Was the REAL “Father of Rock ‘n Roll” Hearing Impaired?

This assertion might startle more than a few historians of pop music. The origins of rock and roll have been fiercely debated by commentators and music historians.  Conventional literature indicates that Rock and Roll music arose in the Southern United States through the homogenation of  African musical traditions with European musical instruments.  Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the exact birth of Rock and Rollits bloodline is typically  traced back to the likes of Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and, of course, Chuck Berry,  even Alan Freed…..but there is an idol of Elvis Presley and some of the other founders of Rock and Roll that many feel should carry the “Father of Rock and Roll” title that has never even made it to the Hall of Fame!

If Not Bill, Dick, Elvis, Chuck or Alan…..Then Who?

The story begins January 10, 1927.  This day Elmer and Hazel Ray, direct descendants of a native American and an Oregon Trail Pioneer from England of Dallas, Oregon, USA had their second child, a baby boy.  The boy, John Alvin Ray, grew up on an Oregon farm dazzling his family and friends with musical and acting talents from an early age.  

In 1937 at about age 10,  John Alvin lost hearing in his right ear as a result of an accident clowning around at the first Boy Scout Jamboree in Washington, DC.  It seems that he and some of his Boy Scout buddies were playing “blanket toss” which is sort of a trampoline activity and he became injured as a result of a fall.  John Alvin flew up into the air but missed the blanket coming down.  No one really knows the specifics of what happened but a common theory is that he landed on a piece of stubble. Whatever the cause, he lost over half the hearing in his right ear. 

Based upon the available data it sounds like young John Alvin’s hearing loss was moderately – severe and stories suggest that it was an inner ear impairment, so it was likely a sensori-neural loss.  Of course, this was the late 1930s –in an milieu of polio, tuberculosis and other serious disorders, hearing impairment was a minimal issue of the time.  The loss was not known to his immediate family for several months after the accident.  All Elmer and Hazel knew was that young John Alvin had suddenly become withdrawn. 

With the addition of a vacuum tube hearing aid in the right ear in 1940 at about age 13, John Alvin  came out of his withdrawal, singing and acting out as his old self.  But he would never forget the experience of silence and isolation. The family moved to Portland, Oregon, seeking better opportunities and John Alvin went to high school there. 

After high school, he began singing locally in a wild, flamboyant style, unlike any other white singer up to that time.  Inspired by rhythm singers like Kay Starr, LaVern Baker and Ivory Joe Hunter, he developed a unique rhythm-based singing style, described as alternating between pre-rock rhythm & blues and a more conventional classic pop approach. He began singing  professionally with his hearing aid obvious to the studio audience as Johnnie Ray on a Portland, Oregon, radio station in 1942 at age 15. 

According to IMDb (2016) by 1952 at age 25 he was an American sensation. The following year, during his first concert tour of the United Kingdom, Ray started attracting mobs of young people who rioted in front of him. In 1954, at age 27, he became the first American performer to draw crowds in Australia.  According to the stories and various accounts Ray’s singing style became pre-rock Rhythm & Blues and a more conventional classic pop that was noted for his stormy style.  He would jump about as he sang, bend his knees and cup his hand to his right ear, where a hearing aid had been in place for many years. 

In 1954, he starred with Marilyn Monroe inThere’s no business like show business” where he sang and danced.  By this time he had a number of hits and was an idol to Elvis Presley as well as other later “Rock and Roll” stars.

The Songs

Among the first was the 1952 two sided hit”Cry”/”The Little White Cloud That Cried,” a 45 RPM record that made it very big! (Click on the “Cry” Record label to listen).  Later that same year (1952) he had a #4 United States hit with his version of “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” In 1954, he did his version of  The Drifters’ R & B hit “Such A Night.”  His version of “Just Walkin’ In The Rain,” rose to #2 on the American charts in December, 1956. His last major hit in the U.S. was in 1957, entitled “You Don’t Owe Me A Thing.” His recordings reached many more people in the United Kingdom than in the United States for the next four years. (Click on the picture of Johnnie Ray (right) and see him perform with his hearing aid).

In 1960, Johnnie Ray’s record label dropped him. The credible stories suggest that a contributing factor to the label dropping Johnnie was that by 1958, his hearing had dropped significantly in his left ear and the hearing impairment became severe.  To correct his hearing and continue to pursue his career he decided to go to New York and have ear surgery which was supposed to regain his hearing at least in the left ear.  While there are no public records as to the specific surgery conducted, recounts of the time indicate that the surgery procedure was totally botched, leaving Johnnie profoundly hearing impaired.  The unsuccessful surgery necessitated the use of a second hearing aid for his left ear.  From this time (1959) on Johnnie Ray was deaf without his hearing aids and despite his successful use of the instruments and attempting to have his hearing corrected by surgical intervention, the label dropped him anyway.  He would never record another record but he had very loyal fans that continued to love his songs and they supported him in Las Vegas shows and Television appearances for the rest of his career.  Johnnie Ray continued to perform until 1989 when he became ill and later died at age 63 in Los Angeles February 24, 1990.

Epilog

While Johnnie Ray had many personal problems in addition to his hearing impairment during his lifetime that contributed to his up and down career struggles as well as to his death.   As an idol of Elvis and a forerunner to Rock and Roll, he contributed much to the new musical style. His contributions to the new music led Tony Bennet to call him the “Father of Rock and Roll”.  Although the Rock and Roll hall of fame has eluded him, Johnnie Ray, the unlikely hearing impaired kid from Oregon of the 1940s, created a new kind of music that inspired a generation of rock stars.

 

References:

Adam, A.  (2016).  Johnnie Ray.  IMDb.  Retrieved March 1, 2016.

Art (2016).  There’s no business like show business.  Classic Stills.  Retrieved March 2, 2016.

Folkart, B. (1990).  Johnnie Ray, Balladeer of the 1950s, Dies at 63. Los Angeles Times.  Retrieved March 1, 2016.

User Contributed Text (2016).  Johnnie Ray. Creative Commons on Last FM, MP3.com.   Retrieved March 1, 2016.

Images:

Old picture of the day (2016).  Blanket Toss.  Retrieved March 2, 2016.

¿Cuáles son los artistas que influyeron más en el Rock And Roll?  Pantilla Dynamic Views.  Retrieved March 1, 2016.

Washington University (2016).  Deafness in Disguise.  Bernard Becker Medical Library.  Retrieved March 2, 2016.

People (2016).  Kay Starr, Lavern Baker, Johnnie Ray.  Pin it.  Retrieved March 2, 2016.

Videos:

Ray, Johnnie (1951).  Cry.  Columbia Records, New York.  You Tube.  Retrieved March 2, 2016.

Ray, Johnnie (1959). I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. Columbia Records, New York.  You Tube.  Retrieved March 2, 2016.

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.

1 Comment

  1. I always knew about Johnnie Ray, because I was from that time. I was impressed that he was so open about the cable coming from his ear to the device he wore on his body.

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