With his jet-black pompadour, white T-shirt and socks, denim jacket and cuffed jeans, nascent pop star Jimmy Ray has perfected the rockabilly look. His most important accessory, though, is a tongue in cheek.
"I'm obviously poking fun at myself because if I'm standing out there doing this seriously, I would be a one-hit wonder," says the 22-year-old Londoner.
Which is exactly what some folks hope for Ray, given that his manager is Simon Fuller, the creator of the Spice Girls. But unlike the Girls, Ray is an actual musician who actually plays instruments and writes actual songs in a genre he calls "pop-a-billy hip-hop."
On his hit single, "Are You Jimmy Ray?" -- it reached No. 10 on Billboard's "Hot 100 Single Sales" chart last month -- and his self-titled debut album, he blends '50s rockabilly with '90s technology, using elements of hip-hop and Jamaican reggae dancehall. Like his heroes Beck and the Fugees, he tries to combine his favorite styles with a modern twist.
Regardless of his musical merits, Jimmy Ray is a cannily marketed package, a taller and thinner Elvis whom Fuller is grooming for stardom. Ray knows this, but he's quick to differentiate himself from the likes of the Spice Girls. "I admire their attitude, but I don't think they see themselves as being particularly influential in music," he says, adding that he'd "draw a line at marketing a package of crisps" -- what the Brits call potato chips -- as the Spice Girls did in England.
Nowadays, artists are labeled "one-hit wonders" before they have a chance to release a second single. "I'm totally aware of the pitfalls of having quite a big first single, one that is also in some quarters perceived as a novelty track," Ray says. "But what can I do?"
Currently on a seven-week promotional tour of the States, Ray is humble about his situation. "All I can do now is release my next song and be as upbeat about that as I can," he says, relaxing with a cigarette on the hallway floor of the Carlyle Suites in Dupont Circle, having had some trouble with his hotel room key. "If it doesn't sell, I'd like to think it's down to the merits of the song as opposed to people thinking, Well, you've had your five minutes and that's the end of that.' "
"Are You Jimmy Ray?" is a catchy, self-promoting trifle that serves as an introduction to Ray's music and his American influences, with its insistent chorus, "Are you Johnnie Ray? Are you Link Wray? Are you Fay Wray?" (Johnnie Ray and Link Wray were '50s rockers; Fay Wray was not.)Th
Ray seems obsessed with the Americana associated with Elvis; he often performs on a set with a trailer and lawn chairs, and shooting his second video, "Goin' to Vegas," was a dream come true. "Vegas was everything I expected but to the power of 10 -- I lost loads of money, we bumped into crazy people, I ate a cheeseburger in a restaurant with plastic foliage."
Ray says he discovered '50s rock-and-roll from his parents' record collection when he was 9, in the East London district of Walthamstow -- LPs by Eddie Cochran, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent. He began wearing black pumps with pink shoelaces, and freshman cardigans -- "like the thing that John Travolta wears in the last scene in Grease' when he tries to be straight' to win Sandy's heart." He also began using a greasy, coconut-smelling hair product made in Memphis. He picked up the guitar, and formed a couple of forgettable bands -- the Smiths-inspired Cutting Room and the techno outfit A/V -- but didn't indulge his own musical interests until going solo.
Now he's enjoying his status as pop star. He gleefully pulls a crumpled Sweet'N Low packet from his pocket with a phone number scrawled on it -- he got it at the Baltimore Hard Rock Cafe from Rachel, who was celebrating her 17th birthday. He knew he wouldn't call her -- he was flying to New York that night -- but it was fun to flirt.
When he was recently in Los Angeles, he met with a William Morris Agency rep who inquired if he was interested in making movies. "I was like, I want to go on "Sesame Street." Please just get me on "Sesame Street." ' And it was very sad because it's the most difficult show in the country to get on." Ray is genuinely eager about performing a duet with Elmo, and his lack of irony reflects his youthful naivete.
"I hope this doesn't sound too politically correct, but I would love to actually do something for the kids," he says. "I'd love to sing a song with numbers and letters in it." CAPTION: Jimmy Ray calls his style "pop-a-billy hip-hop."