The Complete Duke Recordings
***Preliminary liner notes, subject to change. ***
The senseless demise of Johnny Ace has historically overshadowed everything the young Memphis pianist accomplished while he was alive. That’s a tragedy unto itself.
Ace’s plaintive way of crooning an intimate blues ballad made him a fast-rising R&B star during the early 1950s. But his bright future evaporated with a single self-inflicted gunshot to the head backstage at Houston’s City Auditorium on Christmas night of 1954, an impromptu act that spawned an instant legend.
Born John Marshall Alexander Jr. on June 9, 1929 in Memphis, Johnny hailed from a large family headed by a Baptist preacher and a mother who never approved of her son’s blues exploits. According to James M. Salem’s book The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition From R&B to Rock ‘n’ Roll, the youth dropped out of eleventh grade to join the Navy (that tactic didn’t work out either). What Johnny enjoyed most was playing music. With wide-open Beale Street beckoning, he gravitated to its neon-lit nightspots during the late 1940s.
Johnny joined a loose-knit combo revolving around guitarist B.B. King; other key members were drummer Earl Forest and saxman Adolph “Billy” Duncan. “The group first was mine, and then it was called the Beale Streeters after that,” said B.B., then a local star thanks to his daily WDIA radio shift. “Johnny Ace was the piano player. His name was John Alexander, but he later started making records under his own name with the Beale Streeters. In fact, the whole group was the group that I put together when we made ‘Three O’Clock Blues.’”
The young pianist cut his first number as a leader in 1951 for Los Angeles-based Modern Records, the same label B.B. was on (co-owner Joe Bihari produced it at a session held at the Memphis YMCA), but “Midnight Hours Journey” wouldn’t see issue on their Flair subsidiary until after Ace began scoring hits for Duke. Since John waxed only one song for Modern, Forest’s “Trouble And Me” adorned the flip side.
King’s expanding popularity catapulted Johnny into a bandleading role. “When ‘Three O’ Clock Blues’ became a hit and I started to work out of a booking agency called Shaw Artists Corporation and Universal, they didn’t want me to have a band,” said King in 1979. “They wanted me alone. So I left the band, and when I did, I gave it to Johnny Ace. And that’s when he changed it. Instead of calling it the Blues Boys as it had been, he started calling it the Beale Streeters.”
Convinced that Memphis boasted a wealth of unrecorded black talent, WDIA program director David James Mattis inaugurated Duke Records in the spring of 1952. He selected Bland as one of his initial artists, but Bobby showed up at the ‘DIA studios unprepared to record. Mattis turned to Johnny, who was there to back Bland on the 88s. Johnny was fooling around with a blues ballad entitled “So Long” that had been a 1949 hit for Ruth Brown. Mattis and Alexander lyrically transformed it into “My Song.” Before issuing the 78 on his purple-and-yellow-hued Duke logo for local consumption, Mattis changed John’s stage handle to the sportier Johnny Ace.
The melancholy “My Song” wasn’t straight blues. Its chord structure was closer to that of stereotypical doo-wop, complete with a bridge, and the Beale Streeters’ stark backing–Duncan’s lonesome horn and unobtrusive drummer Forest abetting Johnny’s ivories–created a smoky after-hours ambiance. Though Dinah Washington and Hadda Brooks weighed in with covers, Ace’s “My Song” paced Billboard’s R&B charts for nine weeks in the fall of ‘52, establishing him as a prominent blues balladeer (the flip “Follow the Rule” was a raucous jump). Its national success was in great part due to the marketing efforts of African-American entrepreneur Don Robey, who had partnered with Mattis that July (Robey already owned Peacock Records, a Houston R&B/ gospel label whose acts included blues guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and the Dixie Hummingbirds). Robey bought Duke outright in November and made Ace a top promotional priority, sending him on national tour through his affiliated Buffalo Booking Agency.
Versions of Johnny’s first hit follow-up “Cross My Heart” were apparently cut in both Memphis and at Bill Holford’s Audio Company of America studios in Houston, but it appears that the Houston rendition was the one that climbed to #3 R&B on Duke in early ‘53. It was a mellow variation on “My Song” credited to Mattis and Robey, with Forest and bassist George Joyner accompanying Ace’s velvety vocal and flowery organ (he’d reportedly never played one prior to cutting “Cross My Heart” the first time at WDIA). Its B side “Angel” restored Ace to the piano bench but followed the same attractive late-night formula.
Johnny’s second R&B chart-topper “The Clock,” credited to Ace and Mattis, was waxed in January of ‘53 in Houston. The mournful ballad’s deliberate tick-tock percussion was courtesy of prolific bandleader Johnny Otis. Ace flexed his piano chops on the sax-led instrumental flip, “Aces Wild.” Otis’ octet backed Ace’s next chart entry, the intimate ballad “Saving My Love For You,” with Otis playing vibes at the August ‘53 Los Angeles date. Writer Sherman “Blues” Johnson was a Meridian, Mississippi product that had recently waxed two 78s for Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet Records with his Clouds of Joy. “Saving My Love For You” rose to #2 R&B in early 1954, coupled with “Yes Baby,” a rousing duet with labelmate Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who had paced the R&B hit parade in the spring of 1953 with her snarling “Hound Dog” (Pete Lewis contributed the stinging T-Bone Walker-style guitar solo to “Yes Baby”).
New Orleans blues shouter Joe “Mr. Google Eyes” August–one of Ace’s fellow Duke artists–came up with “Please Forgive Me,” a #6 R&B seller in the summer of ‘54 that deposited Ace behind the organ again as Otis’ L.A. outfit cruised behind him (Ace wrote the swinging B side “You’ve Been Gone So Long,” Lewis returning on slashing guitar). Duke/Peacock house trumpeter Joe Scott, soon to emerge as Bobby Bland’s musical mentor, composed the gentle pleader “Never Let Me Go,” Ace’s #9 R&B hit late that year. The swinging instrumental “Burley Cutie” was two years old by the time it was pressed into service as its flip.
Sadly, Johnny wouldn’t live long enough to bask in the monumental success of his next Duke platter. Credited to Ferdinand “Fats” Washington (he also co-penned the Flamingos’ “I’ll Be Home”) and Robey, “Pledging My Love” was a spine-chilling blues ballad that attained immortality in the shocking wake of Ace’s untimely death (an estimated 4500 mourners packed Clayborn Temple AME church in Memphis for his funeral services). Johnny’s tinkling piano introduction is answered note-for-note by Otis’ vibes before Ace’s warm baritone croon confidently enters to promise eternal devotion. Cut on January 27, 1954 in Houston with a smaller edition of Otis’ combo in support, “Pledging My Love” rocketed to the peak of the R&B hit parade in early 1955, managing a highly respectable #17 pop showing despite chirpy Teresa Brewer’s cover. A romping “No Money,” from Ace’s final Houston date in July of ‘54, supplied a mood-lightening contrast on the flip side.
A flood of maudlin tribute songs hit the market after Ace’s death, most notably Varetta Dillard’s “Johnny Has Gone” and Johnny Fuller’s “Johnny Ace’s Last Letter.” But the late Ace wasn’t done scoring hits of his own; “Anymore,” a Robey copyright waxed at the same January ‘54 session that generated “Pledging My Love,” rose to #7 R&B that summer (the torrid Ace original “How Can You Be So Mean” adorned the opposite side, its relentless horn section led by Johnny’s road band leader, saxist Johnny Board). Robey emptied his vaults to satisfy an ongoing clamor for more Ace product; “So Lonely”(an Ace composition that bore echoes of Charles Brown) and the classy “I’m Crazy Baby” were paired for one single (the latter was penned by C.C. Pinkston, who doubled on drums and vibes at Johnny’s final session), while a brokenhearted “Still Love You So” (another Washington/Robey collaboration) and the brassy Ace-penned strut “Don’t You Know” constituted Johnny’s last Duke outing. Robey wasn’t content to retire Ace’s franchise. He signed Texas singer Jimmy Lee Land and presented him as Johnny’s brother Buddy Ace (Buddy stayed on Duke for more than a decade and enjoyed a pair of mid-‘60s R&B hits).
In the end, Johnny Ace’s legacy shouldn’t be defined by a tragic game of Russian roulette. Remember him by these 20 splendid songs instead.
The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition From R&B to Rock ‘n’ Roll, by James M. Salem (Urbana IL & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999)
Duke/Peacock Records–An Illustrated History with Discography, by Galen Gart & Roy C. Ames (Milford, NH: Big Nickel Pubs., 1990)
Trumpet Records–An Illustrated History with Discography, by Marc Ryan (Milford, NH: Big Nickel Pubs., 1992)
Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles 1942-1988, by Joel Whitburn (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc., 1998)