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Welcome to #DeafHistorySeries, a weekly thread on unfamiliar histories of deaf/hard-of-hearing people, events, and technologies.

Disclaimer: I adhere to the historical record as faithfully as possible, using terminologies as people at the time used them. A pink decorative banner image featuring a black and white photo of two children in a circle, surrounded by yellow lines. The photo shows a young girl speaking into a ear trumpet, and a young boy with a hearing aid listening through the trumpet. The yellow text says Deaf History Series with Dr. Jaipreet Virdi
He’s described as “America’s first culture-shocking misfit” & a posterchild for “queercrip.” Tony Bennett called him the Father of Rock & Roll.

Deaf, effeminate, bisexual, Johnnie Ray was a pop sensation who performed authentically. His hearing aids were part of his performance. a banner image. on the left is a color photo of a white man with his head turned to the right, his facial expression full of emotion as he is in the middle of singing. a hearing aid earpiece is visible in his left ear. On the right side is blue background with yellow text saying DEAF HISTORY SERIES EPISODE 1 JOHNNIE RAY
Born John Alvin Ray & raised in Oregon, Ray’s hearing began to decline at age 10. It’s uncertain whether the deafness was caused by an accident ( a fall from playing Blanket Toss) or congenital deafness, but by 1940, he was wearing a vacuum tube hearing aid and could lip-read. a black and white photo of young johnnie ray singing in a microphone, with his hearing aid earpiece visible in his left ear.
At 15, he began singing in Detroit nightclubs. Sometimes he was the only white singer on the bill. His style was wild & vivacious, influenced by R&B singers Kay Starr & LaVern Baker (pic). His voice was considered effeminate & he was sometimes mistaken for a black female singer. grainy black and white photo of performers on stage, including Johnnie Ray, LaVerne Baker and Bill Hadley, with musical instruments and large feathers accompanying them.
1951 was Ray’s big break when he was discovered & signed with Okeh, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. He released his debut album, Johnnie Ray (1952) and a 78 rpm 2-sided single: “Cry” and an original composition, ”The Little White Cloud That Cried.” A record cover showing Johnnie Ray's singing face in close up. Title of record is in red font and says CRYA black and white photo of johnnie ray singing at a microphone that says columbia records.
The single was a radical pop and R&B hit, moving to the Columbia label to appeal to white listeners.

Ray regularly appeared on American television to sing live, including on the Ed Sullivan Show (from 1953-1958).

lyrics: bit.ly/3bkgwEy
Though the emotive features of Ray’s hits earned him nicknames as “The Nabob of Sob” & “The Cry Guy,” he a widely popular teen idol. On stage, his hearing aid were part of his performance: he cupped his hands to draw attention to the earpiece of the aid. a black and white photo of johnnie ray overlooking a crowd of adoring fans
Johnnie Ray’s first (and only) major motion picture was in 1954. He starred alongside Marylin Monroe and Ethel Merman in “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” While he was allowed to wear his hearing aids during rehearsals, producers told him to remove it during the shooting. Movie poster for There's no business like show business showing six figures in formal gown or tuxedos dancing. Black and white photograph of johnnie ray standing and talking to Marilyn Monroe who is wearing a long gown, as they are surrounded by other people in the background.
When Ray was in school, a teacher suggested he should enroll in a deaf school, but he refused. His voice retained the “deaf accent” of poor modulation, making his singing voice unique. At the prime of stardom, he discussed deafness on the Ed Sullivan Show & visited deaf schools. A smiling johnnie ray seated at a desk and signing autographs. He is surrounded by several children who are all wearing their hearing aid prominently.
Ray’s social life made tabloid headlines.

He was briefly married to Marylin Morrison (pic) & had a long affair with columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. His bisexuality was an open secret as he was arrested twice for soliciting sex from men. He suffered from drugs & alcohol addiction. Johnnie ray smiling next to a pretty woman with curly brown hair.
By 1960, Ray was dropped by his record label. As his deafness worsened, he sought out a surgical fix.

However, the surgery left him completely deaf in his left ear and partially deaf in his right, affecting his singing: he had trouble getting volume right & was often off-key. A smiling johnnie ray seated on a hospital bed, with his left ear bandaged and a hearing aid earpiece in his right ear. He is holding a cake with lit birthday candles.
Ray never made another recording after 1960.

As his popularity waned in the US he continued to perform in the U.K.until 1989. He even headlined with Judy Garland in 1969 and was best man at her wedding to Mickey Deans.

Johnnie Ray died in Los Angeles in from liver failure. color photo showing judy garland in a blue dress smiling and laughing while listening to johnnie ray talk to her. they are are in a restaurant and seated at tables. Besides them, mickey dean is having a cigarette.
For Further Reading:

Vincent L. Stephens, Rocking the Closet (2019)

George McKay, Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability (2013)

Cheryl Herr’s 2009 article in Popular Music (vol.28, no.3)

Jonny Whiteside, Cry: The Johnnie Ray Story (1994) a black and white photo of johnnie ray on stage under the spotlight.
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