Johnny Ace, c. 1954
|Birth name||John Marshall Alexander, Jr.|
|Also known as||Johnny Ace|
June 9, 1929|
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
|Died||December 25, 1954
Houston, Texas, United States
John Marshall Alexander, Jr. (June 9, 1929 – December 25, 1954), known by the stage name Johnny Ace, was an American rhythm and blues singer. He scored a string of hit singles in the mid-1950s before dying of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Alexander was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a preacher, and grew up near LeMoyne-Owen College. After serving in the navy during the Korean War, Alexander joined Adolph Duncan's Band as a pianist. He then joined the B. B. King band. Soon King departed for Los Angeles and vocalist Bobby Bland joined the army. Alexander took over vocal duties and renamed the band The Beale Streeters, also taking over King's WDIA radio show.
Becoming "Johnny Ace", he signed to Duke Records (originally a Memphis label associated with WDIA) in 1952. Urbane 'heart-ballad' "My Song," his first recording, topped the R&B charts for nine weeks in September. ("My Song" was covered in 1968 by Aretha Franklin, on the flipside of "See Saw".)
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." In December, 1954 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, Texas 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, however, 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!"
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.
"Pledging My Love" 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.
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: "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 another Johnny - John Lennon. Simon also played "Pledging My Love" on his tour of Europe and North America in 2000.
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."  
Original singles, all issued simultaneously on 78 and 45 rpm 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" (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 So Crazy, Baby" (1956)
- "Don't You Know" / "I Still Love You So" (1956)
One split single, also on 78 and 45 rpm, came out on Flair Records
- "Mid Night Hours Journey" (Johnny Ace)/"Trouble and Me" (Earl Forest) (1953)
Studio albums and compilations containing only/mostly Johnny Ace material
- Johnny Ace Memorial Album Duke (1955)
- Johnny Ace: Pledging My Love Universal Special Products (1986)
- Johnny Ace: The Complete Duke Recordings Geffen (2004)
- Blues & Rhythm Series: The Chronological Johnny Ace 1951-1954 Classics (2005)
- Johnny Ace: Essential Masters Burning Fire (digital download) (2008)
Notes and references
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-2004. Record Research. p. 22. ISBN 0-89820-160-8.
- Allmusic biography
- Jay Warner, On this day in black music history. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2006 ISBN 0-634-09926-4
- 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.
- "Johnny Ace is Victim of Russ Roulette". Billboard magazine: 14. January 8, 1955. ISSN 0006-2510.
- Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 4 - The Tribal Drum: The rise of rhythm and blues. [Part 2]" (AUDIO). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu.
- RealBluesMagazine.com, Obit of Curtis Tillmann, who witnessed the death
- Big Mama Thornton#Career
- 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.
- James M. Salem, The late, great Johnny Ace and the transition from R & B to rock 'n' roll' . University of Illinois Press, 2001, p. 141ff. ISBN 0-252-06969-2
- "Talent corner". Billboard magazine: 34. January 29, 1955. ISSN 0006-2510.
- , Song Lyrics
- Harry Hepcat. "History of Rock and Roll, Part III".
- "Death Rock" Joel Martin Show, WBAB 102.3 FM, N.Y., Guest: Harry Hepcat, May 23, 1982
- Jason Ankeny. "'Gezundheit/Let the Wires Ring - AllMusic Review".
- Rolling Stone, Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. New York: 1995. ISBN 0-684-81044-1
- Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton. Rock Movers and Shakers. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991. 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, New York; ISBN 0-06-181642-6: p001.