October 5, 2012

Billy Joel Teaches History

Johnnie Ray

Full disclosure: I am not listening to any music while writing this.  I did just watch an episode of ‘Ghost Hunters’, however, which is appropo of nothing particularly except that it is a highly addictive show.

That was a non-sequitur.  We’ll just jump blindly into Johnnie Ray then, full immersion, no toe dip tester.

Who was Johnnie Ray?  He was an American singer who first sprang to prominence in 1951 with the two million selling hit record ‘Cry’.  http://www.last.fm/music/Johnnie+Ray/_/Cry  The success of ‘Cry’ propelled him to teen idol status and he followed it up with a string of hits including the B side of ‘Cry’, ‘The Little White Cloud That Cried’, 1952’s ‘Walkin’ My Baby Back Home’ which would later be a hit for Nat King Cole as well, ‘Please, Mr. Sun’, ‘Such A Night’, and ‘Yes Tonight Josephine’.  He possessed a very soulful delivery, inspired as he had been by such rhythm singers as Kay Starr and imbued his songs with an impressive amount of emotion.  He appeared in There’s No Business Like Show Business alongside Marilyn Monroe at the height of his ‘Cry’ stardom but never followed it up with other movie roles.  When later asked why he simply replied “The answer is I was never asked”.

Johnnie Ray might well be considered the grandfather of rock’n’roll.  His performance style broke from the standstill norm and paved the way for the writhing, physical, stage-crossing antics of later rock acts.  He was known for running across the stage, white-knuckling the microphone, falling to his knees, and even crying during frenzied performances.  He quickly earned himself nicknames such as ‘The Nabob of Sob’, ‘The Prince of Wails’, and ‘The Atomic Ray’.

After a childhood accident - a Boy Scout ‘blanket toss’ dashed him to the ground and jammed a straw into his left ear at age 13 - he was left with 50% hearing loss.  He got his first hearing aid a year later and would wear the trademark piece in his ear throughout his career.  Surgery in 1958 was successful in removing a blockage in the damaged ear but left him with less hearing than before.  His enunciative crooning style partly morphed out of this loss; an effort to sing past it.

His personal life was turbulent.  He was arrested for soliciting men for sex and seemed to be known for living a bisexual lifestyle in a time that didn’t openly embrace such decisions.  Despite her foreknowledge of his preferences, Marilyn Morrison married him in 1952 but by 1953 the couple was separated and they divorced in 1954.  Ray drank regularly and later in life was diagnosed with cirrhosis.  He died of liver failure in 1990.

It has been said of Johnnie Ray that his cultural significance was only slightly less substantial than that of Elvis Presley.  His popularity, unfortunately, waned due to personal problems and his contribution to music was largely relegated to nostalgic collections and the annals of history.  But modern rock performance may owe him a great debt indeed. 

You may have already heard ‘Cry’ without knowing it.  It appears on the soundtrack to 2010’s Martin Scorsese-directed, Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Shutter Island.  In 1989, the year ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ was released, Johnnie Ray was still alive although in an LA hospital.  Billy Joel covered both the song ‘Hey Girl’ by Freddie Scott and the Beatles song ‘I’ll Cry Instead’ and Johnnie Ray sang similarly titled ‘Hey There’ and the monster hit ‘Cry’. 

October 1, 2012

Billy Joel Teaches History

Red China

TheFreeDictionary.com tells me that ‘Red China’ is “an unofficial name for (the People’s Republic of) China”.  The red doubtless references the Communist Party of China which is the founding and ruling political party of the country.  Red has long been associated with communism from the Red Army of Soviet Russia to the bright red Chinese flag.  ‘The East is Red’ was a popular slogan under Chairman Mao and, indeed, a song that became the de facto anthem of China during the 1960s Cultural Revolution.  Fear of the rise of communism was referred to as the Red Scare and after World War II was synonymous with McCarthyism.

All Billy Joel says, however, is ‘Red China’ and he doesn’t offer a lot of insight as to what meaning he wants ascribed to the term.  Perhaps it’s an abstract.  Perhaps, and possible given it’s lyrical proximity to Harry Truman, it’s in reference to Truman’s intervention in the Chinese Civil War near the end of the conflict in 1950. 


The Tiananmen Square protests took place in 1989 (the same year ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ was released) and ended in military suppression on June 4th which earned the event the name Tiananmen Massacre.  The People's Liberation Army, under orders to clear the Square of the student protestors, used live fire to to push through the blockade and protestors. There is no precise count of those who were killed but estimates range from several hundred to several thousand.  It seems likely that this event is what we’re meant to recall when we hear the lyric ‘Red China’.

June 5, 1989: Tiananmen Square 'Tank Man' image

In November of 2008 Billy Joel performed a concert at the Asia World Arena in Hong Kong with attendees calling the performance ‘outstanding’ and ‘unforgettable’.  Then in 1993 Joel’s River of Dreams album contained a song called ‘The Great Wall of China’.