|ace of hearts|
According to Catfish Whitey, books with the word "transition" in the title are predictably academic tomes, filled with footnotes and generally dry as flint. So I considered myself forewarned when I dove into University of Alabama professor James M. Salem’s "The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition From R&B to Rock’n’Roll" (University of Illinois Press, 275 p.). While the book indeed does not skimp on footnotes (there are well over 700 of them), it is a fascinating tale of an enigmatic artist that serves up an equally compelling look at the rhythm and blues record business of the 1950s.
Ace, born John Marshall Alexander in Memphis on June 9, 1929, is a largely forgotten singer from the early ’50s. If he’s remembered at all it is for the circumstances surrounding his passing and, just possibly, for his posthumous smash hit record, "Pledging My Love." But Salem makes an impressive case that Ace’s brief, meteoric career had a profound impact on the development of popular music and how it was marketed.
Occupying nearly as central a position as Ace in Salem’s narrative is one Donald Deadric Robey, the Houston gambler/entrepreneur who parlayed moxie and money into one of blues and R&B’s legendary record labels, Duke/Peacock Records. Like many — perhaps most — of the indie label owners of the period, Robey knew precious little about recording or the record business when he got involved. In addition, he was one of the less than one percent of those owners who were black. And, as another oddity for the times, he relied heavily on the business acumen of a black woman, Evelyn Johnson.
Beginning in 1949 Robey and Johnson signed and groomed artists (starting with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown) as well as providing personal management. They developed a network of small clubs and venues throughout the South and Southwest (and eventually other parts of the country) where they could book their artists — the "chitlin’ circuit" — and cannily promoted the records they made.
At the same time, Robey saw to it that he got writing credit (and thereby royalties) for words and music on nearly everything he recorded; underhandedly squeezed out the partner who brought him his biggest hitmaker; made sure his musicians were kept in the dark about the finer points of their contracts; and was not shy about brandishing a firearm when he felt the person across the desk from him needed intimidating.
Johnny Ace was the piano player for the Beale Streeters — a band that B.B. King had formed and then left behind — when he recorded "My Song" for Memphis radio executive David Mattis’ Duke label in 1952. Robey provided capital for the cash-strapped Mattis, then rapidly jettisoned him, keeping both Duke (which he merged with his own Peacock label) and Johnny Ace.
"My Song" was number one on Billboard’s R&B chart in the summer of 1952, the first of a string of successful "heart ballads" for the shy, handsome young crooner. While Ace had solid blues credentials from his Memphis days, anything rough-edged was relegated to the B-sides of his singles in favor of the smoother, "whiter" sound that Robey preferred. R&B record buyers in the early ’50s were predominantly young black women, and Ace became their top teen heartthrob.
Not nearly so smooth was Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, whose "Hound Dog" (on Peacock) dwarfed the sales of any other R&B record released in 1953.
Salem obviously spent countless hours in front of the microfiche poring over editions of black newspapers and of trade rags like Cash Box, Variety and Billboard to provide documentation for the events he describes. In its characteristic truncated jargonese, here’s how the latter reviewed Robey’s latest hitmaker: "This is a wild slicing loaded with excitement. Willie Mae Thornton hands it a sock reading, selling the tune powerfully, while the ork swings the rhumba blues with a pulsating beat that builds all the way. Thrush’s vocal is outstanding, and the backing is infectious."
Alas, "Hound Dog" would be Thornton’s only chart success, but she remained a solid box office draw for many years, especially when Robey teamed her with his top male star. At the height of Ace’s popularity, Evelyn Johnson, who handled the booking and management for the Duke/Peacock stable and other performers, was able to demand that clubowners book B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker in order to also get the Ace-Thornton revue!
The never-ending string of one-nighters (Robey kept him working 28 days out of 30) combined with a lack of maturity to take an exacting toll on Johnny Ace. The closest thing he had to a permanent address was the Mitchell Hotel in Memphis. He abandoned a wife and two small children and alienated himself from the rest of his family. Taking advantage of his popularity, he had a succession of girlfriends whom he publicly flaunted even in Memphis. His alcohol consumption increased and by late 1954 he was described as a bloated caricature of himself. He was fond of carelessly waving around a small .22 pistol he’d picked up in a pawn shop.
On Christmas night of that year, during an intermission at Houston City Auditorium, in a dressing room full of people that included Big Mama Thornton and with his latest girlfriend on his lap, Johnny Ace shot himself in the head in what was described as a game of Russian roulette. In reality, it was more like a combination of self-destructive bravado and supreme stupidity.
Any new Ace single was highly touted by Robey, and in the issue of Billboard dated that fateful December 25th there appeared an ad promoting the new surefire hit, "Pledging My Love." Fueled by the notoriety surrounding his death — an event that was reported even in the white media of the day — and an outpouring of grief among his faithful, the song became a sensation, ruling the R&B charts for 10 weeks and rising to #17 on the white pop charts.
While 45 rpm changers were a staple among white teens, the black R&B market stubbornly held on to the 78 as the recorded medium of choice. "Pledging My Love" was the first of the company’s releases to sell more 45s than 78s. It spawned numerous cover versions, the most successful of which was by Teresa Brewer. Tribute songs like "Johnny Ace’s Last Letter," "Salute to Johnny Ace," "Why Johnny Why" and "Johnny Has Gone" all attempted to cash in on the tragedy.
Johnny Ace gained fame for an R&B style that we would be hard put to call blues today, although Evelyn Johnson told Salem that at the time "everything that a black person did was considered blues." Thornton’s "Hound Dog" was way rootsier than any of Ace’s most popular numbers, but that song never caught on with the mainstream pop audience until it was covered by Elvis Presley.
"Pledging My Love" dominated any attempts to cover it. If for no other reason, it is entitled to an important spot in music history because for virtually the first time a black artist’s version of a much-imitated tune was considered by white audiences to be the "authentic" one.
As a personality profile, as popular music history, as evocation of an era of rigidly segregated musical audiences, "The Late Great Johnny Ace" deals a winning hand on all counts.