Tue | Jul 7, 2020

The Music Diaries | Remembering the great Johnny Ace

Published:Thursday | June 7, 2018 | 12:00 AMRoy Black

It was Christmas Eve 1954, and a full house waited feverishly at the city auditorium in Houston Texas for the appearance of America’s most promising vocal talent.

Against the backdrop of festive activities, a gunshot rang out, sending the entire music fraternity into a state of hysteria, turmoil and disbelief. The great song stylist -Johnny Ace, who many  thought was the most gifted baritone in popular music, had allegedly shot himself in a game of Russian Roulette. If he was alive, he would have celebrated his 89th birthday just a few hours ago, having been born on June 9, 1929 in Memphis Tennessee with the name John Marshall Alexander Jr. Russian Roulette is a lethal gambling game of chance in which a player puts a cartridge in one chamber of a revolver, spins the cylinder, points the nozzle to his/her head, pulls the trigger, hoping that the chamber containing the cartridge is not lined up with the hammer. Alexander was not that lucky.

But contrary to the generally accepted theory surrounding Ace’s death, there is strong evidence that he was not practising Russian Roulette at the time. In a story posted on his web page by his fiancé, Olivia Gibbs, who was present at the time of his death, Ace had been drinking and playing with a .22 revolver, pointing it at a number of persons and firing blank shots before pointing it on himself, unaware that there was a bullet in the gun. His good friend and band mate Big Mama Thornton who was a witness to the shooting, supported that story.

In just two and a half years, beginning in June 1952, Ace was able to achieve what many took a decade to do. He managed eight top 10 R&B hits, among other achievements. After attending La-Rose grammar school, The Booker T. Washington High School and serving in the U.S. Navy, Ace worked with a few bands as a pianist in the late 1940s, before settling with B.B. King’s band - later to be known as The Beale Streeters. He taught himself the piano, and did several club gigs with this group before taking over the lead vocal role from Bobby Bland, who along with Earl Forrest (drums), Adolph Duncan (tenor sax), Little Junior Parker (harmonica) and Johnny Ace (piano) completed the aggregation.

They created some of the most haunting melodies behind Ace's tear jerking lyrics as he ventured into his first hit -My Song in mid -1952. This and seven others that followed, had a ballad flavour with a blues kick that made Ace’s style then unprecedented in music circles. With Ace assuming the leadership  of The Beale Streeters, My Song topped the R&B charts for nine weeks, beginning in September 1952. It triggered a staggering 43,000 copies in record sale in less than a week - forcing three pressing plants to work around the clock to keep pace with the sales.

With The Beale Streeters again doing the musical backing, Ace was back in the studio six months later, to register another terrific No. 1 R&B hit with I Cross My Heart. It seemed like a premonition of impending doom as Ace sang:

“I cross my heart and I hope to die

If I should ever, ever make you cry

‘cause you’re my all

Darling you’re a part of me”.

His third consecutive hit - The Clock, also came in 1953. It sold over a million copies, entered the R&B top 10 charts, and kept his 100 per cent record intact. There was no stopping this one. A hauntingly sentimental creeper that descends upon you unawares, the singer seems desperate as he pleads with his lover to come back real soon:

“I look at the face of the clock on the wall

And it doesn’t tell me nothing at all

The face of the clock just stares at me

It knows I’m lonely and always will be”.

Amid a few bluesy numbers, Ace also recorded: Please Forgive me, Never Let Me Go, Saving My Love For You and Anymore in 1954. Then came the recording that would immortalise him - the posthumous release - Pledging My Love, recorded shortly before his death. The liner notes from the album - Johnny Ace Memorial Album, clearly states: “No song and no artiste has truly ever been accorded the lavish and enthusiastic reviews given this release”. On the topic of Ace’s style and musical accompaniment, it continues; “A single adjective is not sufficient, to describe the greatness of his style. And, rhetoric, generally, because it is surrounded by invisible bars of fragile superfluity, cannot clearly picture the sentimental suavity, exuberant richness and the nostalgic warmth that pervaded his effervescent style.”

Neither time nor space would permit an exhaustive tabulation of Ace’s awards. They certainly belied his short career. A few: The most programmed R&B artiste of 1954. The Cash Box Disc Jockeys of America poll; Dubbed by the trade as a hit-making phenomenon with 13 consecutive hits; Broadcast music Incorporated’s Citation of Achievement award for 1954; Citation of Achievement Award (BMI) 1955; Billboard's Triple Crown Award, 1955; The Automatic Music Industry of America Award, 1955 and The Golden Cup Award, 1954.