BY WALTER OPINDE
On this day, 9th June, 1929, a great African-American rhythm and blues singer, Johnny Ace (John Marshall Alexander), was born, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Alexander, a.k.a. Johnny Ace was a black musician, born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a preacher, who grew up near LeMoyne-Owen College. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he joined Adolph Duncan’s Band as a pianist. He then joined the B. B. King band. Soon King departed for Los Angeles, and the band’s singer, Bobby Bland, acceded to the army. Johnny took over the vocal duties, thereby renaming the band the Beale Streeters. As well, Ace took over King’s radio show on WDIA.
Alexander began performing with “Johnny Ace” as his stage name. He signed with Duke Records (formerly a Memphis label associated with WDIA) in 1952. His first recording, “My Song”, an urbane “heart ballad”, topped the R&B chart for nine weeks in September. A cover version of the same song, by Aretha Franklin, was released in 1968, on the flip side 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.” By December 1954, Johnny 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.
Ace’s recordings sold very well during the period after production. 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.
Johnny Ace died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 25, on a Christmas Day, on 25th December, 1954.
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: “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.
Read more of the related stories via:
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.