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DUKE 102; JUNE 1952



A fluky Number One hit on a debut record that was pieced together on the studio floor as a last gasp attempt to salvage an aborted session for another singer. How can they hope to come up with anything else resembling a quality cut in those circumstances, let alone something worthy of release on its own merits?

That’s the conclusion most sensible people would lean towards when trying to explain the massive success of the top side of this single and the low expectations they’d have for what follows. Not that the hit wasn’t well-deserving of its accolades, but when something was that completely unplanned turns out so well chances are they caught lightning in a bottle and the flip side will bring us all back down to earth.



Umm, not exactly.


The Things You’re Handing Me
Let’s get it out of the way and say that this flip side was not an official hit, but that’s not what we are necessarily interested in.

Anytime we meet a new artist and are knocked out by their first song, as we – and the wider public – clearly were with My Song, a Number One hit for more than two months, what we want to try and figure out before hearing the follow up a few months down the road is whether or not they have the potential to be a lasting star.

Often times we learn more from the first B-side than we do the second release because the latter very well may have been designed to capitalize on the first hit in ways that are forced and artificial and thus aren’t a true representation of their abilities.

By contrast the first record’s flip side was cut at the same time as the soon-to-be-hit when nobody in the room had any idea of what the response to that A-side would be. That makes it in many ways a more accurate representation of their artistic promise.

So what we like to see out of them is obviously another good song, but beyond that we hope it’s something cut from a slightly different cloth, maybe showcasing a different vocal approach or even something that is the polar opposite of the top half when it comes to the type of song we’re getting out of them.

Johnny Ace succeeds in those ways and more with Follow The Rule, as this is an original composition of his own, whereas the other half was a re-imagined take on a past hit with lyrics written by somebody else altogether. It’s also much more upbeat and in the process gives Ace the platform with which to sing in a more assertive manner, while the band gets more of a chance to stretch their limbs as well.

Granted the end result might not live up to the monster hit, but as B-sides go you could hardly ask for much better signs as to his prospective long range viability than this.


If You Want To Be My Baby
With all we had to cover in the review of the massively popular hit on the other side of this release, we almost had to gloss over the star-studded loose knit band he was with when he stepped into the spotlight for the first time with this session.

The group had formed with B.B. King as its leader but when King signed his deal with RPM he left the band with Ace nominally in charge. The others were Earl Forest on drums and Billy Duncan on sax, while Bobby “Blue” Bland handled the vocals.

Look at the credits here. Forest is drumming, Duncan is playing sax and Ace is on the keys.

Also let’s not forget that they had experience in the studio behind King, AND – as came to light a few years later – Ace himself had cut one side for RPM Records with Forest singing the other when they were in town, presumably to deal with King. So while this wound up being Johnny Ace’s first commercially available record under his own name, he was probably a little more comfortable about the whole recording scene than most newcomers would be.

Undoubtedly that’s one reason why Follow The Rule comes off so effortlessly even as Johnny wrote it on the spot and worked it up with the others when they suddenly needed material to fill out the session after Bland, who’d been scheduled to sing, could not because he hadn’t learned the material and was embarrassed to admit that he couldn’t read when given the songs in advance.

So David Mattis, the producer, made due with what he had and after cobbling together the hit side in remarkable fashion, they still needed something for the flip. That’s where Ace stepped up showing he was more than capable of coming up with good material on his own, as this rolling boogie with a cocky lead vocal may borrow a bit from Chuck Willis when it comes to crafting a casual mid-tempo strut that presents a confident message over some internal self-doubt he’s trying to suppress, but is no mere rip off of any one song.

Ace handles this tempo beautifully, conveying a sort of “relaxed urgency” in his voice… that is, concern masked by swagger. It makes the message a lot easier to take since he’s essentially telling the girl that their relationship isn’t going to be an equal one, although the fact he has to lay this out in such a manner probably indicates that SHE, not him, is ultimately going to be pulling the strings and all he’s trying to do is get on even footing with her before it starts.

Musically the primary structure is fairly straightforward but one thing stands out, namely the intro which sounds almost as if it was tacked on after the song was written and it didn’t have enough to grab you out of the gate, possibly even spliced on after the fact as the transition from that into the main song isn’t smooth at all. But the dramatic stop-time lead-in is a wonderful creation just the same, showing the natural interplay Forest, Duncan and Ace have for one another borne out of months of playing together with equally good accomplices.

The fact it was probably dreamed up on the third or fourth take only makes it more impressive conceptually, even though it may be lacking a bit technically. The sax solo later on shows why Duncan was so highly regarded around Memphis, laying down an easy going part that has a nice tone while Ace’s piano and somebody’s guitar – not B.B. I assure you – trade off behind it to add a bit of chaos to the orderly control of Duncan’s lines.

This may be a makeshift arrangement conceived on the spot, but the fact it comes together so well is proof that there was finally some genuine rocking and rolling going on in Memphis.


You Gotta Make Up Your Mind
This was not going to be, nor was it designed to be, a hit unto itself, good though it may be.

For starters, usually when one side of a record is SO big it doesn’t matter what’s on the flip, because listeners will ride that top half for much longer than usual which means they come to hear and appreciate the B-side in fits and starts, never all at once to lift it to prominence on its own.

So while Follow The Rule makes for a strong B-side, that’s really all it is – a great way to show the diversity of Ace and the band and to confirm that it wasn’t luck that produced the runaway smash they now had on their hands.

Granted, the primary appeal of Ace was – and would remain – his way with slower material, those introspective “heart ballads” as they became known, where he seemed to be talking to himself late at night, resigned to his fate but just detatched enough to blunt the pain of each situation.

But anything, no matter how original or how good it is, has the potential to grow stale if that’s all you ever attempt (just ask The Orioles), and so with this change of pace we get ample evidence that Johnny Ace at least has the ability to give us something different.

Whether or not he will be allowed to continually do so wasn’t yet known, but as the top side was rising higher by the day on the charts, those fans who care more about long term prospects for continued enjoyment from an artist than they do about any singular hit had to at least been feeling pretty good about their chances to form a long term relationship with a singer who seemed to come out of nowhere… maybe because in some ways he did.


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