Maybe you’ve heard the Paul Simon song “The Late Great Johnny Ace” and wondered where it came from. Here the amazing story of just how he became “the late” Johnny Ace.
Who Was He
John Marshall Alexander, Jr. scored a string of hit singles in the mid-1950s. His hit song “My Song” in 1952 came out of nowhere and hit a nerve with the record-buying black audience. It even crossed-over into the white market and started the trend to sensitive, heart-throb songs that would be so common on 50’s radio. His other hits, including “Cross My Heart,” “Please Forgive Me,” “The Clock,” “Yes, Baby” kept him on the charts from 1952 to his death in 1954. He sold close to a million records during that time, an unheard of amount for a black artist.
Sam Cooke and Johnny Mathis and a bunch of other 50’s artists owe a debt to Ace for the musical style that became so common in the 50’s and early 60’s. The I-VI-II-V progression on these types of songs was used over and over, and I remember dancing to songs like these at my first junior high dances.
Johnny Alexander got his start at Sunbeam Mitchell’s Memphis clubs and scene, where B.B. King and Bobby Bland got their starts, and often went on gigs playing piano with other bigger musicians, just because he was always hanging around and available. Like they say… success is 80% just showing up.
Often B.B., Roscoe Gordon, or Bobby Bland would typically be the singers in these bands so this was well before Ace’s career took off.
He got his break because Bobby Bland was not ready to do one of his songs at a WDIA recording studio session one day in May 1952. Alexander was the pianist on the session and was goofing off singing Ruth Brown’s song “So Long” over in the corner and sounding pretty good. The producer at the session David Mattis, owner of Duke Records, came up with some new lyrics and “My Song” was born and recorded that day.
Mattis gave Alexander the name Johnny Ace and a star was born. But only after Mattis partnered with Don Robey down in Houston and they combined his Peacock Records and Mattis’ Duke Records. Robey’s marketing muscle and Chitlin’ Circuit network, would provide the springboard to make “My Song” a hit.
Ace’s first show was at Sunbeam Mitchell’s Hippodrome in Memphis on August 23, 1952. Opening act was Bobby Blue Bland.
After that he hit the circuit orchestrated by Mattis, Robey, and Sunbeam Mitchell while Robey pushed the song on the jukeboxes ahead of him. His song was a large hit on black radio stations and went to #1 on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart on September 27, 1952. He was certainly not the first “manufactured” star and would not be the last. In fact, Ace would have several more hits for the “team.”
Christmas Night 1954
He toured regularly on the Chitlin’ Circuit after his first hit. He often toured with other Duke Records artists including Big Mama Thornton who had her big hit “Hound Dog” on Duke. In fact this night they were both on the bill at City Auditorium in Houston, Texas on December 25, 1954.
Rumor had it that Johnny liked to play with his .22 pistol. He’d play Russian roulette and point the gun at passers by or those sitting in the dressing room with him. His bandmates said he liked to shoot at dogs and mailbox’s while driving down the road to the next show.
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. Thornton said Ace’s hair stood straight up and he had a surprised look on his face.
After Johnny Ace died, Don Robey, who now owned his contract, milked the opportunity for all it was worth. He hired a photographer for the funeral and made sure the story, his version anyways, made it to all the black newspapers. Over 5000 mourners, according to Robey, attended the funeral in Memphis.
And of course many thousand more records were sold thanks to Johnny Ace’s dramatic death. Some even say that Robey setup the “suicide” and put the bullet in the chamber, just to sell more records. That claim has never been proven but Robey didn’t go out of his way to deny it. Having his artist’s think that may have happened only helped keep them in line.
It was the beginning of a dark decade for the record business, with payola and record company gangster tactics. And much of the reputations of the greedy record company owners were well deserved. Don Robey’s reputation was perhaps the most well-deserved.
Still it was Johnny Ace who pulled the trigger that night.
Much of this story came from the great book The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road To Rock and Roll. I highly recommend it if you love stories about music, blues, and the music business.