- James M. Salem
Ace, Johnny (09 June 1929–25 December 1954), musician, songwriter, and rhythm and blues star, was born John Marshall Alexander, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of John Marshall Alexander and Leslie Newsome. His father earned his living in Memphis as a packer, but his lifework was as a commuting minister to two rural Baptist churches in East Arkansas. At LaRose Grammar School in south Memphis, John, Jr., as his family called him, displayed both musical and artistic talent. He mastered the piano at home but was allowed to play only religious music there. Along with his mother and siblings, he sang in the choir at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Becoming restless at Booker T. Washington High School, he dropped out in the eleventh grade to join the navy and see the world. His sisters recall military police coming to the house in search of their brother and remember his brief period of enlistment in terms of weeks, ending in an “Undesirable Discharge” in 1947. His mother was furious. “I can’t keep up with you,” she scolded, “and they can’t keep up with you.”
It is possible that Alexander never had a job in the conventional sense, and he did not seek employment after his failed navy attempt. He did, however, find kindred spirits on Beale Street. Joe Hill Louis, “the Be-Bop Boy,” may have started him out as a professional musician, or the credit may belong to Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, but by 1949 he was the piano player with the Beale Street Blues Boys (later the Beale Streeters), a band that backed B. B. King when he performed live. In 1950 Alexander wooed and married Lois Jean Palmer, a ninth grader at Booker T. Washington High School, and moved her into his parents’ home. A son was born to the couple that year and a daughter in 1952. Alexander’s mother, who disapproved of his lifestyle and his occupation as a blues musician, embraced his wife and children but refused to let him sleep at the family home.
In 1952 David James Mattis, the program director at the Memphis all-black radio station WDIA (the “Mother Station of the Negroes”), founded Duke Records and changed Alexander’s name to Johnny Ace. When Bobby “Blue” Bland could not sing a song scheduled for recording at the WDIA studio (it was subsequently revealed that Bland could not read), Mattis wrote new lyrics to an existing rhythm and blues hit, and Ace “faked out” a new melody. The result was “My Song” (Duke 102), a “blues ballad” (Billboard called it a “heart ballad”), which Ace sang in a vulnerable and innocent soft crooning style. Though the recording lacked professionalism in sound quality, the charm of Ace’s voice made it an immediate hit with the limited audience that had access to it. “My Song” attracted the attention of Houston entrepreneur Don D. Robey, a black man who owned Peacock Records and controlled a booking agency specializing in “chitlin circuit” venues. Robey became a partner and quickly the sole owner of Duke Records, moving the entire operation to Houston. He aggressively promoted Ace’s “My Song” to the top of the rhythm and blues charts and groomed him as a national headlining rhythm and blues act, carefully cultivating the kind of polished, first-class, uptown image that Berry Gordy would later emulate at Motown.
Ace’s career, which lasted less than two and a half years, produced eight rhythm and blues top ten records, including three number-one hits: “My Song” (1952), “The Clock” (1953), and “Pledging My Love” (1955). Primarily he lived the nomadic life of a road musician, with no permanent home or routine beyond a string of temporary hotel stops, traveling coast to coast with a backup band and an opening act, blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. In 1954 he may have performed as many as 350 one-nighters, sometimes driving as far as 800 miles between shows. According to Evelyn Johnson, the head of Buffalo Booking Agency and the closest thing to a personal manager that Ace had, the singer was shy, childlike, and unassuming. “Sweetest thing since sugar,” she recalled, “but he didn’t care about nuttin’, honey.” At a pawnshop in Florida he purchased a .22 caliber pistol to amuse himself and alleviate the boredom of the road. On Christmas night 1954, while backstage during intermission at a “Negro Christmas Dance” at Houston’s City Auditorium, Ace began “snapping” his pistol at the heads of people in his dressing room. According to Thornton, he put the pistol to his own head and uttered his last words: “I’ll show you that it won’t shoot.” Authorities ruled the cause of death to be “playing russian roulette—self inflicted.”
Ace’s last record, “Pledging My Love” (Duke 136), first advertised in Billboard on the day of his death, represented neither rhythm nor blues, but the slow ballad became a rhythm and blues triple crown hit (number one in retail sales, radio airplay, and jukebox action), the most played rhythm and blues record of 1955, and generated more than half a dozen tribute records to the romantic legend of Johnny Ace. In addition, the record crossed over to the pop charts to become a pop hit as well. For the first time in the postwar era, white record buyers (primarily teens) chose this ballad by a solo black male singer signed to an independent rhythm and blues label as the unique and definitive performance of a popular song against which all subsequent performances were ruthlessly judged. Arguably, “Pledging My Love” represents the transitional record between rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
Johnny Ace died a rhythm and blues star and was resurrected as a rock and roll legend. He has been called rock’s first “casualty,” “the first fallen angel,” and “the colored James Dean.” For disc jockeys he remains “the Late Great Johnny Ace.”
The most complete accounts of Johnny Ace’s career and contributions to American popular music may be found in James M. Salem, “Death and the Rhythm-and-Bluesman: The Life and Recordings of Johnny Ace,” American Music (Fall 1993): 316–67, and “Johnny Ace: A Case Study in the Diffusion and Transformation of Minority Culture,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 17 (1992): 211–41. In addition, Galen Gart and Roy C. Ames, Duke/Peacock Records: An Illustrated History with Discography (1990), provides valuable information about Ace and his relationship with record owner Don D. Robey. For an account of the beginning of his career by Duke Records founder David James Mattis, see George A. Moonoogian and Roger Meeden, “Duke Records—The Early Years: An Interview with David J. Mattis,” Whiskey, Women, and … , June 1984, pp. 18–25. For overviews of Ace’s life and death, see Nick Tosches, Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll (1984); Peter Grendysa, “Johnny Ace, the ‘Ace’ of Duke,” Goldmine, 25 Sept. 1987, pp. 28 and 91; and Colin Escott, “Johnny Ace: The First Rock ’n’ Roll Casualty,” Goldmine, 21 Nov. 1986, pp. 16–17. Excellent photographs of Ace and his associates can be found in “Strange Case of Johnny Ace,” Ebony, July 1955, pp. 63–68. The most complete and accurate discography of Ace’s twenty-one recorded sides may be found in American Music (Fall 1993): 353–57. Useful obituaries are in the Tri-State Defender, 8 Jan. 1955; the Pittsburgh Courier, 1, 5, and 15 Jan. 1955; the Chicago Defender, 8 Jan. 1955; and the Houston Informer, 1 and 8 Jan. 1955. Newspaper coverage about his death and career is in the Cleveland Call and Post, 15 Jan. 1955; the Pittsburgh Courier, 5 Feb. 1955; and the Tri-State Defender, 5 Mar. 1955.