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June 12, 2024

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High Drama (Columbia/Legacy, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022-3211)


Bob Dylan calls Johnnie Ray "the first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with", Tony Bennett unabashedly calls him "the father of rock'n'roll", and right there are probably the two biggest reasons on Earth that Frank Sinatra hated the man with a passion. Also labeled at various times throughout his varying career as "the Nabob of Sob", "the Prince of Wails" and (now how's THIS for a box-set title?!) "the Guy with the Rubber Face and Squirt Gun Eyes", Johnnie Ray actually did more in retrospect than simply fill that great big chasm between post-WWII Big Band Pap and the Monster that was Elvis: his notorious off-stage capers (alcoholism, bisexuality, to say nothing of his passion for occasionally dyeing his hair a bright bright green) were also, in many a way we perhaps shouldn't even dare to imagine, paving the way for such Freaks-O-The-Future as Bowie, the Bonzos, and even poor ol' Boy George. ON stage (and High Drama even numbers, amongst its many delights, a fascinating 1954 tape from the London Palladium) Ray was the first (white male) singer to do the nasty with both the microphone stand and the stage floor, all the while attacking tunes with a voice miraculously equal parts Hank Williams, Mario Lanza and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. For example, "How Long, How Long Blues" (1956) and the following year's "Soliloquy Of A Fool" sound downright psycho-delic in the hands of a crazed stylist like Ray, as hard as that may seem to believe given when they were actually produced (and especially considering his accompanists were the decidedly squarer-than-square Ray Conniff Orchestra!) This exemplary collection is stuffed full of these and plenty more otherworldly joys: music which remains somehow defiantly uncategorizable and, yes, decades ahead of its time. Imagine, just imagine, how whacked Johnnie must've sounded in 1957 if he stills sounds this beautifully bizarre in 1998. Damn!
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