Johnny Ace

TrackSingle
My SongDuke R-102
The ClockDuke 112
Yes BabyDuke 118
You've Been Gone So LongDuke 128
Never Let Me GoDuke 132
Pledging My LoveDuke 136
So LonelyDuke 146
Don't You KnowDuke 154
AnymoreDuke 136 (1958 release) *

* The 1958 release which coupled Pledging My Love with Anymore, both with added voices, was given the same release number (Duke 136) as the 1954 Pledging My Love/No Money

 

Johnny Ace photo 2

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

For most people, Johnny Ace’s fame, if I can use that word, came about for two reasons: the manner and timing of his death, and, one record.

His death, from a self-inflicted gunshot, usually presumed to be accidental, occurred on Christmas Day, 1954. He was 25 years old. The incident is often seen as the earliest in a series of tragic early deaths of popular music stars.

The record was Pledging My Love. It was released almost simultaneously with his death and climbed to #1 in the US R&B Chart where it stayed for ten weeks. Also, most unusually for a black artist in that time frame, the record achieved crossover to the Billboard pop chart where it reached #17. In early 1955, Billboard reported, “The death of Ace has created one of the biggest demands for a record that has occurred since the death of Hank Williams.” (source: DigitalDreamDoor.com – All About Johnny Ace)

I questioned my usage of the word ‘fame’ in the opening sentence. Johnny’s singles weren’t released anywhere outside the US until several years had elapsed, so even if the story of the shooting had spread beyond the US press it probably wouldn’t have had significant impact since Johnny was, near-as-dammit, unknown in other countries.

 

THE STORY

He was born John Marshall Alexander on the 9th of June, 1929 in Memphis, Tennessee. His father was the Reverend John Alexander. He did his military stint in the navy, stationed at Orange, Virginia. According to James Salem in his book “The Late Great Johnny Ace And The Transition From R&B To Rock ‘n’ Roll”, he was “discharged from the navy for being worthless and hopeless”. He got married and had two children.

He learned piano in his childhood and, after a spell with local outfit, the Adolph Duncan band, joined the Riley (B.B.) King band in 1949 as pianist. That group morphed into the Beale Streeters. They crop up in various musical biographies. Bobby Bland was their lead singer and both Junior Parker and Rosco Gordon played with them on occasion. In 1951, Bland received his draft notice and in ’52, King moved to Los Angeles to kick off his solo career, recording with the Bihari Brothers’ Modern/RPM label. Ace, still known then as Alexander, inherited (or auditioned for, depending on which account you read) King’s Saturday afternoon role of hosting a radio show on station WDIA which he used to undertake with the Beale Streeters in tow. It was while he was performing in this capacity that he was persuaded by other band members, including drummer Earl Forest, to start singing.

In the spring of 1952, Johnny signed a contract with the recently formed Duke Records of Memphis, set up by WDIA Program Director, David James Mattis. Both Cal and I spent some time investigating the possibility that he was involved in a recording session before that date. The results were by no means conclusive but were mildly encouraging (see Footnote #6). Johnny started using the stage name Johnny Ace at this time in order not to bring shame to his father. His first record coupled a ballad, My Song, with an up tempo blues, Follow The Rule, conforming to the predictable approach of “let’s see which side the public go for”. The public went for it alright and it was the A-side that was the turn-on. My Song hit the #1 spot in the national R&B Chart and stayed in the chart for a whopping five months.

Later in ’52, Don Robey, black owner of Peacock Records, bought out Duke, in part due to Mattis having cash and distribution problems (largely caused by My Song), and moved its operation to Robey’s existing base in Houston, Texas, leaving Mattis looking after things in Memphis. As a result of the acquisition, Johnny’s recording session history at Duke can be viewed as being in three phases. First, those sessions held in Memphis in 1952 with backing from the Beale Streeters. Then, a couple of sessions held in Los Angeles in August ’53 and January ’54 with the Johnny Otis Orchestra providing support – Pledging My Love came from the second of these sessions but didn’t see immediate release. Finally, there was a session held in Houston in June 1954, with the support this time coming from the Johnny Board Orchestra who were effectively the house band used by Don Robey on Duke/Peacock records.

Johnny’s singles post My Song/Follow The Rule followed broadly the same pattern: ballad or slow number on the A-side with a range of styles on the flip – there were more jumpers, a couple of instrumentals showing off Johnny’s piano prowess, and even a ballad. All bar one made the R&B Chart, but only one, The Clock, repeated the feat of hitting the top spot. That, of course, is up until Pledging My Love.

 

THE DEATH

In March 1953, Johnny started touring, frequently alongside Peacock artist Big Mama Thornton whose record Hound Dog had been a big seller for the label that year. It was while he was on tour that the fatal accident occurred. There was a show held in the Houston City Auditorium on Christmas Day, 1954 featuring Johnny and Big Mama. Johnny was playing with a revolver between sets in his dressing room and there were others present. This wasn’t new. There are earlier reports of the man playing with a gun in a hotel room. On this occasion he put the gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and that was it. Big Mama apparently rushed out of the room yelling “Johnny Ace just killed hisself”.

The Associated Press report from Houston on January 1st 1955 stated:

“Rhythm and Blues recording star Johnny Ace accidentally killed himself while playing Russian Roulette at a holiday dance here on Saturday (25). The shooting occurred at a show featuring the popular singer and his band. Ace had gone backstage for a five-minute break and had been fooling around with a revolver with one bullet in the chamber.”

The Russian Roulette story is now widely discredited. A couple of quotes from Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms in “The True Story of the Death of Johnny Ace” point to a version that’s generally seen as closer to what actually transpired:

Indirectly from Earl Forest:

“After the mischievous Johnny Ace had “snapped” this pistol on several people as a joke while they toured, the imposing Big Mama Thornton had simply taken it away from him several days previous. He begged to get the pistol back from her for several days and she finally relented on Christmas Day. She had taken what she thought were all the bullets out of the gun, but it was a 7 shot revolver and still had one left in the cylinder. While his girlfriend was sitting in his lap, he snapped or dry fired the gun on Big Mama when she entered the dressing room. She began fussing with him and he said, “there’s nothing in it,” pointed it at his head and fired the fatal shot. It was an accident. Nobody had any idea there was a bullet in the gun.”

And, directly, from Big Mama Thornton’s bass player Curtis Tillman:

“I will tell you exactly what happened! Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ – sad, sad thing.”

And from other sources, two more facts/stories from the time which might or might not be pertinent:

* A number of reports of the death also state that Johnny had signed the papers for a 1955 Oldsmobile an hour before the tragic incident.

* There was a rumour that Ace had given notice to Robey that he was moving from Duke and signing to a new record label (source: Houston Press , 29 September 2016, “I Was There: The Night Johnny Ace Died”). This even led some to believe that Robey had a hand in the death.

 

THE AFTERMATH

Johnny’s funeral was held on 2nd January 1955 and it was reported that 5,000 mourners were present.

Pledging My Love was released on schedule. It rocketed up to the #1 position in the R&B Chart in no time and in February 1955 crossed to the National Pop Chart. There was a cover released by white artist Teresa Brewer in March that year which also made the chart, plus one from the Four Lads. These were but the earliest of a wide range of cover versions over the years: from Kitty Wells to David Allan Coe, and from Jay and the Americans to Solomon Burke. Elvis recorded the song in his last studio session(s) held in The Jungle Room in Graceland, Memphis from October 29th to 31st 1976. The track was included in the last Presley album before his death, Moody Blue.

And there were plenty of tribute discs to Johnny but I’ll direct the reader to the footnotes to find them.

 

THE MUSIC

I’ve got this far with barely a mention of the music itself. Time to rectify.

This is an analysis that you might have thought would have been easy. Notwithstanding the one ‘rogue’ single and the exploration surrounding it, there was none of the digging to establish a discography and, indeed, only a very small body of work to listen to. And Johnny evidently had something about him or he wouldn’t have established a connection with record buyers so quickly, let alone achieve the magic crossover only a few releases down the line.

But it wasn’t.

Pledging My Love illustrates my problem. I’ve listened to loads of cover versions, more in fact than identified above. Many have attractive qualities about them. Almost all benefit from improved recording technique. But I keep returning to the Ace original and I’m not someone who insists on the original over the cover in every case. The backing is superb, prominent piano and vibes (Johnny Otis himself) plus an ethereal sax which floats around just out of reach during the middle eight. Johnny himself is warm and mellow and I guess you have to add, understated. There are hints of vibrato and the merest touch of melisma – none of the extravagances of a contemporary like, say, Clyde McPhatter.

Let’s go back to the one that started it all, My Song. Several stories state that it was based on the 1949 breakthrough hit for Ruth Brown entitled So Long, and that Johnny utilised the tune but penned new lyrics whilst sticking to the broad theme of break-up. The original disc actually had “James” down as composer, that being a shortening of David James Mattis. However the BMI database lists Alexander John and Mattis David J as co-writers. Reading between the lines you can imagine Mattis looking for something different rather than the blues numbers usually purveyed by Johnny and the Beale Streeters, so encouraged Johnny in the rewrite. Whether he actually contributed any lyrics or merely used his name as writer/co-writer in the manner of label owners in those days, we’ll never know.

You told me,
That you would leave me here in tears.
But now you’re gone,
And hours seem like years.
So, darling, I sing my song.

 

Playing those discs in sequence is a bit of a culture shock. The Brown one, from that supremely polished orchestral opening onwards, has the elegance and sophistication of forties lounge albeit with some soul bite from Ruthie. In contrast, Johnny and the Beale Streeters head straight into the song after the briefest of intros, sounding for all the world like one of those very early and attractively raw doo wop outfits with the only problem being that the backing singers didn’t turn up, leaving the sax player to extemporise in their absence. They even use that progression that we’ve heard a million times (as did Ruth of course, but it was less obvious). Johnny is raw mentally but he’s together in terms of tone and warmth of delivery. Only in those few bars that comprise the middle eight, does he let a little of that agony out.

Where did that style come from one wonders. Even on their very early discs Johnny’s peers, B.B. King and Bobby Bland, used much more melisma and plenty of swooping and soaring than our hero. So whatever he might have picked up from them, it got seriously toned back in the process. The only singers I can think of operating in that time period who utilised such a mild mannered approach were Charles Brown and Percy Mayfield, both operating out of L.A., and Johnny could well have heard either or both of them on the radio since they were getting into the R&B Chart regularly. But these guys were charting with blues, or sometimes in Mayfield’s case, with blues ballads. My Song, in comparison, if sung by a white singer in the mid fifties would probably have been viewed as a teen ballad i.e. an example of a genre that hadn’t quite come into existence yet. But it was a genre that was to spell success for several artists in the second half of the decade; Ricky Nelson and Poor Little Fool and Ritchie Valens with Donna come to mind. Between them, Johnny Ace and David Mattis would seem to have invented a form of music that had an effect on young black ladies that wasn’t at all dissimilar to the effect that records like Poor Little Fool and Donna had on the average American female teenager roughly five years later. I confess that these thoughts aren’t entirely original but the only place I’ve seen them put forward was in Steve Bergsman’s splendid book “The Death Of Johnny Ace” which is described as a fictional biography of the man (for more on that book, see footnotes).

Best of the other A-side slowies, certainly if we’re thinking teen idol, was Never Let Me Go which, perhaps, was edging closer to proto soul. Once again that doo wop progression was put to good use but there was a natural flow to the melody line complemented nicely by the horns.

Anymore is another one to use that progression but what actually strikes you is an unusual riff played in unison by sax and vibes. It was the first of the posthumous releases, ignoring a couple of EPs that Robey put out, packaging all the earlier material in order to maximise earnings from the tragedy. Criticise Robey for other things but it’s difficult to do so for this. Name me a label that wouldn’t have done something similar.

I should add that in 1958, Duke released an updated version of Pledging My Love backed with Anymore. A female chorus had been added to both with the second also benefitting, if that’s the right word, from a doo wop bass man. While the second Pledging My Love is not so easy to find, the later Anymore is all over the place. It even appears, incorrectly, on the Classics 1951-1954 set and the Memorial Album. However, I’m rather partial to this one so …

I’ve selected So Lonely, in part because it illustrates even more clearly, Johnny’s debt to Charles Brown and the West Coast cool school. A slow, piano led, minor key blues with the Otis vibes weaving patterns round the vocal, it was the second of the three posthumous single releases based on material ‘in the can’. One wonders with this track, if Johnny hadn’t died, whether it would have seen release as an A- or B-side.

The medium to up tempo bluesy stuff that often appeared on the Ace B-sides was uniformly good if not quite ascending to the exceptional. My Top Nine – I didn’t quite get to ten – has three selections, all riff driven to varying degrees: You’ve Been Gone So Long, Don’t You Know (recorded in Houston with some nice Texas guitar in the style Duke were using for Bland) and Yes Baby which featured a duet with Big Mama and edged closer to the sound of early rock and roll. The song was the last one performed live by Johnny as he and Ms Thornton closed the first half of the show in the Houston Auditorium on the evening of that fateful Christmas Day (source: “Big Mama Thornton: The Life And Music” by Michael Spörke).

Take a listen to Johnny’s “hey, hey” in the second verse. It struck me that there were some similarities between the dropping note here and the same wording in the chorus of Little Richard’s Hey Hey Hey Hey. Richard certainly wouldn’t have been unaware of the Ace singles and was contracted to Peacock for most of the time that Johnny was at Duke. Could be pure coincidence of course.

I’ve kept one selection back since it didn’t seem to quite fit either of the contrasting moulds of the A- and B-sides, though it did see release in the former category. The slowie, The Clock, has a two chord melody structure and lyrics which see Johnny languishing in abject miserabilia (markedly unlike most of the teen idol tracks). And it might well have launched a thousand swamp poppers. Not only do roughly half of the songs in that genre share the chordal structure – I might be exaggerating slightly but you get the point – but lyrically the swamp poppers shared the doom and gloom theme. For comparison here’s The Clock:

And here’s Bobby Charles, circa ’56 to ’58, with Your Picture. Charles is widely accredited to be one of the founding fathers of swamp pop.

One more comparison: the chordal line crops up on some slow blues, often those of a particularly lugubrious nature. A good example is Jimmy Reed with Honest I Do.

And that’s it. A small oeuvre but one containing a high proportion of very interesting records with at least a couple, and maybe more, that should have adjectives like epic, historic, influential and simply, great, appear alongside them. I’ve been abstemious with my usage of the word ‘soul’ in this document so far, but those Ace A-sides were just one of the ingredients that went into the big melting pot from which emerged that thing that we called soul music in the early sixties. Johnny was less out there than most of the big soul names – he wasn’t as flamboyant as James Brown, as churchy as Solomon Burke, as intense as Little Willie John or as sweet as Sam Cooke – but his voice on those ballads was as important as any of the big boys in communicating emotion to the black public and successfully broadening that appeal to the big wide (and white) American public. And he was there before the others.

Johnny Ace photo

“Johnny Ace is just as valid to me today as then.” (Bob Dylan, “Newsweek”, 1974)

“He was the first fallen angel, the first lost mother’s son of rock ‘n’ roll, eaten up and spat out by fame.” (Nick Tosches – “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”)

 

FOOTNOTES

1. You’ll find, in accounts of Johnny’s brief life and tragic death, that the shooting incident is reported variously as being on the evening of Christmas Eve 1954, or on the evening of Christmas Day the same year. Later reports tend more towards the second date. The reasons for the discrepancy are twofold. Don Robey put around a story that the death was on Christmas Eve apparently under a belief that that day sounded more tragically romantic – if there was another reason then it’s not been found/reported. That date largely ‘stuck’ and appeared in subsequent mini-biographies on Johnny Ace. The false date ‘lie’ was compounded by music writer and critic Ray Topping in the sleeve notes to the 1989 album, The Original Memphis Blues Brothers. To quote from 706 Union Avenue (see below): “Worse, the album graphics created non-existent documents to suggest that the annotator had done his research among them a concocted telegram (”your son Johnny shot and killed himself tonight”) from Evelyn Johnson to Mrs. Leslie Alexander, dated 12:43 A.M. On 25 December – reporting Ace’s death almost twenty-two hours before it happened”. I should add that, while Topping was falsifying, he did it under the belief that the death did occur on the Christmas Eve date.

2. The source that I refer to above, 706 Union Avenue, is an absolutely indispensable document for anyone delving into the history of Sun records and its predecessor, the Memphis Recording Service. On the site you’ll find documented, all sessions held at the Sun Studio, plus a number of other interesting sessions held in Memphis over the same time period.

3. Pledging My Love was first advertised in Billboard on the 25th December 1954, the day Ace died.

4. In his youth, John Alexander was a whizz at roller skating. The source for this was the recollections of Dorothy Jean Griffiths in Preston Lauterbach’s “The Chitlin Circuit And The Road To Rock ‘n’ Roll”. For this and many other inclusions, both in the main text and the footnotes, I’m highly indebted to the indefatigable Cal Taylor.

5. While there’s doubt about John Alexander/Johnny Ace’s first session as a lead, what is beyond doubt is that he appeared as pianist in the B.B. King support band in the latter’s final session at the Sun Studio held on the 18th of June, 1951 (source: 706 Union Avenue).

6. The possibility that Johnny Ace could have recorded a track with himself on lead vocal, prior to his Duke debut, intrigued Cal and yours truly and resulted in considerable investigation and much criss-crossing of emails. Rather than give you the step by step stuff I decided to present the evidence and then let Cal present his theory as to where this evidence took us. Here are the pieces of the jigsaw as we’ve identified them.

* A single was released by the Bihari Brothers owned Flair label in September ’53 which had Johnny on the A-side singing Mid Night Hours Journey (that’s how it appeared on the label though most references have it as “Midnight”). The B-side had Earl Forest singing Trouble And Me.

* 706 Union Avenue list a session held for Johnny Ace and Earl Forest in September 1952 which resulted in the tracks on the above single (or at least that was the impression given). This session followed one for B.B. King for RPM, i.e for the Bihari Brothers, and the impression given was that the Ace and Forest tracks were cut immediately following those by King. The studio used was the YMCA Building, South Lauderdale St., Memphis due to a breakdown in the relationships between Sam Phillips and the Biharis.

* 706 Union Avenue also list another gem under the overall heading, “1952 Sessions”. In 1972, Sun researchers Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, while cataloguing tapes at the Sun Studio, found tracks believed to be by Johnny Ace. For reasons not documented, these were thought to be from a session held at Sun in ’52 but with no further dating information known. Reportedly, four titles were recorded: Remember I Love You (Midnight Hours Journey), I Cried Last Night, Follow The Rule and Burley Cutie (those were the titles as listed at 706 Union Avenue).

* I Cried Last Night (sometimes referred to as I Cried) is now usually taken to have Earl Forest on vocal rather than Johnny – Earl’s tone is rougher and he doesn’t have Johnny’s control.

* Songs with the last two titles, Follow The Rule and Burley Cutie, appeared on the flip side of the first and sixth Johnny Ace Duke singles respectively. After considerable listening, neither Cal nor I could see any difference between the tracks which we were informed were from the session above (as released on Properbox 143-16, Rockin’ Memphis) and those from Duke.

* There were sessions held at the Sun Studio for Bobby Bland and Rosco Gordon in 1952 with Duke Records explicitly named (source: 706 Union Avenue – of course). While hardly major evidence, this does suggest that a sound business relationship was in existence between Mattis and Phillips at that time.

Those are the facts, or rather, what was documented, what was found, and the results of some listening. This is the Cal Taylor theory:

“I believe Mid Night Hours Journey, Follow The Rule and Burley Cutie, said to be recorded by Sam Phillips at an unknown date in 1952, were recorded some time before May 1952. When David Mattis recorded My Song at WDIA for his fledgling label Duke, he thought he had a hit on his hands and wanted to rush it out. He then possibly turned to Sam Phillips and ‘bought off the peg’ two tracks that he either knew about or subsequently found out about (or had already purchased ): Follow The Rule and Burley Cutie. He then rushed out My Song b/w Follow The Rule on Duke 102 in July 1952, keeping Burley Cutie in the can. Then, Cross My Heart/Angel was released on Duke 107 in January 1953 followed by The Clock/Aces Wild on Duke 112 in June 1953. Not counting I Cried by Earl Forest – the remaining track from the undated Sun session which hadn’t been purchased by Duke, Mid Night Hours Journey, was purchased by the Biharis and issued on Flair 1015 in September 1953. (This might explain why they had to use Earl Forest on the other side – because they only had one Johnny Ace track to promote at the time he was near the peak of his popularity, that they were hoping to cash in on).”

The theory assumes some ‘looseness’ from Sun and/or Mattis in terms of documenting sessions or this could have been downright sloppiness but, what do you know, these things happen. If Mid Night Hours Journey was the first Ace record, then we ought to at least give it a listen:

A good blues, very confidently delivered by our man but possibly not the sort of thing Mattis was looking for in terms of an A-side contender (and it might not even have been offered to him).

7. In Charles Farley’s book “Soul Of The Man: Bobby “Blue” Bland” he tells us that David Mattis renamed John Alexander by taking the “Johnny” from then popular white crooner Johnnie Ray and the Ace from white vocal group, the Four Aces.

8. The Charles Farley book also provides a quote from David Mattis on the origin of the Duke record label name, “I was looking for a name for my company that had recognition and they had “Queen” and “King” and what was left was “Duke” and I thought it was the best of the bunch. Then I set about on the label itself which I made myself. Purple and gold were the signs of royalty and it was eye-catching. The design was simply the front end of a Cadillac: the two headlights, the V design”.

9. On April 2nd 1955, another group who’d emerged from Memphis, Tennessee, also played the Houston Auditorium. That group was then known as Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill. (source: the Scotty Moore website). Scotty Moore also reported, in relation to the Christmas 1954 period, “We knew that Johnny Ace was working that week in Houston and hoped that there would be a show we could see. As it happened, he was dead before we arrived, but Elvis and I went to the venue where Johnny Ace died and were shown the dressing room where it happened.” (source: “Big Mama Thornton: The Life And Music” by Michael Spörke)

10. The Scotty Moore website also includes the deposition taken from Big Mama Thornton at 12:40 a.m. on 26th December 1954. I left this out of the main text purely for space reasons. It doesn’t differ significantly from the accounts I’ve included (though a later account suggests that the calibre of the gun was .32 not .22).

“We arrived at the City Auditorium at around 7:20 p.m. and the dance started about eight o’clock. I did not sing until about nine o’clock when I sing five numbers. The band played several numbers before Johnny Ace came on to sing. He sing several numbers and he and I sing the duet “Yes Baby.” The band played two more numbers. I then went to the dressing room to change clothes, but I got busy signing autographs and I did not get to change clothes. Johnny Ace came to the dressing room and he signed some autographs. He started to leave out the door when some people stopped to talk to him. About that time, Olivia, Johnny Ace’s girl friend walked up and Johnny and Olivia came into the dressing room. Johnny sit on a dresser in the dressing room and Olivia sit on his lap. Shortly after he sit down, two more people who were in the dressing room, Mary Carter and Joe Hamilton, began running around. I looked over at Johnny and noticed he had a pistol in his hand. It was a pistol that he bought somewhere in Florida. It was a .22 cal. revolver. Johnny was pointing this pistol at Mary Carter and Joe Hamilton. He was kind of waving it around. I asked Johnny to let me see the gun. He gave it to me and when I turned the chamber a .22 cal. bullet fell out in my hand. Johnny told me to put it back in where it wouldn’t fall out. I put it back and gave it to him. I told him not to snap it at nobody. After he got the pistol back, Johnny pointed the pistol at Mary Carter and pulled the trigger. It snapped. Olivia was still sitting on his lap. I told Johnny again not to snap the pistol at anybody. Johnny then put the pistol to Olivia’s head and pulled the trigger. It snapped. Johnny said “I’ll show you that it won’t shoot.” He held the pistol up and looked at it first and then put it to his head. I started toward the door and I heard the pistol go off. I turned around and saw Johnny falling to the floor. I saw that he was shot and I run on stage and told the people in the band about it. I stayed there until the officers arrived.”

11. I made brief mention of Don Robey and some of his less pleasing characteristics in the footnotes to the Bobby Bland Toppermost. For a much longer essay on the man, plus another view on the Ace death, read “Sympathy For The Devil: Don Robey And The Death Of Johnny Ace” by Preston Lauterbach in the Oxford American magazine.

12. Aretha Franklin cut Johnny’s My Song and it was released as the flip to See Saw in 1968. Unfortunately, it’s not on YT.

13. The boundary between truth and fiction with Johnny Ace was fluid as exemplified by the varied stories surrounding his death plus the miscellany of misinformation and guesswork reported in the paragraphs above. Journalist and author Steve Bergsman utilised the ‘non-fiction novel’ approach (pioneered by Truman Capote) in his fictionalised biography, “The Death Of Johnny Ace”. We’re not told how much is truth and how much is invented but apart from taking the occasional obvious liberty, like having Pledging My Love be released marginally earlier so that it can feature strongly while Ace was alive, I suspect that much of it was how Bergsman imagined it would have been. Don Robey is painted as something of a pantomime villain but the author is also careful to give him credit for his pioneering role as the first black record label owner. He ‘documents’ an imaginary conversation between Robey and Ace wherein Don tears into Johnny verbally for breaking his contract by providing piano support to B.B. King in a recording session. A good read, particularly the chunks of dialogue between Bergsman as author and a musical mentor – real or imagined, we’re not told.

14. I promised the reader a list of covers, the majority of which were released within a month of Pledging My Love hitting the Billboard Chart. This is it, courtesy of Nick Tosches, whose book “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is an absolute must (and I’d have said that regardless of whether he was likely to read this or not). I’ve found clips of all bar one.

Varetta Dillard – Johnny Has Gone; Johnny Moore’s Blazers featuring Linda Hayes – Why, Johnny, Why coupled with Johnny Moore’s Blazers featuring Frankie Ervin – Johnny Ace’s Last Letter; Johnny Fuller – Johnny Ace’s Last Letter; The Rovers – Salute To Johnny Ace; The Johnny Otis Orch. with Marie Adams – In Memory; The Five Wings – Johnny Has Gone coupled with Johnny’s Still Singing. And there’s a more recent one, Paul Simon and The Late Great Johnny Ace:

I was reading a magazine
And thinking of a rock and roll song
The year was 1954
And I hadn’t been playing that long
When a man came on the radio
And this is what he said
He said I hate to break it
To his fans
But Johnny Ace is dead

 

Johnny Ace poster

 

Johnny Ace (1929–1954)

 

Johnny Ace – Ace’s Wild: The Complete Solo Sides And Sessions (along with some of the tribute records mentioned above)

Johnny Ace at 45cat

Johnny Ace biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens has written over thirty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding and Betty Harris.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Bobby Bland, Solomon Burke, Bobby Charles, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Little Richard, Little Willie John, Percy Mayfield, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, Elvis Presley

TopperPost #648

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Aug 16, 2017

    A fascinating piece and what a great singer Johnny was. One of those intriguing ‘lost’ talents and it is hard not to speculate on what he might have achieved had he lived. Would add that I first discovered Johnny through John Martyn’s cover version of ‘Never Let Me Go’ and will also put in a word for the fine Dave Alvin song ‘Johnny Ace is dead’ which can be heard here.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Aug 17, 2017

    Thanks Andrew. I could say that I omitted the Dave Alvin tribute since I knew you’d pick up on it but really it’s because I wanted to end with those words from Paul Simon (who’s not my favourite artist but I’d forgive him anything for this).

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓