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DUKE 102; JUNE 1952



By this point in rock’s journey – five and a half years and more than two thousand reviews of the records from its inception – we’ve become fairly accustomed to meeting big name artists for the first time on these pages.

Unlike those hearing them at the time we know where their careers are headed, we know how successful and influential they’ll become, and we know full well what their legacies will be.

But this artist is a little different because of what ELSE we know… the shocking and sudden end to his story right as he was in his prime.

For so long it’s been virtually impossible to talk or read about Johnny Ace without that ultimate fate dominating the story, or in many cases being the whole story, so we’re glad to be able to leave that part of his biography on the shelf completely after this teaser until December 1954 and focus instead on what made that outcome so tragic… the fact that he was one of the best, most consistent and unique rock artists of the entire decade who knew nothing but astonishing success in his career.


Where You Ought To Be
Usually new artists have a ways to go before they “become” the figure they’re destined to be, but not here.

For Johnny Ace it was instantaneous… and yet completely unexpected at the same time.

In the course of this first release we have a multitude of seismic events taking place almost simultaneously… an artist emerging from the shadows of what could rightly be called a futuristic supergroup to become a bigger star than any of them in his lifetime… a new record label run by a novice with the best intentions who made a deal with the devil just to be able to handle the popularity of this record and soon lost it all to him as a result… plus a new stylistic tweak on rock ballads that hadn’t been thought of before.

Oh yeah, we also have the utter transformation of John Alexander, just about to turn 23 years old as this was released, into Johnny Ace, who overnight became the biggest name in rock once this started climbing the charts in the middle of summer.

Yet none of this had been planned or even hoped for because nobody, including Johnny himself, knew he was going to record a song himself that day.

Alexander was a soft-spoken pianist who’d gone AWOL from the Navy which he’d only joined for the travel in the first place before getting bored with it, looking for a piano to play wherever they were stationed. He came back to Memphis and got married to a 16 year old he’d started seeing (he was 21) and quickly had two kids with her but was rarely around to see them.

Like so many at the time he’d found the pull of Beale Street irresistible and with his musical skills he fell in with a loose-knit group of musicians led by guitarist B.B. King which including many of those who back Johnny on My Song, including drummer Earl Forest and saxophonist Billy Duncan.

The singer of this group however wasn’t Johnny, he was still just the piano player, but rather it was Bobby “Blue” Bland… the same Bobby “Blue” Bland who David Mattis, the owner of the newly instituted Duke Records, scheduled a recording session for and gave him the material a few days in advance only to then find out at the session Bland hadn’t learned them because he was functionally illiterate and too embarrassed to tell him when he got the songs. Into the breach stepped the shy pianist who’d been off in the corner fooling around playing Ruth Brown’s first hit So Long on the out of tune piano.

Mattis had a sudden brainstorm to save the session – have the kid use that song as the foundation for something new that could be built from those parts and then sing it himself. What harm could it do, everybody they needed was already there and they might as well get something out of it.

Little did any of them know just what it was they’d be getting.


Hours Seem Like Years
Not surprisingly because of the makeshift nature of the recording itself, no charts, no real rehearsal and a song that might have been loosely based on a familiar record but one that the band members – and Ace for that matter – hadn’t actually tackled before as a unit, this has a very loose feel from start to finish.

Mattis had scribbled out some lyrics and with My Song retained the concept of using just two short words as the title and hook, yet he puts them in different places so the origins are hidden, and instructs Johnny to use the same chords but come up with a new melody.

It’s not the most impossible task to pull off but the fact that it turns out this well in those circumstances is downright shocking.

The Ruth Brown song you may remember was done with a veteran band, Eddie Condon’s jazz musicians, who were playing well known number, with somebody who’d been singing regularly since she was young. The Beale Streeters on the other hand were basically making this up as they went along with a kid singing lead who hadn’t even expected to open his mouth that day and who was reciting lyrics he’d just been handed and somehow in spite of all that it sounds as if he’s pulling these thoughts from his very soul.

The crudity of the recording – cut in the WDIA radio studios where Mattis was the program director – actually helps the record’s cause, making the halting sax of Duncan, Forest’s drumming which is only just faintly keeping time and Johnny’s own tentative piano sound far more appropriate than a more polished master would. It’s not that the recording quality is bad, but the microphones aren’t well placed, Duncan’s droning sax misses a few notes along the way and the piano isn’t tuned right… it sounds decidedly like a demo.

But in ways that can’t rightly be explained that only makes it more personal because of the double whammy of some great lyrics and the masterful singing of Ace who is calmly dissecting a romantic break up, almost as if he were saying it aloud as a way to numb the pain rather than let it fester inside him. With anything more elaborate behind him those same words would almost surely come across as artificial.

Only when he raises the intensity in his voice during the bridge and admits he’s still in love with her does he come close to breaking that cool façade and yet when he pulls back just as quick he manages to convince you that it was only a momentary flare up to release the pressure. In other words, while your mind tells you he’s repressing his true feelings, bottling up the hurt to get through things, his performance shows the curative power of detaching yourself from a bad turn of events as a form of self-preservation.

Throughout it all his voice is warm with an ever-so-slight metallic glint to his tone which gives it a bit of harshness that mirrors the underlying sentiments perfectly. Meanwhile his use of strategic pauses when it comes to his phrasing on some really great couplets makes them sound completely natural, as if he himself came up with the lines in real time and is just tossing them off the top of his head as natural as breathing. My Song indeed!

All in all it sounds less like a proper record and more like a CAT scan of somebody’s heart, mind and soul… yet one the patient himself seems determined to hide the results of from the doctors, the girl herself and even the listeners.

Lucky for us he’s unsuccessful in that regard, even as he’s remarkably successful in every other way on one of the most magical debuts in rock history.


We’ll Be Together For Eternity
When the tapes stopped rolling the real work began, starting with signing Johnny to a formal contract and coming up with a suitable name to keep his career as a rock singer from embarrassing his preacher father.

His suggestion to Mattis, “Well, just call me Ace but don’t let my momma know, because the first thing she’ll want to know is ‘What is an ace?’.” is almost ominously prescient. There’d been other name changes in rock of course, but this kid seemed to know the kind of life he’d just signed up for in the process.

When My Song took off nationally, Mattis – like most new labels “cursed” with a hit – found he was unable to pay for enough pressings of it to get to distributors who hadn’t paid for the last shipment yet. If he held back on them until their accounts were settled the hit would die off, so he was led to Peacock Records’ owner Don Robey by that label’s Southern distributor, Irving Marcus, singing the deal that would doom Mattis’s stake with the company he’d just founded as well as the artists he’d signed and pledged to do right by in the process.

To his credit however Robey definitely made sure the record got to where it needed to go, which was #1 for a nine week run, but suddenly the stakes became bigger, the pressure grew, the threats started, the deals went sour and the rules changed overnight.

The only one seemingly unaffected by all of this was, not surprisingly, the same quiet kid sitting at the piano picking out songs who was on his way to a short but glorious career as rock’s biggest solo male star over the next two years.

Yeah, we know it won’t end well, but on record anyway it’d be hard to find many that started better than this.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Marie Adams (August, 1952)