How a Throwback Rockabilly Jam Made Its Way Onto '90s Mainstream Charts
The '90s airwaves were full of catchy, confusing pop hits. What exactly is a "chica cherry cola"? Did anyone ever figure out the correct syncopation of "MMMBop"? Why was Deee-Lite grooving to Dr. Seuss books? And who were all those Rays that Jimmy was singing about?
It's been nearly two decades, yet 1998's "Are You Jimmy Ray?"—the one and only hit by gloriously coiffed British pop rocker Jimmy Ray—stands out as one of the more perplexing hits of the era. For starters, whose idea was it to mix twangy '50s rockabilly with the sunny '90s alt-rock style of Smash Mouth? The combo clearly worked, as Ray's retro-modern anomaly reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning him a slot opening for the Backstreet Boys on a 1998 U.S. tour.
And then there are the questions built into the song itself. "Are you Johnnie Ray? Are you Slim Ray? Are you Link Wray? Are you Fay Wray?" Jimmy Ray sings in the chorus, apparently echoing things he has been asked on a regular basis. The only answer he provides, of course, is another question: "Who wants to know?" Factor in the music video, wherein Ray and a bunch of hip-hop dancers cavort around outside a trailer home, and this mystery seems like something David Lynch and Carson Daly might've somehow cooked up together.
Fortunately, Jimmy Ray is on LinkedIn, and last fall, the 46-year-old London native wrote a candid and insightful article explaining how he—a guy who sounded like Sugar Ray auditioning for Sun Records—scored such a massive pop hit.
"I have been asked questions about it that surprised me," Ray says of his signature song. "Surprising considering the music press received the song as nothing more than a boneheaded piece of self-promotion."
"Are You Jimmy Ray?" might have been self-promotion, but it wasn't boneheaded. A longtime fan of '50s rock, Ray had actually gotten his start in a '90s techno group called A/V. After they split up, he landed a management deal with Simon Fuller, the guy who created the Spice Girls. Someone at Ray’s label suggested he collaborate with Conall Fitzpatrick, the pop songsmith behind the British duo Shampoo's 1994 hit "Trouble." Fitzpatrick obviously had a flair for booming drums and repetitive catchphrases, and before the two even sat down for their first writing session, he had come up with the "Are You Jimmy Ray?" hook.
Ray wonders whether Fitzpatrick might have been "subconsciously influenced" by the cryptic "Who is Christian Goldman?" graffiti seen all over London at the time. Fitzpatrick claims he got the idea from the 1988 film Midnight Run; in one scene, Charles Grodin's character asks a bartender, "Who's in charge here?" to which the fellow replies, "Who wants to know?" As for all those "Rays"—pre-Elvis teen idol Johnnie Ray, "father of the power chord" Link Wray, King Kong actress Fay Wray, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray—they were also Fitzpatrick's idea. But Jimmy Ray knew what Fitzpatrick was going for.
"Retro heroes and heroines who symbolized my own cultural interests from music, film, and … motoring haha!" Jimmy writes in summary. "I couldn't even drive a car at this time."
Fitzpatrick knew the kind of stuff Jimmy dug, but the two weren't 100 percent on the same page. Working with Fitzpatrick's gear, in Fitzpatrick's studio, Ray felt like his debut album was slipping out of his control. "Before then, I had always been in the pilot's seat making my music, so let's just say there was a teeny-weeny bit of tension right from the off," Ray wrote.
For instance, he had to fight to replace the original fake-sounding synth-bass with "a different, more realistic synth bass." He alludes in the LinkedIn piece to other battles, but ultimately, he might not have pushed too hard. After all, he didn't think "Are You Jimmy Ray?" was going to be a single.
Alas, the execs at Epic Records knew they had a hit on their hands, and just like that, Jimmy Ray was all over the airwaves with a song that "wasn't really my idea." While Ray insisted that he respects and admires Fitzpatrick for creatively handling the pressure of having to produce a hit record for a major label, the tone of the LinkedIn piece suggests that Ray might've gone a different route if he'd been in the driver's seat.
Ray actually may get that do-over, as the singer is prepping a new album on his own La Rocka Records tentatively titled Live to Fight Another Day, which is set for an October release. He has posted some demos online, including one Morrissey-esque cover of Elvis Presley's "Devil In Disguise." It’s a cool track that sounds as though he's moved beyond the "pop-a-billy hip-hop" that put him on the charts back in the day. And with other '90s acts making the most of nostalgia ticket sales (after all, Jimmy Ray's old pals the Backstreet Boys have a world tour planned for their 25th anniversary next year), it seems like the right time to revive the old question of just who this Jimmy Ray fellow is.