Are You Jimmy Ray?: How a Rockabilly Jam Made Its Way Onto '90s Mainstream Charts

Epic Records
Epic Records

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 more than 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."

Portraits of Johnnie Ray, Fay Wray, and Link Wray.
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Eric Frommer, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY–SA 2.0

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.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

25 Facts About Back to the Future On Its 35th Anniversary

Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly in Back to the Future (1985).
Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly in Back to the Future (1985).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

On July 3, 1985, Michael J. Fox created a time travel movie for a whole new generation when he hopped inside a tricked-out DeLorean and zoomed back in the time—with a little help from some stolen plutonium—to ensure his future existence. In celebration of the film’s 35th anniversary, here are a few things you might not have known about Marty, Doc, and Doc's pet chimpanzee.

1. The Back to the Future script was rejected more than 40 times.

Back to the Future may be considered a contemporary classic today, but the initial response to the script hardly predicted how big of a hit it would become. As screenwriter Bob Gale told CNN in 2010:

“The script was rejected over 40 times by every major studio and by some more than once. We'd go back when they changed management. It was always one of two things. It was ‘Well, this is time travel, and those movies don't make any money.’ We got that a lot. We also got, ‘There's a lot of sweetness to this. It's too nice, we want something raunchier like Porky's. Why don't you take it to Disney?"

2. Disney’s studio executives thought Back to the Future was too raunchy.

Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson in Back to the Future (1985)
Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Ironically, whereas other major studios saw Back to the Future as a sweet, family-friendly picture that would make a perfect fit for Disney, the Mouse House’s executives thought otherwise. After hearing “take it to Disney” enough times, Gale and director Robert Zemeckis decided to do just that. “This was before Michael Eisner went in and reinvented [Disney],” Gale told CNN. “This was the last vestiges of the old Disney family regime. We went in to meet with an executive and he says, ‘Are you guys nuts? Are you insane? We can't make a movie like this. You've got the kid and the mother in his car! It's incest—this is Disney. It's too dirty for us!"

3. One studio thought Back to the Future would work better if it was retitled Space Man From Pluto.

Worried that people would shun a film with the word future in its title, one of the executives Gale and Zemeckis met with suggested that they retitle the film Space Man From Pluto.

4. Steven Spielberg sent his own memo in response to the note about changing the future of Back to the Future.


Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

In a 2014 interview with ShortList, Bob Gale admitted that he and Robert Zemeckis were at a bit of a loss over what to do with the title change suggestion. “We took the memo to Steven [Spielberg], who told us ‘Don’t worry, I know how to handle him,’ before writing a letter back which said, ‘Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo, we all got a big laugh out of it, keep ‘em coming.’ Steven knew he would too embarrassed to say that he wanted us to take the letter seriously. Luckily nobody questioned the title after that. Without Steven, it could have all been very different."

5. At no point in any of the Back to the Future movies did anyone predict the Florida Marlins would win the 1997 World Series.

Or the 2003 World Series—no matter what any social media posts you’ve seen to the contrary. Though the rumor has been around since 1997, but as Snopes reports:

“As intriguing as it might be to believe so, the film Back to the Future Part 2, the 1989 sequel to the 1985’s hit Back to the Future, made no prediction, correct or otherwise, about the results of the 1997 World Series. At the beginning of the film, time-travelling scientist Doc Brown takes Marty McFly forward in time to 21 October 2015 in an effort to alter the future and prevent Marty’s (as yet unborn) children from ending up in prison. While in the future year 2015, Marty watches a holographic sports news broadcast announcing that the Chicago Cubs have swept an unnamed Miami team (represented by a gator, not a marlin) to win the World Series. This broadcast inspires Marty to buy a sports almanac and take it back to the past with him so that he can make accurate bets on future sporting events, but the contents of the almanac are not revealed in the film.”

6. Marty McFly and Doc became friends when Marty snuck into his lab as a teen and ended up with a part-time job.

Have you ever wondered how Marty and Doc became friends in the first place? Well, we did—often enough that, in 2011, we posed that very question to Bob Gale, who shared the origin of Marty and Doc's friendship with Mental Floss:

"He snuck into Doc’s lab, and was fascinated by all the cool stuff that was there. When Doc found him there, he was delighted to find that Marty thought he was cool and accepted him for what he was. Both of them were the black sheep in their respective environments. Doc gave Marty a part-time job to help with experiments, tend to the lab, tend to the dog, etc."

7. Slate wasn’t totally convinced that it was Bob Gale who had, in fact, told us about Marty and Doc’s Back to the Future backstory.

When Slate wrote a story questioning whether Bob Gale was actually behind the explanation, the screenwriter very kindly helped prove the story did indeed come from him by sending us this:

8. In the early drafts of Back to the Future, the time machine was made out of an old refrigerator.

Well, sort of an old refrigerator. “Way back in that second draft, it was going to be a ‘time chamber,’ not unlike a refrigerator, and Doc Brown had to carry it on the back of his truck," Gale explained.

9. Doc Brown originally had a pet chimpanzee in Back to the Future.

Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal, was anti-chimpanzee: "I looked it up," he told Gale, "no movie with a chimpanzee ever made any money."

“We said, what about those Clint Eastwood movies, Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can,?” Gale and Zemeckis countered. “He said, ‘No, that was an orangutan.’ So, we have a dog.”

10. Pizza Hut sold Back to the Future Part II promotional sunglasses, a.k.a. “solar shades,” for $1.99.

They were totally ‘80s and pretty sweet. Fortunately, if you missed out on the original 1989 promotion, you can still find a pair on eBay on occasion. Get yours today—just prepare to spend $40 or more.

11. Princess Diana attended the London premiere of Back to the Future Part II in 1985.

No word on what Di thought of the film.

12. Ronald Reagan quoted Back to the Future in his 1986 State of the Union.

It has long been stated that Ronald Reagan was offered the role of Hill Valley's mayor in Back to the Future III, but turned it down. What is known is that the Reagans hosted a screening of the movie at the White House, and both the POTUS and the First Lady were fans of the film. So much so that Reagan even quoted it in his 1986 State of the Union address, stating: "Where we're going, we don't need roads."

13. Tom Wilson, who played Biff, carried around a card that answered every Back to the Future fan’s most frequently asked questions.

After 35 years of being asked the same questions about Back to the Future again and again, it makes sense that Tom Wilson—who played bully Biff—might want to streamline the process. So who carried around a card that answered all of the questions he was asked most often.

14. Elijah Wood made his film debut in Back to the Future II.

Elijah Wood’s first big-screen appearance came in 1989, where he played the kid playing the arcade game Wild Gunman in the Cafe 80s.

15. John DeLorean wrote Bob Gale a letter thanking him for Back to the Future.

John DeLorean, the visionary behind the sports car-turned-time travel machine, sent Bob Gale a note of gratitude about featuring his vehicle in the film. It read: “Thank you for keeping my dream alive.”

22. The real Hill Valley High School counts one former president among its alumni.

Whittier High School, a public high school in Whittier, California, played the role of Hill Valley High School in Back to the Future. In real life, it was Richard Nixon's alma mater.

23. Richard Nixon makes an appearance in Back to the Future II.


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Look closely at the headlines on the front page of the Hill Valley Telegraph, which reports that Doc Brown has been declared legally insane and committed to a psychiatric institution. Just to the right of that story, you’ll see another story—purportedly from 1985—that reads: “Nixon to Seek Fifth Term; Vows End to Vietnam War by 1985.”

24. The whole Hill Valley Telegraph is worth another look.

As Jonathan Chiat noted in an excellent round-up of the paper's front pages for New York Magazine, "It is unclear why the Telegraph’s editors would devote such extensive space to Biff Tannen gambling coverage."

25. Homer Simpson took a stab at portraying Back to the Future’s Doc Brown.

In the early 1990s, there was a Back to the Future cartoon which featured Dan Castellaneta as the voice of Doc Brown. Castellaneta is best known as the voice of Homer Simpson on The Simpsons.