Tuesday, May 5, 2009
A to Z : Johnny Ace
Johnny Ace - Pledging My Love (buy) (1954)
It's been six months now that I'm running River's Invitation, and this blog is now dedicated to my main project of presenting the history of roots music, especially blues, country and folk music, from the beginning to the 1980s.
In addition to this chronological pattern that may seem a little monotonous, I've decided to create some more categories, and another crazy project has come to life, as stupidly systematic as the first : an "A to Z" approach of our cherished genres (blues, country, r&b, roots reggae, roots rock).
Crazy because I have absolutely no idea if we will reach the letter Z, but who cares?
So, let's start with the letter A and this short-lived R&B crooner, Johnny Ace (1929-1954).
Born in Memphis, John Alexander Jr. took part of the bourgeoning postwar Memphis scene, playing with BB King and Bobby Bland. With B.B. gone to LA, and Bobby Bland in the army, Ace took over as a vocalist and soon changed his name to Johnny Ace and signed with Duke Records.
His first hit in 1952, "My Song", established him as a ballad crooner, and he scored 8 hits in this style in two years, becoming the firm's top seller with Big Mama Thornton.
This promising carreer was put to a sudden and dramatic stop with his death by gunshot in 1954 during a break between sets at the City Auditorium in Houston, Tx.
Here is what Mr. Wikipedia wrote about the subject :
"Big Mama Thornton's bass player Curtis Tillman witnessed the event;
“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 o.k.! Gun’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ – sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran outta that dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed hisself!”
The widely believed Russian Roulette story was made up after his death by his management, presumably to boost record sales, and cover up his childish behavior.
Big Mama Thornton, a witness to the shooting, 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 toward himself. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head.
There have also been accusations that record company owner Don D. Robey, with whom Ace had been trying to renegotiate his contract, was responsible for his death.
Ace's funeral was on January 2, 1955, at Memphis' Clayborn Temple AME church. It was attended by an estimated 5000 people."
Whatever the cause of his death, Johnny Ace was a promising singer, and "Pledging My Love", a posthumous hit, is one of my favourite ballads from the 50's.
But Johnny could rock too, usually on the B-sides of his singles, with fast blues in the R&B tradition, like this one :
Johnny Ace - How Can You Be So Mean ? (buy) (1954)