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No Slowing Down For 'Mr. Emotion'

January 30, 1987|JACK HAWN

Johnnie Ray is shedding no tears about hitting "the Big Six-O" a few weeks ago (Jan. 10), but he admits his eyes still well up now and then when he croons two of his biggest hits of yesteryear, "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried," which he wrote.

"It depends on my attitude," he said the other day. "You can only go so far with an audience and then they become embarrassed."

Once dubbed "Mr. Emotion" and "The Prince of Wails" by an overzealous media, Ray has been "crying" on stage for more than three decades with few "dry" spells since capturing the hearts of screaming, clothes-ripping bobby-soxers in the early '50s.

Six of his gold records are displayed in his Los Angeles home, but Ray says he should have 12 because six others were not replaced after a fire that destroyed his house about six years ago.

It seems Ray was either crying or walking his way to fame in those pre-Elvis Presley years, with such other blockbusters as "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" and "Walkin' in the Rain." Others included "Please Mr. Sun" and "Broken Hearted."

His old standards will dominate his act almost nightly for the next 2 1/2 months while touring the country with a big-band group that performs tonight at El Camino College. Shows also are scheduled at Citrus College in Glendora on Saturday and Sunday, the Downey Theater on Monday and Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then they head East, making their first stop Thursday in the 7,000-seat Sun Dome in Sun City, Ariz.

But, for Ray, the road shows will be a far cry from the old days. His wardrobe almost surely will remain safe from souvenir hunters.

A hearing aid plugged into his right ear (he has worn one since his freshman year of high school in Dallas, Ore., where he was born), visibly overweight and, as he labels himself matter-of-factly, "a senior citizen now," Ray would be the first to admit he no longer qualifies as a teen-age idol.

But that doesn't mean his fans have deserted him. On the contrary, he still attracts crowds and his schedule remains demanding.

Two years ago, he was whisked "from one end of Japan to another" on the bullet train during a two-month tour, sometimes with only six hours between shows in different locations. A less hectic tour in Australia followed, and more recently, dates in Reno, Atlantic City and elsewhere on the East Coast. Yet, around Los Angeles, his visibility often seems clouded, if not blacked out entirely.

"If you're not on TV every 20 minutes," he said, "they think you're either retired or moved out of the country or, worse--dead."

Eager to prove none of these is true in his case, Ray will make a rare TV appearance on Channel 11 at noon Monday, when he kicks off a new musical series on Hour Magazine. Hosted by Gary Collins, the series--titled "Songs We'll Never Forget"--will feature a different veteran vocalist (Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Helen Reddy and others) each weekday.

TV aside, Ray believes it's imperative to perform in Los Angeles at least once a year because "Southern California people are so over-entertained, you have to make yourself known." But even then, an entertainer can go virtually unnoticed.

Remembering his 1984 booking at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, Ray called the engagement "a disaster" because of a more spectacular show a few miles down the freeway--the Olympic Games. Overshadowed by the athletes, he returned to the club in '85 and had a happier experience.

"I'm intimidated in an intimate club," he said. "It makes me very nervous, even more so now. The longer I'm at it, the worse it gets."

Now he's back in the Southland spotlight, on the first leg on his long tour, playing mostly large auditoriums, where he's more comfortable with his act.

Teaming with singers Barbara McNair and the Four Lads and Russ Morgan's orchestra (under the direction of his son, Jack Morgan), Ray said he is especially pleased about traveling with his long-time friends.

"The Four Lads were on all my early recordings," he said. "They're my very best friends, and I've known Barbara for 30 years--but I'll say 20, in case she reads this. . . . Last summer we were together at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City. She looks fabulous."

Booked by veteran big-band tour producer Joe Graydon of Studio City, the entertainers will travel by bus to 21 states and Canada, playing at 67 locations and ending the trip April 18 in Tacoma, Wash.

"Most of our tours have been running eight weeks," Graydon said. "This one goes 11 1/2 and may be our longest in 10 years."

Ray, a veteran traveler who has lived in England and Spain, journeyed to Australia more than 20 times and climbed on and off stages all over the world (29 curtain calls once in South Africa, for instance)--is especially excited about Arizona, of all places.

"I've never been there," he said. "We're going to towns I've never even heard of."

Ray said he is enjoying his work now more than ever before, "and you can put that in capital letters."

"I quit smoking 12 years ago and I used to have a drinking problem," he added, "but I took care of it. Now I'm singing notes I could never have hit before."

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