Posted on 03/15/2009

Photo taken on March 14, 2009

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Piano Player
John Marshall Alexander
Johnny Ace
R&B Artist
Pledging My Love
Beale Streeters

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Johnny Ace

Johnny Ace
[b. 1929 - d.1954]

The young singer didn't want to release his first single under his given name, for fear that his father, a preacher, would object to his involvement with "the devil's music." They could call him Johnny Ace, said John Marshall Alexander, Jr. "But don't let my mama know. The first thing she'll want to know is, 'What's an Ace?'"

After leaving the Navy, Alexander returned to his native Memphis in the early 1950s, where he began playing piano with a local group called the Beale Streeters. The group featured a guitarist named B.B. King and a singer known as Bobby "Blue" Bland. King was the first to leave, scoring an immediate hit with '3 O'Clock Blues,' and local DJ David Mattis took Bland into the studio next to record for his label, Duke Records.

Bland, however, hadn't learned the songs: He couldn't read. Trying to salvage the session, Mattis asked the young man at the piano in the corner whether he'd like to sing something. Written on the spot, the resulting single, 'My Song,' soon became a surprise smash, staying at No. 1 on the R&B chart for nine weeks.

To keep up with demand, Mattis cut a distribution deal with Don Robey, the Houston-based proprietor of Peacock Records. Robey, an alleged small-time gangster who habitually assigned himself songwriting credits under an assumed name, soon took over the Duke label. His new star, Johnny Ace, moved to Houston.

Partnered with the bandleader Johnny Otis, a hitmaker in his own right, Ace had several major hits in 1954, joining Fats Domino as one of the earliest black stars to cross over to white audiences at the dawn of rock 'n' roll. He spent most of the year headlining Robey's package tours, supported by King, Bland and Big Mama Thornton, then riding her own hit, 'Hound Dog.'

Shy and unassuming, Johnny Ace was "the sweetest thing since sugar," remembered the woman who booked his tours. But he was also a chronic womanizer, leaving his wife and two kids back in Memphis, and he had an unhealthy obsession with guns. While drinking to pass the time between gigs, he would take potshots at street signs from the entourage's moving cars.

On Christmas Day 1954, Ace topped the bill at a Houston homecoming concert. Resting backstage between two sets, he playfully held his gun up to his latest girlfriend's temple. Onlookers reportedly scolded him, telling him to point the gun at himself instead. Johnny Ace pulled the trigger and fatally shot himself in the head.

Singer, Big Mama Thornton, a witness to the shooting, 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. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head.

In any event, Ace's final recording a bluesy ballad 'Pledging My Love', became his biggest hit. And Johnny Ace assured his place in history as one of rock 'n' roll's earliest casualties.

Pledging My Love:

Twisted Tales: R&B Singer Johnny Ace Gambles and Loses at Ultimate Game
By James Sullivan - spinner.com