Friday, September 03, 2010

Let scandal be your handle

Johnnie Ray was a popular singer in the early 1950s. His biggest songs, the two-sided hit, "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried" were delivered with bucketloads of emotion. Ray, according to the web biographies, is considered a "bridge between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley."

Before he was a star Johnnie Ray was arrested in 1951 for soliciting an undercover male police officer for sex. He copped to a guilty plea and paid a fine. During the height of his popularity the scandal magazines of the time published his mug shot and story of his arrest. Nowadays with tabloids staring at us in the supermarket lines it's hard to remember a time when scandal was considered sleazy. My mother would buy Confidential magazine and put it on a shelf in her closet under some clothes. I'd find it and read it. If my parents hid something it had to be hot!

This page, from a 1955 rag called Lowdown, is public response to their news of Ray's arrest. Letter writers, in no uncertain terms, tell the magazine what they think of them for outing their hero, Johnnie.

For a celebrity to stay in the public eye nowadays sleaze and scandal are almost welcomed. How many records did Britney Spears sell when she was going through her years in the tabloids? In the last week news of party-girl Paris Hilton being arrested for cocaine has taken over the story of Lindsay Lohan, her jail sentence and time in rehab. It's almost as if Hilton figured it'd been a while since she'd seen her face in the tabloids or on TV, so might as well get busted for drugs. Always a good headline, and with her money she can afford a good lawyer.

At least Lohan can act. Paris Hilton's claim to fame is that she's an heiress. No one, including herself, has ever claimed she is an actress. Unless you consider her facial expressions in a video circulating around the web, giving oral sex to her boyfriend. (She does deliver the line, "I know you like it" with some conviction.)

Back to Johnnie Ray. In those days news that a star was gay was a career killer. Liberace sued publications that claimed he was gay. He was gay, but he sued them anyway. Stars like Ray and Rock Hudson and others got married to women to give the impression they were hetero. It doesn't seem like a big deal now, does it? Someone in show business is gay? Wow, what a big surprise. I'm really surprised that Ray's career not only survived, but flourished during the 1950s, a very uptight and unforgiving era for scandal. Being arrested didn't kill off Johnnie Ray's career. Like a lot of pop stars of his era, rock 'n' roll administered the coup de grace. Ray was arrested again in '59 for soliciting an undercover officer, but by then his real success was behind him. Ray drank heavily, and maybe being gay in such a climate had something to do with it. He died at age 63 in 1990, his liver gone.

We look back this sort of exposure now as being almost quaint, but at the time it could stop a show business career in its tracks. Ray was lucky his best years were after his original arrest, but before the story broke.

Here's Johnnie Ray, singing "Cry":

1 comment:

Kirk Jusko said...

I once read that Ray had an affair with 50s gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgellin, something she kept out of her own column.