Rock Flashback: The Late, Great Johnny Ace
On June 9, 1929, R&B singer [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Johnny Ace[/lastfm] was born in Memphis. But if you know anything about Johnny Ace, it probably has to do with the way he died.
Johnny Ace was born John Alexander, and as a young man he was a friend of several other Memphis musicians, including [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]B. B. King[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Bobby “Blue” Bland[/lastfm]. He scored a string of hit singles on the Duke label of Memphis beginning in 1952, and was a significant star in the R&B world by the end of 1954.
On December 25, 1954, Ace and his band were appearing with [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Big Mama Thornton[/lastfm] at what newspaper reports called a “Christmas dance” at an auditorium in Houston. After finishing his set, Ace and “companions” including a young woman went backstage, where, according to a United Press report:
Alexander took a seven-shot 22-caliber revolver and put one shell into’ the cylinder. According to the detectives, Alexander would spin the cylinder, put the gun to the head of one of the companions and pull the trigger. . . . The last time Alexander tried it, however, he sat down and pulled the girl on his lap and put the gun to his head after spinning the cylinder, police said. When he pulled the trigger, the hammer clicked on the bullet, which went smashing into his head.
And that’s the story that has followed Johnny Ace into rock ‘n’ roll history.
Some sources dispute it. Earl Forest, a friend and collaborator of Ace’s, told a journalist that Ace was fond of guns and liked to take potshots at road signs while traveling between gigs. Several days before Christmas, Thornton had grown tired of Ace’s habit of snapping his pistol at people and took the gun away from him. On Christmas Day, she gave it back — but only after removing all the bullets. And Ace promptly snapped it at her. She began “fussing at him,” Forest said, whereupon Ace said, “There’s nothing in it,” and snapped the pistol at his own head. But Big Mama had accidentally left one bullet in the chamber. Another witness said that Ace’s last words were, “It’s OK, gun’s not loaded. See?”
Ace’s death shocked R&B fans, who promptly made “Pledging My Love,” his current release, into a smash hit. It crossed over to the pop charts, although in the fashion of the time, it was swiftly covered by a white artist, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Teresa Brewer[/lastfm]. Both versions peaked at #17 on Billboard‘s pop chart. It’s a beautiful song made ghostly by the circumstances of the singer’s death.
Ace’s death was evoked in 1978 when Terry Kath of the group [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Chicago[/lastfm] died under similar circumstances.
[lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Paul Simon[/lastfm] name-checked him in the 1983 song “The Late Great Johnny Ace.”
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