Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


ACE, Johnny

(b John Marshall Alexander Jr, 9 June '29, Memphis TN; d 25 Dec. '54, Houston TX) R&B pianist, singer and composer; Billboard's 'Most Played' R&B artist of '55 after his death playing Russian roulette. One of eleven children of a Baptist minister, and a natural musician, he left high school to join the US Navy but was often absent without leave and received a dishonourable discharge '47. He married '50 but was separated and alienated from his family by '52. (A neighbour said that 'when those boys got up to be adults they had been chained in the back yard so long they just went wild like a dog'.) Meanwhile by '49 he had joined the Beale Streeters, who broadcast over WDIA in Memphis; the lineup varied for club gigs, but variously included B. B. King, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Rosco Gordon, Bobby Duncan on sax and Earl Forest on drums. In a temporary studio in the Memphis YMCA Ace recorded his first vocal track for the Biharis' Flair label, 'Midnight Hours Journey', at the same '51 session that yielded King's 'Three O'Clock Blues' (on RPM), a huge R&B hit. David James Mattis, programme director at WDIA, formed Duke Records, renamed Ace and recorded him as a vocalist because Bland was then illiterate and couldn't learn lyrics from the page; as a small label unable to collect from distributors, Duke was soon in trouble and purchased by Don D. Robey (1903--75), who had formed Peacock in Houston '49, naming it after his Bronze Peacock nightclub. Mattis was supposed to be a partner, but Robey's method of financial negotiation involved waving a big pistol; Mattis got out with his money, but Robey got the profits. Ace had eight hits in the R&B chart, all in the top ten, two of them posthumous. 'My Song' '52 and 'The Clock' '53 were both no. 1 for several weeks and 'Pledging My Love' '55 for ten weeks. That year was described by Billboard as 'the year rhythm and blues virtually took over the pop field'; it began with 'Pledging My Love' reaching the pop top 20, but Ace was dead. He had recorded 21 tracks. Robey helped make him a legend, paying music journalists to write stories, but Ace also became a legend because, as Johnny Otis put it, he 'was too smooth for the white critics and the white writers for a long time'. Nat Cole made it to the white chart using white- oriented material with first-class production on a major label; Charles Brown had been very big in the R&B chart since '49 with a smooth cabaret style, but still used black- oriented material and did not cross over; Ace became the first black pop star of the rock era, after he'd killed himself. Backstage at a 'Negro Christmas Dance' at the City Auditorium in Houston, Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton testified, the .22 revolver had at least one bullet in it; Ace had pointed it at two other people and pulled the trigger, then said, 'I'll show you that it won't shoot', and put it to his own head. See James M. Salem's 'Death and the Rhythm-and-Bluesman: The Life and Recordings of Johnny Ace' in American Music, Vol. 11, No. 3 (University of Illinois Press).