The audiologist who fitted my new hearing aids was surprised when he took my hearing test. He said he’s around people with my level of deafness who struggle more visibly with it. A common saying about deaf people is that what we lack in hearing is compensated for with another sense, like a superpower.
My superpower has become lip-reading and perfecting my listening face, so it looks like I’m fluidly following speech, nodding, relaxing my shoulders, loosening my jaw. I’ve found that if you physically express your listening then people open up and talk more which gives me more time to get used to the voice and speech patterns of a person. These internal gymnastics mean piecing together the things I hear with the missing parts.
But I was born with my deafness and most of a private audiologist’s patients are late deafened so it’s different. ‘Physicians in particular tend to underestimate the quality of life of disabled people, compared with our own assessment of our own lives,’ writes Harriet McBryde Johnson.
But look, I’m not trying to speak to other people’s deafness, even though hearing people are constantly speaking to what they think it is.
On Hunter Street in Central London, I once passed a broken sign above a shop the i ing of falafel. The broken parts of the letter ‘K’ that became an ‘I’ reminded me of the parts of words I don’t hear and have to be mentally filled in. The I’ing of Falafel matched my internal deaf dilemma and externalised the language of that internal space, the part of me that is wondering if I heard something correctly and the part of me that is wondering if I’ve found a poem to perform.
I started to think that a deaf person asserting their relationship to their specific deafness is a necessary kind of performativity. How we perform seems to depend on the audience we’re performing for. As a deaf poet, I avoided writing about my deafness at first, for fear of being simplified and pigeon holed. Deafness is one part of my identity but the themes I write into aim to have wider appeal. Now, I feel that what’s equally a sign of wide acclaim and success (as performing for hearing mainstream audiences) is knowing who we are as deaf people among ourselves, who we are when we turn away from the hearing mainstream gaze altogether, who might we be if we lived in a world of understanding ourselves first, what music could we be making instead, what beats have we been missing, what beats have we been taking, what could we give and take from our most authentic performances?
I wanted to start writing something about the public and private performance of the deaf body, starting in the early 50s with a skinny, sensitive, bisexual deaf boy from the suburbs who grew up to become the brief spotlit white face of black American music.
America heard Johnnie Ray croon for the first time through the radio in the autumn of 1951 and no one tuned in like the misunderstood misfits did, the ones who felt strange and awkward in their complicated bodies. Ray’s singing swung with so much feeling, was so alive and aligned with such pleading sorrow that myths blossomed all around him.
At first they mistook his voice for a black woman and music executives and critics alike grimaced, said that she lacked smoothness and precision in her phrasing. When they found out that Ray wasn’t a black woman, that he was a white deaf man from Dallas, Oregon, they changed their tune and dubbed him ‘The Prince of Wails’.
Johnnie Ray was touched by black sound since he was a teenager. He heard Billie Holiday and whatever wave hit him never left. But that wasn’t the only thing that struck me when I first watched the grainy black-and-white footage of Ray crooning in the spotlight – it was also his un-concealable boxy hearing aid.
One of the first things I watched after the audiologist fitted my new high-tech hearing aids was Deaf British actress Rose Ayling-Ellis and Italian dancer Giovanni Pernice making it to the semi-finals in the British show Strictly Come Dancing in 2021.
These new hearing aids were the neatest I’d ever had, lucid in sound and smaller than the brown NHS devices I’d worn since my school years. The microphone was clearer and the Bluetooth software synced up with my computer and my phone making my virtual world sharper.
I don’t watch much television, but I was told about Rose and Giovanni’s ‘silent dance’ while being interviewed on Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4 by Nikki Bedi and Richard Coles. They wanted my opinion on Rose but I hadn’t seen the dance, so I just said that it was always great when a talented deaf person is able to thrive in the spotlight.
At seventeen I auditioned for the lead role in a play at Hoxton Hall Theatre called Perfect Species. At the audition I deliberately didn’t wear hearing aids. It felt logical that I had more chance to be cast in the play without bearing what I knew would be perceived as a vulnerability, something that made me imperfect.
I landed the role and for two weeks I rehearsed unaided, learning the lines of everyone I shared a scene with. It worked until the actual performance. I lost my nerve and could barely hold any of my scenes together, fumbling lines and missing cues as the panic in the eyes of the fellow actors triggered me into guilt and shame. I couldn’t move.
I had got the part but the piece of me missing on that stage was forcibly hidden and nothing announced it louder than the end of the first scene, where I stood on the edge of the stage, arms splayed out in front of me, my chest bared to the audience. The cue for me to step forward was the sound of a bell, a sound I could not and will never be able to hear. I was left standing where I stood, alone and glaring out at the spotlight.
In 1948, before Ray’s first performance in the Flame, (the lavish liberal downtown Detroit venue where he would be discovered), Ray was told, ‘The louder you sing boy, the better’, and believe me, Ray brought his volume beyond the stage. He took his microphone from the stand and strolled into the audience, his boxy hearing aid device so heavily amplified that every ear must have felt the static and spit. The Flame presented the biggest black names of music at the time, from Billie Holiday to Dinah Washington. It was the Midwest’s leading live showcase for jazz, R&B and black variety artists. Patronised by both the black working class and high-class white liberals, its 500-seat capacity was reached nightly.
‘Flame Showbar’ was spelled out in huge neon letters on either side of a diagonal corner marquee and entrance. Its interior was lavishly appointed with a long bar and a sunken nightclub floor, and dozens of tables crowded in a semicircle around the stage. On each table there were gavel-like wooden knockers that audience members could beat to approve an act.
Despite the Flame announcing black line-ups, Ray was the white exception; although some say he was so caked in make-up under the light that he looked like a black man or an Italian. The visible presence of his hearing aid meant he got away with not being on beat. His band helped him along. If Ray fell away from the tempo they pumped their horns and drums louder and sometimes held back to wait for Ray to find himself again in the rhythm.
The singer LaVern Baker was also in the audience that night and said that Ray’s deafness meant ‘he could get away with murder’, musically. But tonight Ray is a lanky, liberated androgynous-looking twenty-two-year-old bearing a hearing aid and when he arrives at the climax of his performance, wailing lung-bursting blues at such high decibels that the whole stage vibrates below his feet, his sweat-soaked shirt bared to the audience, his wide trembling arms, his slight convulsing hands and his voice, wild and flexed with such visceral inner energy that no ear or eye could hold together, no one moves, nothing except whatever released Ray from his stiff and awkward constraints was now bared and glowing in the spotlight.
The spotlight is already lit for Rose Ayling-Ellis as she stares into the camera, composed and radiant, wearing a silky white-and-purple dress like Wendy from Peter Pan. She strolls onto the floor barefoot. The thin dress waves dramatically in the light behind her. Giovanni walks barefoot into the shot in silky light pyjamas. A showy piano melody trickles its notes. Giovanni places a cupped palm over Rose’s ear like a seashell. She beams as if hearing something new, takes his hand and brings it to his chest, which sets her off in a twirling motion.
As Rose is spun onto the other side of the stage, Giovanni runs to her side. He lifts his arm above his shoulder as the piano lifts louder. A woman’s voice starts to sing, the tone brightening as the beat drops and purple-pink fireworks erupt and rain down behind the stage. Now Rose and Giovanni bounce on cue to the keys that pump harder and higher, twirling and spinning each other, a springy lightness in their feet. Slowly the music begins to strip itself of pump and bass but no music is missed in the rhythm of their steps. Gradually all sound falls away and everything is bared to silence.
Now the couple are almost entwined, chest to chest, their light is shared, almost sealed. Their eye contact is a tight invisible rope they don’t lose hold of, even as Giovanni lassos Rose around the stage.
Their movement in shared silence lasts ten seconds and even though the lack of sound almost overwhelms the measured meaning of everything, each step finds a new ground to grace, every twirl and spin and lift and prance and smile is pure, blissful ballroom elevation.
I was walking through Soho, Johnnie Ray’s ‘How Long Blues’ tinkling in my hearing aids when I saw Lotus again. Lotus didn’t see me. He was sitting in the window of the Caffè Nero with his hair in cane rows and his same soft soil eyes. A lamp beamed above his head like a small golden spotlight.
I thought back to one sunlit afternoon in my childhood when Lotus and I wrestled on the glowing grass by the basketball court between our blocks. The sun was high and the sound of the birds in the one tree made it feel like a forest. I took my hearing aids out and nestled them in our pile of shirts. We wore vests and our skin was smoother than a quiet river.
Holy . . .
Holy . . .
Two brown black boys wrestling in the sun.
Holy . . .
He had me pinned to the ground, we grunted over each other, our bodies almost stuck together as we rumbled. Wanting the other to submit, to surrender, to hurt but not scar or draw blood. We didn’t break eye contact, it assured us that we were safe in each other’s grip, we were in control as we held each other on the warm grass through each improvised movement.
Holy . . .
An older boy, darker than Lotus and me, walked onto the basketball court in blue baggy shorts, saw us grappling on the ground. Man, you have no idea how gay you look. Lotus stood up, straightened his vest. I stayed on the ground. Man, fuck you, Lotus said, and the grass stopped glowing.
What gets me when I watch Rose and Giovanni dance through the silence is their eye contact, the determined refusal to look away, their tightened gaze holds them through each movement, and oh man, the trust it takes to be carried through a silence like that, one that lifts you off the ground and catches you wherever you land.
Johnnie Ray found himself onstage in the Flame Showbar where his future manager and lover, Bill Franklin, sat in his pressed smooth blue suit and white shirt, saw a frail boyish-looking stick figure stand in the spotlight snapping his long long fingers to a beat that hadn’t yet begun.
You can’t believe everything that went down in a smoky midnight downtown Detroit bar but I can believe that everything hushed as Ray poured his whiskey and gin voice, I can believe that the air changed colour as Ray crooned into the darkness. Later, Bill would say that Ray was never more himself than his early days performing here, in ‘black and tan joints’ where he was ‘a much wilder, bolder, much more secure performer’.
Some music critics called Ray melodramatic on the stage. They hated how he held himself, how he pretended to faint, tumbling theatrically over the body of the piano, hated how he picked up his music stand and pounded it into the ground as if some colourful current had shot up in his suit and he imploded with it. Later in his career beyond the Flame Showbar, his booking agents saw Ray’s hearing aid as a hindrance, something that boxed him into a gimmicky novelty act, a ‘handicapped honky’, a ‘vehicle for self-pity’, but Ray soon proved that his talent had staying power, life beyond the dimension of novelty or caricature when he began consistently selling out respected clubs across America and acquainting himself with respected Hollywood stars from Marlon Brando and Sammy Davis Jr to Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire. Before he started stepping onto more mainstream stages like New York’s Copacabana, he would be forced to perform without his hearing aid which led to stiffer performances on those stages. Ray could barely hold himself in time, staying put between the piano and the drummer, relying on the vibration and eye contact with the band.
There was always cynicism about Ray being a deaf novelty act. A New York Times critic even said, ‘His performance is the anatomy of self-pity.’ But listen, Ray deserved to be understood and among a lot of things that broke out of his performance, there was a man and a child barely holding himself together . . . and in the end nothing and nobody hurt or beat Ray up more than himself.
Lotus had grown into himself. He looked solid, not the sixteen-year-old boy I remembered with braces and a clunky backpack, who walked like a giant foot in the wrong shoe. Back then he wore trousers tight on his waist and thick fitted jumpers even in summer. I hadn’t seen him since leaving secondary school. He was part of the state hearing school and I was part of the state deaf school attached to it, located in the shadow of the hearing school, semi-hidden behind hedges and trees. We shared some classes. I liked him.
Lotus’s voice was slightly nasal but it had depth. And he was well spoken so he was easy to lip-read. This combined with his mild manner led to the other boys calling him a ‘coconut’, the slang term for a person who is ‘black on the outside but white on the inside’. I look less distinctively black – Lotus thought I was Italian when we met – but I was nicknamed ‘dumb boy’, pronounced more like ‘Dumbo’, because of my hearing aids or perhaps more creatively ‘bush boy’ because I grew my hair out so it would cover my ears.
I stared at adult Lotus for a few minutes, and then I stared at the hairs that had grown over the scars on my hand. These scars were formed from fights, scabs that became scars after I peeled them off too quickly, eager for healing.
Lotus didn’t look up. His eyes were deep in conversation with a man sat next to him. They were both stylish in ripped jeans, white trainers and black jackets; casual city professionals. Lotus’s face was still smooth, slim and dark. I remember the version of myself that was once familiar to him. The skinny deaf boy, hooded in sports tracksuits. We were the kind of boys who wrestled for hours after watching WrestleMania, grappling each other with the moves of our favourite muscled men, sleeper holds and clotheslines, falling flat on our backs together. We were the kind of boys who saw any wide-open space and turned it into a ring.
After Ray’s 1951 performance in the Flame, he came offstage, wiped the sweat and tears from his face with a handkerchief (an idiosyncrasy of Ray’s that would inspire his first branded merchandise, the ‘Cry-Kerchief’) and walked a few blocks to the Stone Theatre Burlesque House. He dangled his long arm over Bill Franklin, the man in the pressed smooth blue suit and white shirt and kissed him on the lips. Soon after Ray disappeared down the street and nothing smashed except a heart or two. Believe me and you’ll believe anything that is twisted, scrunched up and thrown into mist and smoke . . .
Once, Lotus invited me to his house after school. We stayed in his room listening to music. He made hip-hop beats on his computer and was playing them to me. Mid head-nod I pointed at the handkerchiefs by his bed and laughed. You don’t have a cold, bitch, I said, then jumped on him and put him into a sleeper hold. His room was in his parents’ attic, concealed white walls and wooden window frames, like a stylish tree house. It smelt of leaves and washing powder. It got late and he said I should stay over. I slept on a mattress on the floor next to his bed.
The Stone Theatre Burlesque House was one of Ray’s regular haunts. One night he breezed into the restroom and saw an olive-skinned moustached man with a slim, square jaw leaning against a cubicle with a cigarette between his fingers, the top button of his shirt undone. At 1.45 a.m. Moustache Man greeted Ray, ‘Hi.’ ‘Hi . . . hot isn’t it?’ replied Ray. ‘Sure is,’ said Moustache Man, removing the cigarette from his lips. ‘I know where it’s real cool,’ said Ray, ‘real cool.’ ‘Where might that be?’ asked Moustache Man. ‘The Park Avenue Hotel, room 310.’ ‘What could we do at your place?’ asked Moustache Man, leaning closer. ‘We’d get cool man, real cool,’ grinned Ray, as he turned away from Moustache Man to wet his hands under the running tap. ‘We could open a bottle and have a couple blasts.’ Ray was looking in the mirror at Moustache Man. Moustache Man smiled, Ray turned back to him, pulled Moustache Man towards his body from his belt and cupped his groin. He then twirled Moustache Man on the tiled floor, their hard polished shoes squeaking below them as they locked into each other. A determined dance, refusing to look away, the tightened gaze held them through each movement. Almost anyone could have walked into that men’s room and witnessed what erupted in their hands but it all happened behind closed doors and oh man, the trust it takes to be carried through moments like that, moments that lift you off the ground and catch you wherever you land.
Hours after falling asleep in Lotus’s room with my hearing aids under my pillow, I woke without opening my eyes, lying on my back. I felt a hand on my groin moving towards my shaft. The hand undid one of the buttons on my boxers. I lay still a moment, needing to be sure what was happening; I could hear blood pulsing in my head. I felt the hand try to pull my shaft out but I shot up in the bed and briefly saw the dark outline of Lotus, leaning over me. He flew backwards like a shadow had slammed his body onto his mattress. He lay still, pretending he was asleep in his bed, quiet as land by a lake. I could smell leaves. I lay there listening to the blood in my head until my mouth was cold and dry from my heavy breath, then I hurried, dressed, grabbed my hearing aids from under my pillow and without putting them in and making no effort to be quiet, I rustled and thumped and screeched through the house and left.
In that restroom of the Stone Theatre in downtown Detroit, Moustache Man, who was about to have sex with Johnnie Ray, was in fact working undercover for the Detroit Vice Squad. The whole pleasure for Moustache Man was in criminalising men like Ray. Ray had barely whipped his belt off when Moustache Man slung his cuffs from behind him and pushed Ray face first against the door, bruising his jaw. Ray fought back but any blow that landed on his hearing aid amplified lightning bolts of pain which squeaked and squealed through his skull. Ray kept trying to turn it off as he fought back but he was ripped away from the restroom door, kicking, screaming, hearing aid squealing . . .
On my way home from Lotus’s house I kept checking my watch as I waited for the night bus. 4.12 a.m. It felt like a new time zone. My mind split from my body, I kept thinking over and over what happened. It rewinded and played, rewinded, played and then became a WrestleMania action replay, actions I wished I’d taken grew in violence; a knee in his nose, a fist in his eye, a chair over his head.
At school I told Emanuel, a mutual friend of ours, what he did, expecting wise words from him. He was the only boy who could grow a full beard. But his projected wisdom failed me; he was just a boy like any of us. He would stir and shit talk for pure entertainment and each time he told someone about what had happened the rumour would slowly slant into new angles like a picture frame vibrating on a wall in a house party.
After Ray was arrested for soliciting sex in the Stone Theatre Burlesque House he was charged under Section 448 of the Penal Code of the state of Michigan, Soliciting and Accosting: ‘Any person who shall accost, solicit or invite another in any public place, or in or from any building or vehicle, by word, gesture or any other means to commit prostitution or to do any other lewd or immoral act, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor’ .
Ray turned his hearing aid off, not putting it back in meant he could just glare, nod, smile passively if needed without having to take all the weight of the interaction with police officers. He glared at the mugshot camera, ‘looking feral, scared and angry’ described his biographer, who went on, ‘He kept his hearing aid off, a typical Ray move when a situation worked against him.’
Ray made a quick court appearance, paid a twenty-five-dollar fine and left Detroit. He went to Ohio to return to the nightclub circuit, his career-defining performances still ahead of him.
Even as a child Ray knew that he wanted his name, his body in lights, he wanted the dazzling big-time noise. He left high school and darted for the theatre crowds and was hired to sing ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ at a burlesque house (Portland’s four-star theatre), He lied to his parents about the job, said he was having dinner with friends when he was working. Ray’s mother wanted her son to become a minister or a baseball player and would have died knowing he was sharing stages with erotic performers. Ray said, ‘I was the kid they goosed to get laughs’, the boy with the hearing aid singing about finding a silver lining in a downtown burlesque show, laughter was too easy and the joke got old fast.
Jonny Whiteside wrote in Ray’s 1994 biography Cry that ‘Popular music relies on gauging and defining an audience’s self image and desires, the unspoken urges that lie at the soul’s core. By speaking to and gratifying the needs of its audience, pop music goes beyond entertainment to offer spiritual glamour.’ But there was nothing glamorous, spiritual or liberating about deaf, bisexual Ray being forced into double hiddenness because of what was and wasn’t marketable in the pop music industry of the 1950s, a world that wanted anything that wasn’t white, straight, rich, able-bodied and preferably male to be squeezed out of the picture. Even Hollywood told Ray he’d never make it if he bared his hearing aid onscreen. Ray was never given the opportunity to present who he was to the wider culture, who he was when he performed on underground stages like the Flame Showbar.
In one interview from 1952, Ray referred to himself as a ‘freak’. ‘They come to see what the freak is like! They want to know what this cat has got. I know what this cat has got. I make them feel. I disturb them. I exhaust them. I bring one or another of their buried controlled emotions to the surface.’ Even the readers in the 1950s sensed that there was something about Ray, something between the lines . . .
Ray’s later manager and partner, Bill Franklin knew that when Ray referred to himself as a freak, he wasn’t signalling his defiance as a deaf bisexual while striving for mainstream success! Ray wasn’t trying to dim his own flame, Ray wanted mainstream success whatever it took, he knew that the kind of success he dreamt of meant hiding, leaning away from the parts of himself that made him a throbbing heart. But that’s the thing about the spotlight – it can swallow you whole because it relies on what it hides as much as what it shows.
Thinking back to my performance at Hoxton Hall Theatre when I was fifteen, staring out into the spotlight, I think of my failure to signal my deafness to any of my fellow actors or hearing collaborators. It meant that I couldn’t assert myself within any performance. If I had had the confidence, I could have performed some aspect of my deafness, bringing it into the space. Instead I kept myself mentally stuck and shamed in that spotlight for years, turning away from public performance altogether.
I didn’t write poetry or perform anything publically about my deafness for years because I didn’t think there was poetry in it. Deafness was something I was trying to look away from, something that stained my humanity. It didn’t deserve language, it didn’t belong in the ‘Perfect Species’ or the story I was trying to tell about myself. I didn’t know it could be written or asserted on the stage, and if it did, wouldn’t it be a self-pitying ploy? A novelty? How would I centre something about myself that I was actively resisting?
‘I didn’t want to believe the rumours,’ said burlesque ‘Queen of exotic dancers’ Tempest Storm after meeting Ray at a party. Storm was a glamorous red-haired woman with a similar background to Ray – she was country, she was working class – ‘Ray made a pass at me, I could have fallen in love with him very easily, but because of the rumours I just didn’t want to go there.’
Ray responded directly and swiftly, ‘I’ve heard all those stories that I’m queer . . . I pay ’em no mind and keep on singin’.’
Later a gossip magazine ran the front-page headline: ‘Johnnie Ray arrested on homosexual charge’. The words ‘homo’ and homosexual are used eighteen times.
Privately, these things didn’t matter to most people on the inside. ‘Someone told me that Johnnie Ray was homosexual, but I didn’t place any weight in that,’ said a Hollywood agent remembering Ray years later, ‘because most of your top talent attractions are homosexual.’
But Ray needed to find a woman that would marry him to quell the gay rumours. Marilyn Morrison, the woman who married Ray in 1952, said she’d ‘straighten it out’. She knew about Ray’s police record, that he slept with men, she knew that the whole marriage affair was partly a showbiz ploy, that Ray used to perform in her father’s nightclubs and knowing what they all knew, that her father would push back against the marriage, but still, Ray walked Marilyn down the aisle in his favourite midnight blue suit, he spun and shimmered in the lights of the wedding reception. His wife-to-be wore a pale lilac taffeta cocktail suit with full accordion-pleated calf-length skirt and satin shoes, her tulle hat and the baby orchids and lilies of the valley that she carried in her hands were all matching lilac-white. When they stood at the end of the aisle no one in the room heard Ray’s ‘I do’, but then as the pastor sentenced them to a life of health, contentment and happiness, he barely let the pastor finish before taking his new wife in his arms for a kiss that lasted two full-bodied minutes . . .
I didn’t do that bro, said my friend, Lotus, who’d used all his breath that day defending himself to our other friends, and then to the strangers from other year groups who had started calling him Lotus Pokus. My friend yelled, pointing at me, He’s the gay boy! He touched me!
Swear down, said Ben, an older boy outside the science block with a basketball under his arm. If my mate touched me in my sleep he’d be fucking dead. You best put some serious bruises on him.
No one in our world believed back then that boys like me who are easily talked into violence are part of a problem. Boys with something to prove will do one mindless thing that could harden their entire life. Throw it away, even.
Here’s the thing, I didn’t know any other stories that could help or speak to what was happening in my life but they must have been out there, there must have been stories about boys like us, deaf, queer, whatever, but where were they? How could I find them? How could I stitch them together and make a kind of sense, even when they contradict each other, how could they sing, dance, square up?
Photograph © Alamy, Johnnie Ray at the London Palladium, 1954