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DUKE 107; DECEMBER 1952

 
 

 

While nobody in their right mind could complain about scoring a Number One hit with their debut, sometimes hitting the top right out of the gate can be more a curse than a blessing as after that it can seem there’s nowhere to go but down.

They still might have laudable careers, but reaching that pinnacle of achievement creatively and commercially right away would wind up defining many artists historically and thus everything else they did would be seen as falling short of that enormous potential by comparison.

For Johnny Ace, who hadn’t even set out to record a single under his own name that first time out, this was virtually assured of being the case. After all, how do you possibly recapture something that was serendipitous to begin with?

But if you DO manage to impress with what you follow it up with, that’s when you start to be seen in a whole new light. If the first time could be passed off as sheer luck, the second time could only mean it was latent talent all along.
 

 

Everything A Love Can Be
Remember this… the first session hadn’t even been a session for Johnny Ace… who was still just John Alexander, unassuming pianist at the time it took place.

When circumstances dictated someone else had to sing since Bobby “Blue” Bland was unable to, in stepped Johnny who’d been off in the corner doodling on a song while the powers-that-be commiserated on what they could do to salvage the date. That’s when they hit upon the idea of fleshing out the song he was doing, keeping the chords, crafting a new melody and collaborating on some lyrics.

The result was My Song, a magical record that somehow transcended its slapped-together circumstances, thriving on an aura that would be near impossible to recreate, and foolish if they tried to do artificially this time around.

So that means the biggest question they had to tackle here was just how to approach a follow-up being made under far different circumstances. Ace was a star now, the expectations were high and if they were your stereotypical record men they’d merely reduce the components of that initial hit to formula and come as close to it as possible… and then probably watched as it sank without a trace.

Instead David Mattis wasn’t a record man, he was a radio program director by trade which may have influenced his decision to take an entirely different approach with Cross My Heart, knowing as he did from his time on air that duplicating a hit wasn’t going to draw the same interest because astute audiences would see it for what it was… a rip-off. The better bet was to spring something altogether new on listeners who’d be more receptive to it because of the name recognition of the artist, thereby expanding your possibilities rather than confining yourself to the same role each time out.

When they reconvened as that first song was riding high on the charts there happened to be an organ in the studio left over from a gospel session, an instrument Ace had never played before. Obviously the keys are the same as a piano though and when Mattis asked if he’d like to try playing in on the record, Johnny jumped at the chance and they sketched out a song and cut it in fifteen minutes.

What stands out though isn’t the circumstances of the session, or even the unexpected instrumental switch, but rather the sheer quality of the song as written.
 


 
 

All That’s Real
Unlike the first time around, here they needed to come up with a song from scratch, which meant the lyrics had no existing framework to attach itself to. This was potentially liberating, yet also would reveal any limitations of their artistic skills.

You needn’t worry, because this is a work of lyrical genius, taking a pretty basic theme with a good title as the hook, and rather than simply settle for a few obvious platitudes about a guy pledging his love to a girl, actually makes these vows have depth and meaning.

The organ the kicks this off obviously startles you… in 1952 you just didn’t hear that instrument in rock ‘n’ roll… only Bill Doggett had tried it and without much luck so far. So hearing it pour out of the speakers it sounds like you entered into a wedding chapel, which may suggest the story they came up with wasn’t coincidental.

But while the instrument remains prominent throughout Cross My Heart, it doesn’t dominate the proceedings once Ace starts to sing. Instead the organ provides a stately backdrop while the more traditional rock instruments, sax, drums and some light vibes, form the haunting arrangement. The horns in particular are smartly used here, picking up the melody that the organ can’t deliver at times, while contributing greatly to the overall pensive atmosphere they’ve settled on.

The rest though is all Johnny Ace whose plaintive voice drips with aching sincerity as each stanza reveals the depth of his feelings for this girl. Tellingly, he’s not pleading with someone who is resistant to his affections, trying to convince her that he is right for her as so many songs would do. Instead you get the feeling they’ve been a couple for awhile and this may even be taking place after he proposed to her, or at least taken whatever more meaningful step couples entered into back in 1952… be it moving in together, sleeping together for the first time, or just wearing his ring around her neck or some such public act of devotion.

The lines sparkle with romantic specificity as he attempts to reassure of her of the permanence of their relationship, holding her up as the ideal partner in ways that are both idealized and down to earth.

What really makes it work at a much deeper level than mere words however is the way his voice has a hint of melancholy in it which suggests he fully understands the enormity of this step. This is confirmed by the crying tones of the sax solo, letting us know that while he truly means everything he’s saying he also has some lingering doubt because he can’t know for sure what the future has in store for them.

The tipping point in a relationship – and what this song perfectly reflects – lays in the middle of these two emotions. The nervousness of pronouncing your love so unequivocally, but afraid of losing that love forever if you let those apprehensions win out.
 


 

Please Take My Love
Because this is a deeper song that most, tinged with solemnity thanks to the organ in the arrangement, it’s probably not surprising that it didn’t have quite the same impact as his first record.

That one caught everybody off guard, coming as it did from a new artist on a new label which was endearingly unprofessional in a way, almost sloppy with the out-of-tune piano. But this time around audiences were anticipating something in the same basic vein and would no longer be pleasantly surprised when they heard the same voice, the same tempo, the same basic sentiments, even the off-key note he delivers early on.

Because of that Cross My Heart, though different in how it was constructed, was somewhat expected in terms of the overall presentation and thus less of a surprise, maybe explaining why it spent half as many weeks in the Top Ten compared to its predecessor’s astonishing twenty week reign, while this stopped at #3… still impressive, but not astonishing.

But for those looking closer there were also clear signs that this was not going to be the start of a gradual falling-off in quality. Here they saw the burgeoning craftsmanship, the willingness to experiment, the determination to give the audience something new, even if the basic approach stuck to the yearning ballads he did best.

So while you may be right in saying that this single didn’t quite reach the heights of his first effort, you’d be equally justified by saying this one was actually more promising for Johnny Ace’s long term success.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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