Johnny Ace was a talented muscian who came from Memphis. A fine piano player and a singer with a smooth style, he is remembered today more for his tragic death than for his excellence as a singer, songwriter and musician.
He was named John Marshall Alexander, Jr. when he was born in Memphis in 1929. He returned to Memphis following his service in the United States Navy. He began playing piano in Adolph Duncan's band and immersed himself in the Memphis music scene.
He became friends with Bobby Bland, another member of Duncan's band, and became acquainted with B.B. King, playing piano for his band for a time. Beale Street in Memphis had long been a hot spot for blues music in the South. In the late 40's John Alexander formed a band with Bland and Earl Forest and called it the Beale Streeters, which at times worked as a backup band for King.
Eventually he went on his own as a solo act. He signed with the local Duke label and performing as Johhny Ace, he had his first hit on the R&B charts with My Song in 1952. Other such hits followed, among them Cross My Heart, Saving My Love for You, and Never Let Me Go. He led a somewhat reckless lifestyle, was a good singer with a relaxing presence, and was becoming quite popular.
The Duke label was acquired by Don Robey, who became Ace's manager. Johnny Ace began to tour extensively, performing nearly every night. It was an exhausting schedule. Ace was a gun enthusiast. On Christmas Eve in 1954 during the intermission of a show in which he shared the bill with R&B singer Big Mama Thornton, backstage at the Civic Auditorium in Houston, he made a mistake that had tragic consequences. He loaded a bullet in his gun, spun the chamber, pointed it at his own head, and fired. The gun went off, and his foolish experiment with Russian Roulette resulted in his death the following day. Johnny Ace became the first prominent casualty of the rock and roll movement. He was twenty-five years old.
Several weeks later his recording of Pledging My Love crossed over to the pop chart, where the posthumous hit reached the top twenty. Johnny Ace was a talented singer and musician who deserved a better fate. Had he lived it is likely that he would have placed a number of records on the pop charts during the remaining years of the 1950's.
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