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Considering he had so few singles, all of which featured chart hits, it means that there aren’t many Johnny Ace songs in his short career that were relatively obscure at the time… as surely people buying all of those records turned them over once in awhile to hear even these B-sides.

But although Duke Records touted this one as a hit, the fact was it didn’t chart even on the regional listings, and when they didn’t include it on his posthumous album it meant that for years it kind of got lost in the shuffle… obscurity through attrition more than anything.

So with that in mind those who wonder what the fuss is about when it comes to the enduring stature of Johnny Ace might assume something like this will poke holes in his legacy, while those who are devoted fans are more likely to claim a lesser known side like this will confirm his artistic reputation.

Is it possible that both may be right?


Still The Devil Is In You
Last summer Don Robey had bailed out Duke Records when David Mattis was having trouble meeting the financial demands of shipping out a huge hit without yet taking in any money for that hit (only in the record biz was this backwards form of commerce normal). By fronting the money to keep shipping product, and by then paying for advertising and using his own well connected distributors, there’s no disputing that Mattis, his label, that record and Johnny Ace himself, all benefited greatly from Robey’s involvement.

After that however, Robey did what all predators do… he turned on them and gobbled them up and before long Mattis was pushed out altogether.

Now David Mattis insisted that the first two sessions were cut in Memphis and that the organ that Ace had played on Cross My Heart was in the studio because of gospel sides he had been recording earlier. After all, Mattis got credit for co-writing these sides, so it stands to reason he did cut the tracks then sent the tapes to Houston, still thinking he and Robey were equal partners in this endeavor, and a few months later this single came out sounding as it had in the studio.

But it is widely reported that Robey paid for The Beale Streeters to come to Houston where he re-cut the same songs using the same instruments and same arrangements in order to get better performances. They even have session sheets to back this up and there’s no real financial benefit for him doing so… in fact he’d have to pay for the studio costs on top of the traveling expenses.

The evidence doesn’t quite back that up… or at least there’s reason to dispute that as Robey delayed release on this, which is why it’s out of order in Duke’s numerical system, 107 while both 108 (Earl Forest) and 109 (Rosco Gordon) that Mattis also claimed to cut in Memphis and sent with Johnny’s tapes both got issued last month. No, it’s more likely they got the tapes, pressed them all up for immediate release and only then did Robey decide to let My Song, which had come out in June, milk the last drops of sales awhile longer before finally issuing this the last week of December.

The biggest argument though is that if this HAD been re-done in Houston it makes you wonder what the Memphis rendition of Angel sounded like, because there’s a lot of sloppiness here that you’d think would have been cleaned up with another run-through, especially as Robey’s engineer, Bill Holford, stated about this session – “We took things straight and did them over until we got them right” – something listening to it certainly doesn’t support.

Yet underneath the ragged appearance there’s a song that has enough promise that you wish someone else had come along and cut this a third time to see what it might’ve become with a little more tender loving care applied.


You May Not Know But You Haunt Me
We should we start… the fact that the piano and horns are clashing throughout unable to settle on a key? Or maybe the arrangement which seems equally unsure of itself, where layers of instruments are applied without being fully aware of what role they’re even supposed to be playing.

Are the horns responsible for the melody or just for atmosphere? Is Johnny Ace merely supplying the rhythmic foundation on piano, or is he supposed to be taking more of a role in establishing the melodic framework?

Even Earl Forest on drums seems to be restless about the slow pace he’s entrusted with keeping and you can envision him asking why he’s not using brushes which might make more sense sonically.

The halting progression and lack of any real musical accoutrements make this seem like a demo more than a finished recording and certainly indicates that whoever recorded this was hardly meticulous with last every detail.

But on top of all that sits Johnny Ace, vocalist and songwriter, and it’s here that Angel makes its case for getting some respect. The theme, along with the slow pace, is in line with his favored approach… the “heart ballad” as they called it… which are known for good storytelling and lyrical flair, both of which this more or less delivers.

Ace’s role in the story is as the secret admirer… sort of a singing Cyrano de Bergerac… meaning that while he’s singing this TO a girl he likes, we get the idea that he’s actually doing so in the privacy of his own mind rather than out loud where he might face rejection.

That makes it more touching because in that scenario we’re able to feel more sympathy for his plight, focusing on his shyness rather than his longing for someone we don’t know. It’s to imagine the wistful stares from across the room while she’s with her friends, unaware he’s alive, much less desperately in love with her.

He backs this image up with one of his most reflective deliveries, showing the internal conflict he feels over her which is easily relatable for anyone who’s found themselves in such a situation. The more you want someone who doesn’t know how you feel, the more that unfulfilled longing begins to corrupt your soul. You take their failure to notice you as a form of almost cruel rejection even though you’re the one at fault for not making your feelings known.

Ace is trying hard to hold onto that initial desire but it’s starting to crumble, which might be why the horns sound as if they’re getting bent under the pressure of these opposing forces, souring the notes in his heart as it were.

He never does tell us how it turns out, but our guess is he remained silent and suffered greatly for it, which we can only hope means will factor into his next song, shifting his mood and perspective yet again as he contemplates another girl seemingly out of reach.


You ‘Bout To Drive Me Wild
Hopefully whichever option he chooses he finds a better producer, engineer and band along with a tighter arrangement to back him, as the shortcomings in those areas mean that much of the positives that Johnny Ace brings to this are obscured by the sometimes grating music surrounding him.

Since we can’t know for sure which version of this – if there were two to begin with – was the one used, it provides us with an opportunity to remind people just how little documented information exists about this era of rock… not just because it was so long ago, but also because those who generally did the majority of the first-person interviews and research forty and fifty years ago were not aware of, or interested in, the pre-crossover years of rock because of their own cultural disconnect.

By the time someone like James Salem came along and wrote a great biography on Ace in the 1990’s, the majority of those involved had long since passed on.

As a result he was just as undecided about where to place Angel in the sessionography, leaning towards Houston but giving Mattis the floor to tell his side of the story.

But it’s the other note about this which reflects the danger of faulty recall with researchers as both Robey and the real brains between Duke/Peacock, Evelyn Johnson (who also ran The Buffalo Booking Agency and who, unlike Robey, was adored by artists through the years) stated that this single was a two-sided hit.

The facts tell us otherwise, but it gets repeated because it is among the few primary source quotes people could get on this record and as anyone who’s gone to college can tell you, when you study history they put undue emphasis on getting as many primary sources as possible.

When it comes to music though, primary sources – though helpful – always need to be taken with a mountain of salt because people’s memories are suspect, their desire to get credit overrides the truth and even the interviewers themselves can inadvertently steer questions to an answer that suits their own agenda.

Which is why that in the end, wherever this was cut, however many people liked this side in relation to the top side, we can safely say that while it has some appeal, in the end it didn’t show any of them at their best.

The records don’t lie even if the people making them often do.


(Visit the Artist page of Johnny Ace for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)