The short but highly influential career of rhythm-and-blues vocalist Johnny Ace came to an end on Christmas Day of 1954, when the singer lost a round of Russian roulette. Already a fixture of African-American concert stages, Ace, had he lived, might have reached the crossover pop success eventually achieved by the artists of the Motown Records stable. Ace’s slender output left a big stylistic footprint: he paved the way for a succession rhythm-and-blues crooners extending all the way down to the present day, and he arguably shaped the vocal style of the young Elvis Presley, who recorded his own version of Ace’s biggest hit, “Pledging My Love.”
The son of a circuit-riding Baptist preacher and sometime laborer, Johnny Ace was born John Marshall Alexander, Jr. in Memphis on June 9, 1929. He was one of 11 children. Ace went to school on Memphis’s south side, sang in a church choir, and learned to play the piano—but only in the gospel style, for secular music was forbidden in the Alexander household. Ace’s mother Leslie laid down strict rules but doted on Johnny, who showed signs of unusual talent. With her financial support, Ace took music and art lessons as a young man. His education, and his harmonious relationship with his parents, came to an end when he dropped out of Booker T. Washington High School and joined the U.S. Navy in his junior year of high school.
Going AWOL more often than not, Ace was soon discharged from the Navy. He bounced around, did a short prison term in Mississippi, and found himself back in Memphis in 1949. Circulating through the city’s extraordinarily fertile music scene, which in the years after World War II featured such artists as B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Junior Parker, Ace held his own. He gravitated toward the Beale Street area, for decades the nerve center of urban Southern blues, and joined with Bland, Parker, and other musicians in a band first called the Beale Street Blues Boys and later the Beale Streeters.
Ace played piano in that band, which sometimes backed King in the early years of that blues superstar’s career. But as the Beale Streeters gained experience and began touring Tennessee’s black nightclub circuit, Ace emerged as a fine vocal stylist in his own right. A graceful baritone, he was influenced musically not so much by King’s high-intensity sound as by the mellow, conversational style of West Coast bluesman Charles Brown. Ace was a multitalented musician who played piano, sang, and wrote songs. In each of these areas he began to forge a new pop-inflected style. His singing was mellow, perfectly set off by his good looks and relaxed charm; his compositions were less often blues than 32-bar popular song-form numbers.
During this point in his life, however, Ace’s personal life was in disarray. He had married ninth-grader Lois Jean Palmer and fathered a son by her; mother and child were installed in Ace’s parents’ house, but Ace himself was not permitted to stay there. Despite these problems, his musical career was ready to take off. His breakthrough came in 1952, when the program director of the pioneering all-rhythm-and-blues Memphis radio station WDIA launched his own label, Duke, and planned to record and release a single featuring Bobby “Blue” Bland on vocals. Bland botched the performance,
Born John Marshall Alexander on June 9, 1929, in Memphis, TN; son of Rev. and Mrs. John Alexander; married Lois Jean Palmer; children: one son; died December 25, 1954.
Career: Performed with the Beale Streeters, a band that toured and backed B. B. King, late 1940s and early 1950s; signed to Duke label, 1952; given name Johnny Ace by Duke label as part of band name Johnny Ace with the New Blues Sound; placed eight singles in rhythm-and-blues top ten, 1952-54; heavy touring schedule of up to 350 performances a year by 1954; single “Pledging My Love” posthumously topped rhythm-and-blues chart and rose to pop top 20, 1955.
and Ace was called on to replace him. Quickly cobbling together a melody of his own, Ace recorded the romantic ballad “My Song” and it became a regional hit. It was at that point that John Alexander became “Johnny Ace with the New Blues Sound.”
Thanks largely to the success of “My Song,” the Duke label was acquired by Houston, Texas, entrepreneur Don Robey. One of the first African-American producers in popular music, Robey was a pioneering but controversial figure who envisioned national distribution and stardom for Ace and the other artists under his charge, including “Hound Dog” blueswoman Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Much as Detroit producer Berry Gordy would do a decade later with the artists of the Motown label, Robey forged a new and sophisticated image for Ace. Also like Gordy, Robey later faced charges that he had deprived artists of monies that were rightfully theirs. But the presentation he created fit well with Ace’s smooth romantic vocals, and the combination brought out throngs of female fans to Ace’s concerts.
The road became Ace’s only real home; by 1954 he was performing a grueling schedule of about 350 concerts a year. The pressures began to show. Houston guitarist Milton Hopkins, a member of Ace’s band, remembered, as quoted in the Houston Chronicle, that “Johnny’s idea of fun was driving his Oldsmobile 90 miles per hour, his pistol in his hand, shooting out the zeros on the roadside speed-limit signs.” But Ace, still in his early twenties, had plenty of energy, and his success continued to build. With his recording career expertly managed by the fast-talking Robey, Ace notched eight top-ten rhythm-and-blues hits between 1952 and 1955.
Among those hits were the chart-topping “The Clock” (1953), “Saving My Love for You” (1953), and “Never Let Me Go” (1954), which featured accompaniment from vibraharpist Johnny Otis and evoked another major influence on Ace’s style—jazz vocalist Billy Eckstine. Eckstine at the time was one of a very few black singers who had broken the racial taboos of the early 1950s and succeeded in selling romantic-themed music to white record buyers, and now it seemed that Ace, with a suave, highly slow-danceable song called “Pledging My Love,” might accomplish the same feat.
He would do so, but only posthumously. On Christmas Day of 1954, at the intermission of a concert at Houston’s City Auditorium, Ace tried to impress Thornton and the other singers present by playing a round of Russian roulette—spinning the barrel of a pistol with only one bullet-filled chamber and then firing it at himself. He was killed; although rumors that he was murdered circulated in the years after his death, both police at the scene and later biographers have accepted the Russian-roulette scenario. “Pledging My Love” not only topped rhythm-and-blues charts but rose into the pop top 20. One more song Ace had already recorded, “Anymore,” likewise became a hit; it was later featured on the soundtrack of the 1998 film Eve’s Bayou. Elvis Presley’s version of “Pledging My Love” became one of his many hits to appropriate African-American material, and other artists, including Aretha Franklin, also covered selections from Ace’s short list of recordings.