano at home right now,'' Johnnie said, obviously pleased by the question. ''I've started sorting them out, and when we record I hope to slip a few of those in.''

Johnnie Ray will be at Marty's through Feb. 27.

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