I love to journey back in time to remember the ghost of the greats. Today, I want to reach way back in the annals of music history to resurrect a great soul man John Marshall Alexander, Jr. He was famously known by the stage name Johnny Ace, who was one of the early rhythm and blues biggest stars. He scored a string of hit singles in the mid-1950s before dying of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The son of a preacher Johnny Ace was born in Memphis, Tennessee, a place that produced many great recording artists. He joined the B.B King band and with King departed for Los Angeles. Ace took over vocal duties for the band and renamed the band The Beale Streeters. He also took over King’s WDIA radio show.
When he became “Johnny Ace,” he signed with Duke Records, originally a Memphis label associated with WDIA, in 1952. His first recording was known as a ‘heart-ballad’ – “My Song,” that topped the R&B charts for nine weeks in September of that year. The influence of this song was so profound that “My Song” was covered in 1968 by Aretha Franklin on the flip-side of “See Saw.”
With the success of “My Song,” Ace began heavy touring, often with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. In the next two years, he had eight hits in a row, including “Cross My Heart,” “Please Forgive Me,” “The Clock,” “Yes, Baby,” “Saving My Love for You,” and “Never Let Me Go.” As a result, he was named the Most Programmed Artist of 1954 after a national DJ poll organized by U.S. trade weekly Cash Box.
Ace’s recordings sold very well for those times. Early in 1955, Duke Records announced that the three 1954 Johnny Ace recordings, along with Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” had sold more than 1,750,000 records. After touring for a year, Ace had been performing at the City Auditorium in Houston, Teas on Christmas Day 1954. During a break between sets, he was playing with a .22-caliber revolver. Members of his band said he did this often, sometimes shooting at roadside signs from their car.
It was widely reported that Ace killed himself playing Russian roulette. Big Mama Thornton’s bass player Curtis Tillman witnessed the event and said, “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. Big Mama ran out of the dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed himself!”
Thornton said in a written statement (included in the book The Late Great Johnny Ace) that Ace had been playing with the gun, but not playing Russian roulette. According to Thornton, Ace pointed the gun at his girlfriend and another woman who were sitting nearby, but did not fire. He then pointed the gun at himself, bragging that he knew which chamber was loaded. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head.
According to Nick Tosches, Ace actually shot himself with a .32 pistol, not a .22, and it happened little more than an hour after he had bought a brand new 1955 Oldsmobile. Ace’s funeral was on January 9, 1955, at Memphis’ Clayborn Temple AME church, which was attended by an estimated 5,000 people.
His last recording was “Pledging My Love” that became a posthumous R&B No. 1 hit for ten weeks beginning February 12, 1955. As Billboard bluntly put it, Ace’s death “created one of the biggest demands for a record that has occurred since the death of Hank Williams just over two years ago.” His single sides were compiled and released as The Johnny Ace Memorial Album.
Artists who paid tributes to the great Johnny Ace.
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed “Never Let Me Go” on the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour late in 1975.
Elvis Presley recorded “Pledging My Love” in his last studio session in 1976. The song appeared on the Moody Blue album in 1977, his current LP at the time of his death.
Paul Simon wrote and performed the song “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” in which a boy, upon hearing of the death of Ace, orders a photograph of the deceased singer, describing: “I 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.”
David Allan Coe covered “Pledging My Love,” introducing the song with his own recollections of hearing the news of Ace’s death. Johnny Ace is also name-checked by Root Boy Slim in “House Band in Hell” as well as by Dash Rip Rock in the song “Johnny Ace.”
Ace’s song “Pledging My Love” appears in the 1973 Martin Scorsese film Mean Streets and John Carpenter‘s 1983 movie Christine, based on Stephen King‘s novel. The song also appears in the Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. The song also appears in the movie Back to the Future It is playing in the background of the scene with Marty and his mother in the yellow car. It is, however not credited.
The Teen Queens song “Eddie My Love” was originally titled “Johnny My Love” and was written in Johnny’s memory.
The Swiss singer Polo Hofer and the Schmetterband wrote the song “Johnny Ace” in 1985; it was released on the album Giggerig.
Rock and Roll historian Harry Hepcat notes: “Johnny Ace was a crooner who sounded like Johnny Mathis with soul. ….Soon after the death of Johnny Ace, Varetta Dillard recorded ‘Johnny Has Gone’ for Savoy Records in early 1955. She incorporated many of Ace’s song titles in the lyrics. This was the first of the many teen tragedy records that were to follow in the later 50s and early 1960s.”
Dave Alvin’s 2011 release, Eleven Eleven, contains a song describing his death, called “Johnny Ace is Dead.”
Who knows how great this man could have been? In most music circles, he has been forgotten but in the annals of time he will live forever. Johnny Ace’s life proves that when you do your best work it will be timeless! And that’s my thought provoking perspective…
If you did not know Johnny Ace watch the video for more information.