Londoner Jimmy Ray seems a little out of place on the Backstreet Boys' tour.
No, make that a lot out of place.The 22-year-old rockabilly/pop-rock rebel writes his own music and never performs the same way twice, filling his stage show with spontaneous wisecracks and crowd-pleasing antics.
He is a visual and artistic contrast to the carefully produced and choreographed pretty boys he will open for when the Backstreet Boys' first U.S. tour comes to the E Center Aug. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
"I feel a little bit funny doing this tour. I'm just making fun of it because it's the only way I can get through it," Ray said from a pay phone in a Kentucky airport as the tour was making its way West.
"Before the tour started, I was a little concerned I would be booed off the stage or the anticipation of the Backstreet Boys would be so strong they wouldn't even listen, but every audience has been supportive. And every time I do a song and end it, I say `Backstreet Boys' and the kids just scream."
Don't get the idea that Ray isn't grateful. After releasing his first album last fall, he jumped at the chance to join the Backstreet Boys on their tightly packed, hit-every-venue stampede across the country. He is playing for crowds of 10,000 or more each night, more than he ever imagined just a few years ago as a slave to the smoke-filled British pub scene.
Now, suddenly, he is at the dawn of a potentially explosive musical career, one he began at the age of 15. His single "Are you Jimmy Ray?" assaulted the American charts in January and is quickly recognized - with screams, of course -by the younger-than-he-expected fans who have embraced him on the 41-city tour.
Ray, while flattered by the attention and enthused about the experience, is already thinking of bigger and better things to come. He envisions a day when he won't share the spotlight with those five good-looking American lads who have sold more than 20 million records worldwide, despite the fact that they don't play much guitar or write all their own songs.
"It's great and I'm sure the girls love it, but for me it's so routine," Ray said of Backstreet's canned but successful formula. "They rehearse what they say, they rehearse the little gags. It's the same thing every night, very theatrical.
"Personally, I'm looking for something a little more spontaneous. I hope one day, if I can write any decent songs, I would go on my own tour. That would be my dream."
Ray is trying to write songs on the road, a new experience for him, in preparation for what could be a make-or-break second album. He is driven to avoid the fate some on the tour have suggested he, like many other fast-rising stars, may ultimately have to settle for - a bright but short-lived burst onto the scene.
For now, however, the charismatic Brit is soaking up the attention, much of it from prepubescent girls who could be buying his albums for years to come.
"When I sing `Who is Jimmy Ray?' they all go mad and I feel like a superstar," he said.
"I never really know what's going to happen; I just go out there and have fun. I've been telling jokes and have been quite happy about being an English moron up on stage. They scream - it doesn't matter what I do."
The E Center management, just out of curiosity, might want to bring out that decibel meter used to gauge the roar of rabid Utah Grizzlies hockey fans. Or perhaps they'd be wiser to leave it tucked away, where the high-pitched screams of young lungs - warmed up by Ray and unleashed for the Backstreet Boys - won't send the needle beyond the point of no return.
The Backstreet Boys, in the orchestrated mold of New Kids on the Block, are one of a handful of singing groups now enjoying tremendous popularity among American youths - particularly pre-teen and teen girls. Along with Brit-ain's Spice Girls and fellow Americans NSYNC, they have made life pleasant for record executives and concert arena managers alike.
"It's just going to be a high-energy, lots of fun, lots of entertainment show," Backstreet Boys member Kevin Richardson said during a teleconference before the tour began last month. "We're excited about getting out there and seeing our fans all over the U.S."
Ten days before the Backstreet Boys' appearance with Ray in West Valley City, only about 300 tickets remained with a sellout crowd of 10,200 expected.