With every A-side released during his lifetime – plus one posthumous release – hitting the Top Ten, Johnny Ace was one of the most successful rock artists of all time. Yet it’s the last record released just before he met his untimely end that endures well into the next century, which combined with the manner of his death guarantees that Ace will never be completely forgotten in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.

Born John Alexander Jr. in Memphis in 1929 the young Johnny ran afoul of his well-regarded minister father by playing the Devil’s music. Dropping out of school in eleventh grade to join the Navy, he was dishonorably discharged before long thanks to his penchant for going AWOL in port to find a piano to play and when he married and had two children by his early twenties with no steady job he seemed destined for a live of aimless wandering.

In 1949 Johnny fell in with rising guitarist B.B. King and joined his first band (The Beale Streeters) comprised of Earl Forest on drums, Billy Duncan on sax, and Bobby “Blue” Bland as the primary singer. When King, who was also working at WDIA as a disc jockey, began to cut records the group occasionally joined him, as Johnny was present when King cut his first hit, “3 O’Clock Blues”, but the producer had hired Phineas Newborn to play piano, only to have him replaced by Ike Turner who was there as well. Johnny however definitely was playing piano on the flip side, ”That Ain’t The Way To Do It”, and he also got his first chance to sing at that session on “Midnight Hours Journey”, a song that wouldn’t come out for another two years (On Flair Records), as he wasn’t even signed to a contract.

With King now a rising star on his own the band was left in Johnny’s hands and when WDIA program director David Mattis decided to take advantage of the largely untapped local music scene in Memphis and started Duke Records.

He turned to The Beale Streeters and set up a session for Bland, giving him songs to learn in advance. But Bland was too embarrassed to admit he couldn’t read and so Forest stepped in to sing instead while Johnny was unobtrusively playing piano in the corner singing Ruth Brown’s “So Long” just waiting for the session to start.

Mattis liked what he heard and quickly coming up with new lyrics and telling Johnny to use the same chords but change the melody, they cut “My Song” which came out as the third release on Duke in June 1952 under his new moniker, Johnny Ace, and immediately started climbing the charts, getting so big so fast that Mattis was unable to meet demand and entered into an ill-fated partnership with Peacock Records’ owner Don Robey who quickly took over the Duke label for himself.

After that song hit the top of the charts – for nine weeks – Mattis brought Johnny back into the studio to cut follow-ups and got two more hits before Robey pushed Mattis out of the picture altogether. The change didn’t affect Ace’s output in the least, as now working with Johnny Otis producing him, the hits kept on coming. He scored his second chart topper in 1953 and went on tour with fellow Duke/Peacock star Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton with whom he cut a duet and their shows drew raves with her flamboyant performances off-set by his more subdued persona that got the ladies swooning.

Life on the road however was monotonous and decidedly unglamorous, traveling sometimes as many as 700 miles between gigs in a segregated country where restaurants, hotels and gas stations constantly reminded you of your second class citizenry. Though the biggest male solo star in rock since his arrival, Ace was becoming numb to the drudgery and routine of this lifestyle. He put on forty pounds and grew a small mustache, destroying his youthful appearance that had driven the girl’s crazy.

To pass time and relieve boredom Ace had bought a small gun to shoot at road signs they passed on the back roads across the South. Treating it more like a toy than a weapon he unnerved his bandmates and other stars on tour with him by pointing it playfully at them, none of them knowing whether it was loaded or not.

As 1954 wound down he was back in Houston, now more or less his home as Duke/Peacock and The Buffalo Booking Agency all operated out of there, where he and Thornton were putting on a Christmas night dance at the City Auditorium for 3,500 people. After they closed the first set with a storming rendition of their duet they headed to the dressing room in the early hours of the 26th where Ace complained of a toothache while waiting for the second set to get underway and began playing around with the gun.

With his girlfriend sitting on his lap he spun the chamber and pointed at her head and pulled the trigger. It clicked. With those in the room scolding him for his behavior he told them he’d show them it wouldn’t work and placed the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger again. It fired and Ace crumpled to the floor dead, a smirk on his lips and twenty-three dollars in his pocket.

The combination of the sensational publicity surrounding his death, the intensity of grieving fans nationwide and an especially poignant song featured on his latest release propelled “Pledging My Love” to the top of the R&B Charts, his third #1, where it remained for a stunning eleven weeks, during which time it also reached the Top Twenty of the Pop Charts, the first song to ever do so by a solo male rock act, confirming that this music, these artists and this culture which society had ignored and tried to shut out of mainstream America was here to stay.

Stories of a growing Johnny Ace cult were published even as the majority of readers in white America had no idea who he was and countless tribute songs sprang up from a wide variety of artists, some of which charted themselves in the coming months.

Ace himself had one more hit to go, as “Anymore” was released the next summer and hit the Top Ten, while Duke Records issued a Memorial Album comprised of his past hits, one of the first rock LP’s to hit the streets.

Destined to be forever remembered as rock’s first headline making tragedy, Johnny Ace’s musical legacy is even more impressive. His “heart ballads” as they were known were utterly unique, presenting tender understated songs that were introspective and self-aware, perfect for the young audience still unsure how to navigate their own budding romantic feelings. Considering he got his break under unusual circumstances, was active for only two and a half years and was dead at 25, Ace packed more into that short time on top than most artists who lasted decades.

JOHNNY ACE DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Duke 102; June, 1952)
One of rock’s most impressive debuts, especially considering how the song came about, as Ace seems completely natural delivering this reflection of a recent break-up in such a calm, tranquil state of mind that it’s almost unnerving, yet absolutely touching at the same time. ★ 10 ★

(Duke 102; June, 1952)
A very solid B-side, written by Ace and using a more upbeat tempo in which he and the band turn in a lively performance, especially in the intro, in the process showing that Ace was no one-trick pony stylistically. (6)

(Duke 107; December, 1952)
With Ace playing organ instead of piano the sonic textures are almost radical for rock but it suits the story about romantic commitment brilliantly, as this contains some of his best lyrics, tinged with a melancholy delivery to reflect uncertainty and nagging doubt. (8)

(Duke 107; December, 1952)
The song itself is well-written with Ace’s delivery helping to bring the right emotional touch to the lyrics, all of which are better than the record itself which suffers from subpar playing and bad production values. (5)