In common with many other heroic tenors, Ramón Vinay began his career as a baritone. After two decades as a leading tenor, he stepped back into the baritone register and continued to sing for several years. Still, it was as a tenore robusto that Vinay earned his status as a major figure in the works of Wagner and in the most strenuous roles of the Italian and French repertories. Recordings of his signature role, Otello, exist with the two great antipodes of the era ending in the mid-'50s: Toscanini and Furtwängler. Although Vinay's singing as sheer vocalism never matched the best work of other great Otellos, his interpretation held an Olympian pathos; there was a grandeur about it almost impervious to criticism. Likewise, his Tristan, though never displaying the tonal sheen of Melchior's, compelled attention through its urgency and dramatic conviction. In its prime, no doubt existed about the size of Vinay's dark and somewhat veiled instrument; it was fully heroic in dimension.
Vinay's mother, who died when he was only five, encouraged her son's interest in music through her love of the art. Vinay's father, French-born, fought for his native country in WWI and after, sent for his three sons to join him there. Between 1920 and 1926, Vinay lived in Digne and pursued his interest in electrical engineering. At 15, his father sent him to Mexico City for training; he later began studying singing with José Pierson, appeared as Alphonse in 1931, and in 1934 joined a touring opera company, singing di Luna in Il trovatore. Unable to support himself with the modest fees, Vinay turned to business, establishing a successful box company. Persuaded to return to singing, he was heard by Broadway producer Lee Schubert who engaged him for the New York revue The Streets of Paris.
When the show ended its run, Vinay returned to Mexico and continued to sing baritone roles. Finding that he could just about manage roles in a higher range, he re-trained and made his tenor debut as Don José in 1943, undertaking Otello the next year. His success led to an engagement with the New York City Opera in 1945, where he appeared as Don José. The good impression he made there and in several subsequent roles resulted in a Metropolitan Opera contract for the following year. Once again, the role was Don José in a February 22 Carmen, as Vinay won positive notices for his appearance, musicianship, temperament, and the potential heard in his dark-timbred voice. A period of time had to pass before Vinay's huge instrument was sufficiently pulled upward from its baritone roots, but with increasing numbers of Otellos, his sovereignty in that role began to be manifested. At La Scala, Vinay sang his Otello to open the 1947 - 1948 season. Salzburg heard his Moor in 1951, while London had to wait until 1955 and Paris until 1958. Meanwhile, he had made himself a central figure at Bayreuth (1952 - 1957), performing Tristan, Tannhäuser, Parsifal, and Siegmund, all of them preserved on recording. His Tristan was an especially compelling realization, caught opposite the contrasted, but equally impassioned Isoldes of Martha Mödl and Astrid Varnay. By 1962, increasing strain in the top register led Vinay to move back into the baritone register. He returned to Bayreuth as Telramund and sang elsewhere in such roles as Scarpia, Iago, Dr. Schön, and Falstaff.