Johnny Ace was the pre-eminent vocal stylist in rock's first half decade and symbolic of its growth into a cultural phenomenon.
Article by: Sampson
The first and still most sensational rock tragedy befell Johnny Ace at the precise moment that rock 'n' roll itself was crossing into wider consciousness as 1955 dawned. Ace's shocking death was for many white Americans the first they became aware of the music and the artists that had increasingly captivated black audiences for years and which was now about to launch a takeover into the mainstream of popular culture. Ace's string of hit records had helped get the style to that breakthrough point but he himself would not be around to share in its glory on the other side.
Johnny Ace was born John Alexander Jr., the son of a minister in Memphis, Tennessee where gospel was the only music allowed within the religious household run with a firm hand by his mother. Johnny sang in the church choir at a young age and was a natural on the piano, but when his parents were out of the house he entertained his siblings and his friends by playing the forbidden music of the blues and boogie. After dropping out of school Johnny joined the post-World War Two peacetime Navy hoping to travel and see the world outside of Memphis but military rules and regulations proved no match for his burning desire to play music and Alexander quickly went AWOL as he stayed in whatever city had a piano and a place to earn a few dollars playing in a club and he was promptly given a dishonorable discharge from the service as a result.
The Beale Streeters - l to r. Earl Forest drums, Billy Duncan sax, Bobby Bland, Johnny Ace piano
Broke and with no prospects outside music Johnny eventually returned to Memphis where he joined a local group that was starting to make some noise around town. "The Beale Streeters", named for the legendary thoroughfare in Memphis's black district where blues clubs ruled the night, were inarguably the first true supergroup. With Johnny on piano, B.B. King on guitar, Bobby "Blue" Bland on vocals, Earl Forest on drums, Rosco Gordon on organ and Billy Duncan on sax, the sextet, save Duncan, would all go on to score huge hits on their own. King was first to leave, offered a recording contract in 1951 with Modern Records he scored his first #1 hit right out of the gate with "3 O' Clock Blues", and he promptly turned the Beale Streeters over to Alexander to lead.
The rest of the group began drawing attention for potential recording contracts themselves and Bobby Bland was the next one to be chosen when Memphis radio DJ, David Mattis, who had recently started Duke Records to cut local talent, signed him for a session. The Beale Streeters accompanied him to the studio but Bland never got a chance to sing as he'd neglected to tell Mattis that he couldn't read and therefore was unable to learn the songs that had been given him in advance.
With the studio time booked Mattis scrambled to salvage what he could of the aborted session and Forest volunteered to sing instead. But off in the corner the unassuming Alexander was doodling around on the out of tune piano, playing Ruth Brown's hit from a few years earlier, "So Long". Mattis was intrigued by what he heard and asked the pianist if he wanted to record himself, provided they could come up with something original as opposed to a cover. So Alexander took the chords from Brown's song, altered the melody and wrote new lyrics on the spot and entitled it "My Song".
Backed by Forest on drums and Duncan on sax with Alexander singing and playing piano, "My Song" became an unlikely but overwhelming smash, topping the charts for 9 weeks, a full month more than King's debut appearance had managed, and suddenly there was a new star on the horizon. However, John Alexander wouldn't be the name he'd make famous. Fearing his parents reaction to sullying the family name by singing the devil's music he and Mattis came up with the moniker "Johnny Ace" and with that his career was launched.
With the unexpectedly rapid sales of the record too much for Mattis to meet the demand for himself he quickly made a distribution deal with Peacock Records label boss Don Robey. The only black independent record owner in the business in 1952, Robey was a small time gangster and nightclub impresario who ran his Houston-based operations with an iron fist, backed by thinly veiled threats and often accompanied by the gun he'd brandish when someone was inclined to dispute him over a matter. Within a short time of their deal Robey had muscled in on Mattis and taken over the Duke label entirely, bringing Ace into the fold of his own growing R&B empire.
The change in scenery meant little to Johnny, who was at home wherever there was action and music, and his career reached the next level immediately upon his move to Texas. Though Robey would rob Ace of most of the writing credits on his subsequent string of hits (giving them to himself under the name Deadric Malone), he couldn't be accused of skimping on production or promotion when it came to his artists. Ace had continued to play with the Beale Streeters at first, backing Forest in fact on the drummer's own Top Ten hit "Whoopin & Hollerin", before Robey assigned Ace to be produced and backed in the studio by the legendary Johnny Otis, who'd recently come on board at Duke/Peacock Records after a long-run as a hit-laden artist in his own right. With Otis's arranging skills and his top-notch band, featuring Otis himself on vibes playing behind him, Ace's records in Houston far eclipsed the raw-sound of his Memphis beginnings and the hits came non-stop.
For his second release, "Cross My Heart", Johnny moved over to organ, even though he'd never played the instrument before in his life, simply because one happened to be in the studio for another recording session. The song, bolstered by that unique sound, hit #3 on the charts and solidified his standing among his growing legion of fans drawn to his aching vulnerability on record. That was followed by the haunting and beautifully constructed "The Clock", which became his second #1 hit, holding its position for five weeks in mid-1953. With Otis's ethereal vibes and tick-tocking percussion behind him, the mournful tune cemented Ace's reputation as a master of the forlorn in rock music. He then closed out the year with "Saving My Love For You", his fourth consecutive Top Three R&B hit. Although it stalled at #2 on the charts it remained in the Top Ten for an impressive 19 weeks, a longer stretch than any of his records since his stellar debut. Within a year he had gone from an unknown backing musician named John Alexander to Johnny Ace, the single biggest solo male star in rock 'n' roll music for 1953.
During this period Ace became the star headliner on the groundbreaking package tours that Robey's female partner in the business, Evelyn Johnson, had started with her Buffalo Booking Agency. Often featuring his old friends Bland and King in supporting roles, as he'd eclipsed even King by now in popularity, and joined by fellow Peacock artist Big Mama Thornton who was riding high with her own monster hit, "Hound Dog", Ace was on the road upwards of eleven months a year, which suited his wandering spirit just fine. Twice a year he'd stop in Houston to record a new batch of songs he'd written and then hit the road again where he'd spend his idle time between shows picking up girls in every town he played, wearing the sharpest threads he could find, drinking excessively and fooling around with the guns he had bought, often shooting at street signs as they sped along the highways in their cars on their way to the next gig. For a black musician in the early 50's this was the type of monotonous, but comforting, routine that few in the industry deviated from.
The combination of massive sales of his records and constant touring made Ace a star of almost unequalled proportions in the black community, especially among girls who worshipped him from afar. The good-looking sleepy-eyed singer was a natural heartthrob and his allure to women was heightened by the sense of vulnerability he conveyed, both in person where he sat shyly behind the piano while performing, and particularly on record where his mournful love ballads (or "heart ballads" as they became widely known) spoke to the starry-eyed girls who bought his records faithfully. Although he could play blistering uptempo rock when called upon, such as the instrumental "Aces Wild" and the rousing vocal workout "How Could You Be So Mean?", it was his dreamy love songs that spoke to a legion of young female fans and kept him riding high on the charts.
His momentum began to cool somewhat in 1954. Though both of his releases that year hit the Top Ten, neither went to their customary Top 5 positions and were off the charts far quicker than his records had been in the past. Additionally his personal behavior was becoming more erratic, with his reckless attitude off-stage increasingly causing problems and he began putting on weight, which robbed him of the sly mischievous look he'd cultivated. He'd long since forgotten his wife and two children back in Memphis and had a string of steady girlfriends on the road. Most troubling to those around him however was his cavalier approach to violence which manifested itself with numerous threats made in jest to his companions with the gun he now always carried and enjoyed showing off.
As 1954 drew to a close Ace and Thornton were scheduled to play their home-base of Houston over the Christmas holidays, headlining together at the City Auditorium in front of a packed house. They played the first of two shows slated for Christmas Night, ending their set with their popular on-record duet, the rousing "Yes Baby", before taking a break for intermission. Backstage Ace had with him his latest girlfriend, a bottle of whiskey and his ever-present gun. He jokingly put the small revolver to the girl's head and pulled the trigger, hearing it click signifying an empty chamber. The others in the room, unsettled by his constant fooling with the gun, challenged him to put it to his own head if he was going to do that. Knowing there was a single bullet in the weapon and knowing that there were only five chambers left to tempt fate with, Ace still could not back down from the dare and subsequently placed it to his temple then squeezed the trigger.
When word reached Robey that his star had accidentally shot and killed himself the press machine went into overdrive. The date of his death was moved back 24 hours to Christmas Eve, making the circumstances somehow more tragically romantic. His latest record, "Pledging My Love", was promoted vigorously to tie in with the avalanche of publicity surrounding his downfall and the timing it seemed could not have been more perfect. Rock 'n' roll had increasingly begun to cross over to white audiences throughout 1954, largely with uptempo vocal group records that attracted kids dissatisfied with the staid pop offerings they heard elsewhere on radio. The unbridled enthusiasm of these rock records, along with the inherent danger they seemed to possess coming from what was, to them at least, an alien culture they'd been largely unaware of, made them increasingly sought after, while the major record companies viewed them as novelties and a short lived fad, even as they attempted to steal their sales by covering them with their own watered-down white pop stars.
That was the world that "Pledging My Love" entered into in the winter of '55 and the song was like few of the other early crossover rock hits, starting with the fact it was a pure ballad and not group sung, as most of the previous breakthroughs had been. In it though Ace had come up with his best song, lyrically and musically, and backed by Otis's delicate vibes echoing the sentiments offered by Johnny's halting vocals, the record proved irresistible to those who heard it. Ace's death only made the mournful lyrics all the more haunting as they were seemingly coming from beyond the grave. Already a growing cult began to spring up around Ace's memory among his legion of fans, similar to ones that would emerge with the later deaths of Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, all tragic fleeting figures whose demises further fueled the sensationalistic mythology of rock lore.
Not surprisingly with the growing excitement over rock itself and the sensationalistic headlines of Ace's recent violent and tragic end, "Pledging My Love" topped all three industry R&B Charts for months (Sales, Jukebox and Disc Jockey - the first record ever to do so), but shockingly it also soared up the Pop Charts, hitting #17 there, an almost unheard of feat at that point in rock's evolution. The fact it had equaled Teresa Brewer's homogenized but heavily promoted white cover version on those Pop Charts indicated that more and more young white listeners were beginning to understand the difference between the real deal and the pale imitators that were offered them and subsequently the record became a key turning point in rock 'n' roll's ascension into mainstream culture. In rock's first full year of universal recognition in America, "Pledging My Love" made its case for being the first slow-dance classic to emerge in this environment, and in many circles it has remained the ultimate record in that regard ever since.
Robey meanwhile was doing all he could to exploit the attention his late star was getting him and his company. He announced the signing of Johnny's brother, but quickly pulled a switch and renamed a totally unrelated singer (James Land) as "Buddy Ace", purporting him to be Johnny's sibling instead, and he went on to a long career, though he never attained the heights of his celebrated namesake. At the same time tribute records flooded the market with hits resulting from a number of them, most notably Varetta Dillard's excellent "Johnny Has Gone", and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers "Johnny Ace's Last Letter". Robey didn't hesitate to capitalize on this glut of tributes either, as he released two Extended Play Records (EP's - 4 songs each) of Ace's career highlights to that point and later in the year released the very first rock 'n' roll LP, "Memorial Album", compiling all of Ace's hits in an attempt to draw out the interest of his late star even more.
Ace still wasn't done though, even after death, as he had one more hit left in him. "Anymore", one of the few remaining unreleased sides left in the vaults, was put out that summer and despite its artist being gone for seven full months at that point the record still managed to make the Top Ten on the R&B Charts. But Robey was now out of new unheard material and with the rock 'n' roll audience becoming younger and whiter by the day, and without his biggest star to lead him into this growing market, Robey gradually turned his focus on the blues stable that he'd acquired, including Ace's old cohort Bobby Bland, who was recently released from the Army and who would go onto become his most successful artist over twenty years of recording.
Johnny Ace was not forgotten however, despite being known by only black audiences for the majority of his career and for his entire time on earth, since it was only posthumously that white fans discovered him. In the decades since his passing there have been countless wild and widespread rumors of Ace being killed by his own company over a fight about royalties, which proved patently untrue but made for great backroom stories over the years. Other less nefarious rumors abounded as well, particularly regarding tales of earlier recording sessions, including one reportedly done at Sun Records and produced by Sam Phillips, all ultimately proving fruitless but nevertheless providing many with the faint hope of unearthing another recording. His lone album remained in print for decades, selling steadily to new generations of fans who discovered him through hearing a song of his on the radio or used in films, or by hearing of his shadowy tale that still sets the benchmark for rock's most dramatic fate. "Pledging My Love" remains one of the most memorable hits of the entire decade of the 50's and still is viewed as one of the handful of epic rock ballads ever cut and has been covered by some of the most legendary artists in rock 'n' roll that followed, including Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, the greatest male and female rock artist respectively in the years since Ace ruled that musical kingdom. That record alone, combined with the shocking circumstances of his death, have ensured his legacy will live on in mainstream circles. For a style of music that has had more than its share of early, tragic demises of some of its biggest stars, Johnny Ace's death remains near the top of the list for most memorable, with Paul Simon forever immortalizing it in his song, "The Late Great Johnny Ace".
Though he cut only 21 songs in his lifetime as a featured performer, along with a handful of tunes backing some of his fellow stars of his day, his catalog is remarkably consistent and deep, featuring some of the most intimate ballad performances ever recorded alongside some truly smoking uptempo songs that were largely relegated to B-sides. Every single primary record he released in his lifetime was a Top Ten hit and in the period spanning 1950-1955 only Fats Domino and Big Joe Turner rivaled Johnny Ace's stature among male solo rock 'n' roll stars. It was also Ace's "Pledging My Love", along with Domino's "Ain't That A Shame" and Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll", that fully pushed rock 'n' roll from black America into an integrated landscape where it remains to this day. Despite these monumental achievements Johnny Ace failed to be elected to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame in either of the two years he was nominated (1986 & 1987) and his absence from that institution marks one of the more shameful omissions to date.
Johnny Ace was the pre-eminent vocal stylist in rock's first half decade and symbolic of its growth into a cultural phenomenon. Though he never gave an interview, never performed on television or had any filmed footage of him captured for posterity, and only a scarce number of photographs taken of him are even known to exist, and although he was sadly gone before rock 'n' roll had started to achieve any worldwide recognition, Johnny Ace remains a tragically romanticized, but memorable, figure in its lineage, forever frozen in time at the specific moment it exploded into something bigger than he or anyone else could've ever imagined.
There are three competing Ace Greatest Hits on the market and his signature song, "Pledging My Love", remains one of the most frequently included songs on multi-artist compilation albums of the 50's.
Surprisingly this collection that first appeared way back in 1955 remained the only package of Ace's material for decades after. It contained only 12 of his songs and excluded one legitimate chart hit ("Please Forgive Me"), but was a solid primer on what made Ace so popular in his day. Reissued at the start of the CD era in the mid-80's it is still the easiest Ace title to find.
THE CHRONOLOGICAL JOHNNY ACE: 1952-1955
Part of a series spotlighting every single release by major black stars this is the most definitive collection of Ace's career, containing not only every record he made for Duke (A&B sides), but also the ultra-rare "Midnight Hours Journey" that he'd cut before then as part of the Beale Streeters which saw release only after his career took off. A foreign import this is the title to track down for the fullest look at Johnny Ace.
THE COMPLETE DUKE RECORDINGS
A limited-release from Hip-O-Select, with album sleeve replicating his original mid-50's LP and a nice booklet to go with it, this is essentially the same as the Chronological Johnny Ace CD with two notable exceptions. This does not contain "Midnight Hours Journey", since it was not a Duke recording, and, most troubling, is that it uses a 1957 re-issued version of his posthumous hit "Anymore" that Don Robey altered from the original 1955 recording by overdubbing the Jordanaires (the white gospel quartet that backed Elvis Presley) and adding new instrumentation in an attempt to update it for newer audiences. Clearly the inclusion of that version on the disc rather than the original release was a mistake by the usually astute Hip-O-Select producers, but it alters the picture of Ace's career and forces the buyer to also have the original version of "Anymore" (available on either of the other two releases). Otherwise, this collection offers solid sound and notes and far more than "Memorial Album" does.
1. Pledging My Love
2. The Clock
3. My Song
4. Saving My Love For You
5. Cross My Heart
6. Never Let Me Go
8. Please Forgive Me
10. How Can You Be So Mean?
11. Don't You Know?
12. Ace's Wild
13. Yes Baby (with Big Mama Thornton)
14. Still Love You So
15. Follow The Rule
16. So Lonely
17. I'm Crazy Baby
18. No Money
19. Burlie Cutie
20. You've Been Gone So Long
21. Midnight Hours Journey
THE LATE GREAT JOHNNY ACE & THE TRANSITION FROM R&B TO ROCK 'N' ROLL - JAMES M. SALEM
One of the greatest rock music biographies ever written. Amazingly in-depth considering the lack of primary source material to build from and the absence of any interviews with the two central figures (Ace and Robey) in the story, both of whom were long since deceased. Despite these obstacles Salem paints as full a picture of the era, the music, and the enigmatic artist himself as could ever be hoped for. For years Ace's life was shrouded in mystery, littered with conflicting information and outright myths, but this book puts everything back together and makes it not only the definitive work on Ace, but also one of the most important books on rock music's rise to power. This is mandatory reading for anyone claiming to be interested in the history of rock 'n' roll. A masterpiece.
"Well, just call me Ace, but don't let my momma know, because the first thing she'll want to know is 'What is an Ace?'." - John Alexander Jr. speaking to his original producer, David Mattis, upon coming up with the name change to Johnny Ace in 1952.
"When I first started performing... I got a trio on the radio: Johnny Ace on piano, Earl Forest on drums, Billy Duncan on tenor sax. That's when I made 'Three O' Clock Blues'. We recorded our first hit in the YMCA in Memphis. They wanted me as a solo act so I gave up my band, gave it to Johnny Ace, which is how he got started." - B.B. King, on his and Ace's formative years together.
"(Ace was) a perfect example of rock in its earliest stages. He was a master of early rock. Johnny was first." - Bob Kirsch, music reviewer.
"A wonderful singer with the bluest pipes around" - Peter Grendysa, rock historian, on Ace's style.
"When I heard it ('My Song') I told him, 'God that's nice!'." - Johnny Otis, Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Famer, who'd go on to produce Ace's most famous sides shortly thereafter, on the charm of Ace's debut record.
"(Ace & Thornton) hit town with such an impact that it caused the whole of 125th and vicinity to just shake, rattle & roll" - R&B Notes trade publication commenting on the response to the Johnny Ace Revue at the Apollo Theater, April 1954.
"Johnny Ace was the most unassuming person. Sweetest thing since sugar." - Evelyn Johnson, operator of the Buffalo Booking Agency, the company for which Ace toured.
"That for me is meaningful music. The singers and musicians I grew up with transcend nostalgia - Johnny Ace is just as valid to me today as then." - Bob Dylan.
"He'd just stand there, sing his heart out, and go home." - St. Clair Alexander, Johnny's brother, who'd go on to have a recording career of his own in the 1980's, on Johnny's simple, but powerful, delivery.
"He composed on the piano & it just came out of his soul somewhere." - David Mattis, Ace's original producer, on Johnny's prolific songwriting ability, credit for which he rarely received as Don Robey filed the songs under his own name instead of Ace's.
"The death of Ace has created one of the biggest demands for a record that has occurred since the death of Hank Williams." - Billboard magazine reporting on the massive sales of Ace's posthumous "Pledging My Love" in early 1955.
"'Pledging My Love' was causing grown women to weep and write suicidal poems to newspapers and magazines." - Galen Gart, rock historian, on the overwhelming reaction to the song that had just been released prior to Ace's death.
"It came all the way from Texas with a sad and simple face/And they signed it on the bottom, 'From the late great Johnny Ace'." - Paul Simon, in his song "The Late Great Johnny Ace".
"I'll think I'll make a good corpse, don't you?" - Johnny Ace to his girlfriend, jokingly, a short time before his death.
Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Artists of The '50s - #22 Greatest 'Male' R&B/Soul Vocalists - #59 Greatest Influential Blues Artists - #99 Most Influential Rock 'n' Roll Artists - #124 100 Greatest Songs From 1952 - #6 - My Song 100 Greatest Songs From 1953 - #13 - The Clock, #47 - Saving My Love For You, #48 - Cross My Heart 100 Greatest Songs From 1954 - #6 - Pledging My Love, #46 - Never Let Me Go, #58 - Please Forgive Me 100 Greatest Songs From 1955 - #86 - Anymore