The Tragic Legacy Of 1950s Pop Star Johnny Ace



Born in Memphis, Tennessee in June of 1929, John Marshall Alexander Jr. could have probably never known that he would go on to live forever in the form of his music. The product of two working class parents, Alexander would drop out of high school in the late 1940s to join the Military.

In his early years, the star played piano lightly, but never showed signs that he harbored the immense vocal talent he would display in his later career.

After joining the United States Navy in 1947, the singer reportedly went ‘AWOL’ for most of his short service career. He was discharged shortly after joining, leaving behind his uniform to play piano for a band on Beale Street. The band belonged to Adolph Duncan, who traveled amongst an elite group of musicians on Beale Street at that time, including B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Earl Forest, Junior Parker, and others.

Discovered By Ike Turner Of Ike & Tina Turner

In 1951, after Johnny had been playing on Beale Street for several years, his talents came to the attention of legendary singer and producer Ike Turner, famously of the duo Ike & Tina Turner who churned out the timeless mega-hit ‘Proud Mary’ in the Motown days of the early 70s.

Back in 1951, Ike Turner was a talent scout for a label called Modern Records. Turner had discovered Ace after the piano player played on several of B.B. King’s studio recordings.

When B.B. King hit it big, and departed Memphis, Tennessee for Los Angeles, California in the early 1950s, he left behind a radio show on WDIA, as well as his band which practically lived in Beale Street.

As the most talented member of the group, Johnny Ace emerged as the heir apparent to B.B. King, taking over lead vocals and King’s WDIA radio program. It was at WDIA that Ace gained his signature nickname ‘Johnny Ace,’ though it has been long-disputed as to who coined the term first.

1952 Marks A Real Change For The Emerging Star Johnny Ace

The year 1952 marked an extreme change for Johnny Ace, who in just a few short years had traded a backing position in a Beale Street band for fame and notoriety. It was in 1952 that Ace signed a record deal with Duke Records.

In September he released his debut single ‘My Song,’ which topped the American R&B charts for nine weeks.

From 1952 to 1954, Ace would record eight straight hits, consisting of such classics as “Cross My Heart”, “Please Forgive Me”, “The Clock”, “Yes, Baby”, “Saving My Love for You,” and “Never Let Me Go.”

The smalltown boy from Memphis was now among the largest musical stars in the United States, only being restrained by the segregationist laws of his time.

Unfortunately, Ace’s success was not coupled with personal development. Though he had a wife, and children by age 21 in 1950, by 1953 Ace had reportedly abandoned his family, instead opting for a life of loose women on the tours he often worked on. During this period of time, Ace nearly constantly toured, often appearing with R&B legend ‘Big Mama’ Thorton, the original artist behind Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog.’

It sounds as if Ace’s marriage was doomed from its inception in 1949. His wife had allegedly banned him from seeing both his son, and staying at their home because of his penchant for playing blues music. Ace’s wife was just 16, and he 21, at the time of their marriage.

1954: The Birth Of Rock And Roll

The year was 1954. On July 19th of that year, Elvis Presley changed the world with the release of his debut single ‘That’s All Right,’ a cover song which included a new twist of Rhythm and Blues, Country, Gospel, and Blues. Presley was accompanied by the two-man band of guitarist Scottie Moore and bassist Bill Black.

With the release and instant smashing success of Presley’s debut single, which included a B-side of Bill Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ in a similar style, a new era of music was born.

Presley’s success, often misinterpreted as the result of a theft of culture, was more of a merging of white and black music than it was the appropriation of any culture. For instance, ‘That’s All Right,’ though the most influential early rock song of its time, was not the first.

Several months earlier, Bill Haley and his Comets released ‘Rock Around The Clock Tonight,’ an upbeat tune that is often forgotten in the recounting of the days of early rock. Haley’s song is often less remembered because it lacked the unification of genre and culture exhibited in

Per the racial segregation laws of the time, black artists were often barred from public radio airwaves during the daytime. At night, disc jockeys would turn to legendary rock artists such as Little Richard, Fats Domino, and going back to the early 1950s, Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats.

Because of the racial laws in place back then, black artists were seemingly incapable of pushing through to the mainstream. The one artist who shattered this trend was Johnny Ace.

Triumphantly Defeating Segregationist Policies To Fame & Fortune

Despite racial segregationist policies which discouraged stations from playing black artists, Johnny Ace would go on to win an award for being the “Most Programmed Artist of 1954.” In other words, more Johnny Ace songs were heard in 1954 on the radio than any other artist.

While Elvis Presley’s fame at the time may dominate the recounting of these days, it was actually Johnny Ace who was the most popular artist of the time.

Ace’s signature hit ‘Pledging My Love,’ which was released in 1954, would go on to be one of the most popular songs of the entire 1950s era. The song would ironically be made a hit once again in 1977 by Elvis Presley.

Unfortunately for Ace, and the world, the legendary 1952-1954 streak of this iconic singer would come to a sudden, abrupt, and tragic end in December of 1954.

The Tragic End Of Johnny Ace on Christmas Day 1954

On December 25th, 1954, Johnny Ace was set to perform at one of his many concerts with ‘Big Mama’ Thorton. The show was going to take place at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas.

The singer was backstage prior to his show, sitting with members of his band as he often did. This time, Ace held a .32 caliber revolver in his hand, swinging around the weapon and ‘playing’ with it, as members of his band described.

What happened next is a subject of great dispute, with some claiming that the singer engaged in a game of ‘Russian roulette,’ a game where one bullet is placed in the chamber of a revolver, and spun. The user then randomly loads the gun while it spins, placing the gun to their head, and pulling the trigger.

Johnny Ace, just 25-years-old, accidentally shot himself on December 25th, 1954, backsrtage at his concert sitting with his band. This tragic death marked the end to an illustrious, impactful, but tragically short career.

Members of Ace’s band have since refuted the claim that Ace was playing ‘Russian Roulette’ at the time of his death, as was widely reported by the press at the time. ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s bass player, Curtis Tillman recounted,

“I will tell you exactly what happened! Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ — sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran out of the dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed himself!”

Though he died at just 25, John Marshall Alexander Jr. is still remembered to this day for his contributions to American music.

Ace’s funeral was held on January 2, 1955 at Clayborn Temple in Memphis. An estimated 5,000 people showed up to mourn the loss of the legend.

The Unimaginable Posthumous Success Of Ace’s Music

Beginning in February of 1955, ‘Pledging My Love’ would chart at No. 1 on the American Billboard Charts for ten weeks. He was the first act to reach the Billboard pop charts only after death.

Several artists charted with remembrance songs about Ace, including ‘Johnny Has Gone’ by Varetta Dillard.

‘Pledging My Love’ would be re-recorded by Elvis Presley in 1977, ironically the same year that Presley died. Both Ace and Presley died the year that they saw success with the tune, a fact that is quite strange.

Gone, but not forgotten. Rest in peace, Johnny Ace!

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  1. Pingback: The Deadly Curse Of The Ballad ‘Pledging My Love’

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