Johnny Ace

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Johnny Ace
Ace in 1954
Ace in 1954
Background information
Birth nameJohn Marshall Alexander Jr.
Born(1929-06-09)June 9, 1929
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedDecember 25, 1954(1954-12-25) (aged 25)
Houston, Texas, U.S.
Occupation(s)Singer, musician
Years active1949–1954
LabelsDuke, Flair

John Marshall Alexander Jr. (June 9, 1929 – December 25, 1954), known by the stage name Johnny Ace, was an American rhythm-and-blues singer and musician. He had a string of hit singles in the mid 1950s. Alexander died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 25.

Life and career[edit]

John Alexander was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a preacher, and grew up near LeMoyne-Owen College. He dropped out of high school to join the United States Navy. Alexander was reportedly AWOL for much of his duty.[1] After he was discharged,[1] Alexander joined Adolph Duncan's Band as a pianist, playing around Beale Street in Memphis. The network of local musicians became known as the Beale Streeters, which included B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Earl Forest, and Roscoe Gordon.[2] Initially, they weren't an official band, but at times there was a leader and they played on each other's records.

In 1951 Ike Turner, who was a talent scout and producer for Modern Records, arranged for Alexander and other Beale Streeters to record for Turner's label.[3] Alexander played piano on some of King's records for RPM Records and backed King during broadcasts on WDIA in Memphis. When King departed for Los Angeles and Bland left the group, Alexander took over both Bland's vocal duties and King's radio show on WDIA.[4]

David James Mattis, program director at WDIA and founder of Duke Records, claimed that he gave Alexander the stage name of Johnny Ace: "Johnny" for Johnny Ray and "Ace" for the Four Aces. However, Alexander's younger brother, St. Clair Alexander, claimed that the singer himself came up with the name Ace when Mattis changed his first name from John to Johnny.[5]

Ace signed to Duke in 1952 and released his first recording, "My Song", an urbane "heart ballad" which topped the R&B chart for nine weeks beginning in September.[6][7] He began heavy touring, often with Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. In the next two years, Ace 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".[8]

After Ace had success as a solo artist, the Biharis brothers at Modern released the single "Mid Night Hours Journey" on their subsidiary label Flair Records in September 1953. The flip side was "Trouble and Me" by Forest.[9]

In November 1954, Ace ranked No. 16 on the Billboard 1954 Disk Jockey Poll for R&B Favorite Artists.[10] In December 1954, he was named the Most Programmed Artist of 1954, according to the results of a national poll of disc jockeys conducted by the U.S. trade weekly Cash Box.[11] Ace's recordings sold very well during those times. Early in 1955, Duke Records announced that three of his 1954 recordings, along with Thornton's "Hound Dog", had sold more than 1,750,000 copies.

Personal life[edit]

Ace met Lois Jean Palmer, a freshman at Booker T. Washington High School, in 1949.[12][13] His parents did not know they were dating until she became pregnant. Ace and Palmer were married in Earle, Arkansas, on July 17, 1950; She was 16 and he was 21.[12] Their son, Glenn Alexander, was born later that year. Ace moved Palmer into his parents' home in Memphis.[14] Ace was barred from the home for playing blues music, so he mostly took residence at the Mitchell Hotel, owned by Sunbeam Mitchell, in Memphis. He had another child with his wife, a daughter named Janet Alexander, but the couple were rarely together due to his womanizing lifestyle, and by 1953 he had abandoned his family.[1]


After touring for a year, Ace had been performing at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas, on Christmas Day 1954. During a break between sets, he was playing with a .32 caliber revolver. Members of Ace's 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.[15][16][17] However, Thornton's bass player, Curtis Tillman, who witnessed the event, 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!'"[18]

Big Mama 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 toward himself, bragging that he knew which chamber was loaded. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head. According to his biographer Nick Tosches, Ace shot himself with a .32 pistol, not a .22, and it happened little more than an hour after he had bought a new 1955 Oldsmobile.[19]

Ace's funeral was held on January 2, 1955, at Clayborn Temple AME church in Memphis. It was attended by an estimated 5,000 people.[20] His remains were buried at New Park Cemetery in Memphis.[21]

"Pledging My Love"[17] was a posthumous R&B number 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."[22] Thus Johnny Ace became the first act to reach the Billboard pop charts only after death.[23] His single recordings were compiled and released as The Johnny Ace Memorial Album.


Rock-and-roll historian Harry Hepcat noted that, "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."[24][25]

In addition to Dillard's "Johnny Has Gone", at least four other tribute records to Ace were released in 1955: Frankie Ervin's "Johnny Ace's Last Letter"; The Rovers' "Salute To Johnny Ace"; Linda Hayes' "Why, Johnny, Why?"; and The Five Wings’ "Johnny's Still Singing".[26]

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed "Never Let Me Go" on tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. The same song would also be covered by Luther Vandross in 1993, as the title track to his eighth studio album. Elvis Presley recorded "Pledging My Love" in his last studio session, in 1976. The song appeared on the album Moody Blue in 1977.

Paul Simon wrote and performed the song "The Late Great Johnny Ace" (1983), in which a boy, upon hearing of the death of Ace, orders a photograph of the deceased singer: "It 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." The song develops a touching counterpoint with the death of two other Johnnies – John Lennon and John F. Kennedy. Simon also performed "Pledging My Love" on his tour of Europe and North America in 2000.

David Allan Coe covered "Pledging My Love", introducing the song with his own recollections of hearing the news of Ace's death.

Ace is mentioned in "House Band in Hell", by Root Boy Slim, and in the song "Johnny Ace", by Dash Rip Rock.[27]

"Pledging My Love" was used in the 1973 film Mean Streets, directed by Martin Scorsese; the 1983 film Christine, directed by John Carpenter; the 1985 film Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis; and the 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, directed by Abel Ferrara.

The Teen Queens' song "Eddie My Love", originally entitled "Johnny My Love", was written in memory of Ace.

The Swiss singer Polo Hofer and the Schmetterband wrote the song "Johnny Ace" in 1985; it was released on the album Giggerig. Will Oldham noted Ace's death in the lyrics of his song "Let the Wires Ring", on his 2000 album Guarapero/Lost Blues 2.[28]

Dave Alvin's 2011 album, Eleven Eleven, contains the song "Johnny Ace Is Dead", about Ace's death.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas album, Christmas Caravan (1998), contains the song "A Johnny Ace Christmas", a love song about Ace killing himself on Christmas.



Original singles, all issued simultaneously on 78- and 45-rpm discs by Duke Records

  • "My Song" / "Follow the Rule" (1952)
  • "Cross My Heart" / "Angel" (1953)
  • "The Clock" / "Aces Wild" (1953)
  • "Saving My Love for You" / "Yes, Baby" (the B-side is a duet with Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton) (1954)
  • "Please Forgive Me" / "You've Been Gone So Long" (1954)
  • "Never Let Me Go" / "Burley Cutie" (instrumental) (1954)
  • "Pledging My Love" / "Anymore" / "No Money" (1955), #1 on U.S. R&B chart for 10 weeks, peaked at #17 on U.S. Pop chart
  • "Anymore"/ "How Can You Be So Mean" (1955)
  • "So Lonely" / "I'm Crazy Baby" (1955)
  • "Don't You Know" / "I Still Love You So" (1956)

One split single, issued on 78- and 45-rpm discs by Flair Records

  • "Mid Night Hours Journey" (Johnny Ace) / "Trouble and Me" (Earl Forest) (1953)


Studio albums and compilations containing only or mostly recordings by Ace

  • Johnny Ace Memorial Album, Duke (1955)
  • Johnny Ace: Pledging My Love, Universal Special Products (1986)
  • Johnny Ace: The Complete Duke Recordings, Geffen (2004)
  • The Chronological Johnny Ace: 1951–1954, Classics (2005)
  • Johnny Ace: Essential Masters, Burning Fire, digital download (2008)
  • Johnny Ace: Aces Wild! The complete solo sides and sessions, Fantastic Voyage (2012)

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Jordan, Mark (December 23–29, 1999). "The Late Great Johnny Ace". The Memphis Flyer. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  2. ^ "Beale Streeters | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved 2020-06-10.
  3. ^ Salem, James M. (2001). The Late, Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R & B to Rock 'n' Roll'. University of Illinois Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-252-06969-7.
  4. ^ Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  5. ^ Salem, James M. (2001). The Late, Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R & B to Rock 'n' Roll'. University of Illinois Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-252-06969-7.
  6. ^ "Best Selling Retail Rhythm & Blues Records" (PDF). Billboard: 40. September 27, 1952.
  7. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–2004. Record Research. p. 22. ISBN 0-89820-160-8.
  8. ^ Dahl, Bill. "Johnny Ace | Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-09-06.
  9. ^ "Top Rhythm & Blues Records" (PDF). Billboard: 39. September 19, 1953.
  10. ^ "The Billboard 1954 Disk Jockey Poll: R&B Favorites...Artists" (PDF). Billboard: 96. November 13, 1954.
  11. ^ Warner, Jay (2006). On This Day in Black Music History. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-09926-4.
  12. ^ a b Salem, James M. (2001). The Late, Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R & B to Rock 'n' Roll'. University of Illinois Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-252-06969-7.
  13. ^ Ambrose, Patrick (January 3, 2013). "Playing Johnny Ace". The Morning News. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  14. ^ "Ace lived fast, died young and entered music legend". Daily Telegraph. June 8, 2019. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  15. ^ Jackson, Laura (2003). "Out of the Shadows". Paul Simon: The Definitive Biography of the Legendary Singer/Songwriter. Citadel Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-0-8065-2538-9. Retrieved August 30, 2009.
  16. ^ "Johnny Ace Is Victim of Russ Roulette". Billboard: 14. January 8, 1955. ISSN 0006-2510.
  17. ^ a b Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 4 – The Tribal Drum: The Rise of Rhythm and Blues. [Part 2]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  18. ^ "". Archived from the original on 2011-01-18. Retrieved 2015-09-06.
  19. ^ Tosches, Nick (1984). "Number One with a Bullet". Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. C. Scribner's Sons. p. 136. ISBN 0-684-18149-5. Retrieved 28 January 2012.
  20. ^ Salem, James M. (2001). The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R & B to Rock 'n' Roll. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. pp. 141ff. ISBN 0-252-06969-2.
  21. ^ Resting Places: The Burial Places of 14,000 Famous Persons, by Scott Wilson
  22. ^ "Talent Corner". Billboard: 34. January 29, 1955. ISSN 0006-2510.
  23. ^ Casey Kasem, "American Top 40", 2 August 1986
  24. ^ Hepcat, Harry. "History of Rock and Roll, Part III".
  25. ^ Joel Martin Show, "Death Rock", WBAB 102.3 FM, New York, with guest Harry Hepcat, May 23, 1982
  26. ^ "Ace's Wild - Johnny Ace | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  27. ^ "Dash Rip Rock Lyrics". Retrieved 2015-09-06.
  28. ^ Ankeny, Jason. "Gezundheit/Let the Wires Ring – AllMusic Review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2015-09-06.


  • Bashe, Patricia Romanowski; George-Warren, Holly; Pareles, Jon (1995). The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (rev. updated ed.). New York: Fireside. ISBN 0-684-81044-1.
  • Rees, Dafydd; Crampton, Luke (1991). Rock Movers and Shakers. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 0-87436-661-5.
  • Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock n' Roll: The Solid Gold Years: 1974. 1982: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Harper & Row: New York. ISBN 0-06-181642-6.

External links[edit]