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Attention Mac Users!

Mac users have been experiencing problems in unpacking the WinRAR archives used on this blog. Two solutions have been suggested.

1. Use The Unarchiver - - see comments on Little Esther Bad Baad Girl post for details.

2. Use Keka - - see comments on Johnny Otis Presents post.

Monday 15 April 2019

Memorial Album For Johnny Ace

Side 1:
01. Pledging My Love
02. Ace's Wild
03. Anymore
04. Yes Baby
05. My Song
06. Never Let Me Go
07. Don't You Know

Side 2:
01. The Clock
02. No Money
03. Angel
04. Follow The Rule
05. Burley Cutie
06. Please Forgive Me
07. You've Been Gone So Long

A follow up to the previous post of "Joan's 78s - Johnny Has Gone." This is a 1982 Ace UK reissue of Duke LP 71 with two additional tracks. Duke LP 71 was issued in 1957 and was an extended version of the 1955 Duke LP 70, the original 10 inch issue of "Memorial Album For Johnny Ace" which had eight tracks.

Johnny Ace was an unlikely R&B superstar who perhaps got lucky and somehow surfed the early 50's Zeitgeist with a series of big selling tear-stained ballads between mid 1952 and the end of 1954 when it all came to a brutal and extraordinary end. Well, the end certainly did arrive for Johnny, but his recordings went on selling after his untimely death especially "Pledging My Love" which not only stayed at number one in the R&B chart for ten weeks in 1955, but also crossed over into the pop chart. It's a cliche to say that death can sometimes be a great career move for a music star, but in this case it was certainly true for a while at least, as Don Robey the owner of Duke Records continued to shift huge amounts of records by his recently deceased star.

"Pledging My Love" was followed by another posthumous hit in the second half of 1955, "Anymore", and also the first issue of the "Memorial Album For Johnny Ace" which was also available as 2 EPs. In addition to actual Johnny Ace records, there were "tribute" discs as record companies scrambled to climb aboard the grief bandwagon, such was the potential of Johnny's considerable fanbase.

It didn't last though, as Johnny's final two posthumous discs on Duke failed to chart in 1956. His entire oeuvre consisted of only ten singles on Duke plus one early side released by Flair as a cash-in after he had become a star, so there was nothing for it but to repackage what there was with diminishing returns. A reissue of "Pledging My Love" with dubbed vocal chorus by The Jordanaires didn't do much business in 1958 and a third issue of "Memorial Album" in 1961 with new artwork didn't exactly have Ace fans storming the record stores.

Yet the legend persisted for the Johnny Ace story was an exemplary cautionary tale of the American dream gone wrong, with fast cars, fast dames and gunplay winning out over home, family and religion.

He was a native of Memphis, born in that city on June 9th, 1929 into a large family who were devout Christians. John Marshall Alexander Jr, to give him his full name, proved to be the wayward son, although not the prodigal as he singularly failed to make it back home to the bosom of his family in order to repent of his wicked ways. He was a dropout from school, he was dishonourably discharged from the Navy and he even served a short custodial sentence having been involved (perhaps unknowingly) in the transportation of stolen goods.

What he did have going for him however was a natural ability on the piano, that and a fascination with the music scene on Beale Street. Abandoning his young wife and child to the care of his family, he took to living on Beale where he became part of a group of musicians which started out as a backing band for B.B. King's local appearances and radio spots on WDIA. Besides John and B.B., the group consisted of Earl Forrest on drums, Adolph "Billy" Duncan on tenor sax and Bobby "Blue" Bland on vocals.

John's earliest recordings were for the Biharis, owners of Modern / RPM, who were mining the motherlode of Memphis based blues musicians initially via Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service and then after a dispute with Sam (see previous posts), by holding their own recording sessions in West Memphis, usually under the supervision of Ike Turner. The future Johnny Ace was therefore on early recordings by B.B. King and Bobby Bland made in late 1951 and early 1952.

In the spring of 1952 the Memphis recording scene changed with the launch of two locally based record labels - Sam Phillips' Sun Records and Duke Records, founded by WDIA programme director David James Mattis. The first record issued on Duke was a gospel disc, the second was an R&B release by Rosco Gordon, and the third which started selling very heavily was "My Song" sung by a new name - Johnny Ace who was none other than a rechristened John Marshall Alexander Jr.

Mattis had turned to The Beale Streeters, left behind in Memphis by B.B. King who had broken big on RPM with "Three O' Clock Blues." Early Duke sessions generated discs by Earl Forrest, Bobby Bland and, if the stories are to be believed, an accidental superstar in Johnny Ace. Accidental because he was playing piano on a Bobby Bland session when he started fooling around with "So Long" which had been a hit for Ruth Brown a couple of years back. Mattis liked what he heard and "So Long" was transformed into "My Song" for a release in May 1952.

It sold fast which should have been good news for the new label, but the opposite was the case. Mattis hit a potentially fatal cash flow problem. With all his capital already tied up in Duke, he had to pay the record manufacturers in order to satisfy demand for the disc, while the record distributors weren't coming back to him with their payments. He was introduced to Houston night club owner and honcho of Peacock Records, Don Robey, and embarked on what he thought was a partnership but was really a takeover. There is a story of Mattis going down to Houston to remind Robey of their partnership only to find himself facing a revolver. Perhaps exaggerated, but whatever happened Mattis found himself ousted from Duke before 1952 was out.

Good news for Johnny Ace, though. Robey had superior recording facilities in Houston, professional arrangers and bandleaders in Johnny Board (ex Lionel Hampton sax man) and Johnny Otis, and experience in promoting records. With Robey's backing "My Song" spent nine weeks at the top of the R&B charts and a series of big ballad hits ensued - "Cross My Heart," "The Clock," "Saving My Love For You" and "Please Forgive Me" were all top ten R&B hits with "The Clock" (which borrowed its melody from the old 1930s Josephine Baker hit "J'ai Deux Amours") spending five weeks at number one.

Tours were arranged through another Robey enterprise, The Buffalo Booking Agency, with Johnny being accompanied by a band led by Johnny Board and as support, a fellow Robey act, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton whose "Hound Dog" on Peacock Records was a number one hit in 1953.

And so to the Houston City Auditorium on that fateful Christmas night in 1954. There had already been signs that the Johnny Ace bandwagon had been slowing down. His last release, "Never Let Me Go," had failed to make the top ten R&B sales chart although it did reach number nine in the Jukebox Plays chart. Johnny's behaviour which had always been "ebullient" seems to have been becoming more and more erratic, especially with his latest enthusiasm - a seven shot .22 revolver which he would use to shoot out road signs and which he would also point at people around him and occasionally pull the trigger.

However there was hope that his career would soon be back on track as his latest release, a heart stopping ballad called "Pledging My Love" on which he was backed by the Johnny Otis Orchestra, was already shipping to stores in anticipation of heavy sales in the New Year.

Billboard 25th December 1954

The Ace / Thornton roadshow rolled into Houston on Christmas Day. In the afternoon Johnny and some band members had Christmas lunch at the flat of Johnny's girlfriend, Olivia Gibbs. According to witnesses Johnny was up to his usual tricks with his revolver, pointing it at his fellow diners and pulling the trigger with, presumably, all seven chambers empty. On arrival at the Auditorium in the evening, Johnny seemed in good mood and signed autographs at the ticket office.

The show got underway with a couple of numbers from the band, then Big Mama Thornton came on for a set. Johnny came on next for his first set, then Big Mama joined him on stage for their rockin' duet "Yes Baby." Both artists left the stage as the band closed the first half of the show with a couple more numbers.

Backstage, things were getting a little fraught in Johnny's dressing room. Olivia Gibbs was present as was Big Mama Thornton. There was also a couple who were friends of Miss Gibbs, Mary Carter and Joe Hamilton. There may have been others present and a pint of vodka was being passed around. Just the occasion for more festive firearm frolics and so Johnny, the perfect host, began pointing his gun around the room and pulling the trigger. As people seemed to be getting a little upset he decided to show them that there was no risk at all and pointing the gun at his own head, squeezed the trigger. Lights out for Johnny. If the revolver had been of a heavier calibre it would have been lights out for Olivia too as she was sitting on his knee when he blew himself into oblivion.

The R&B heartthrob may have been dead, but there was still money to be made. "Pledging My Love" raced to number one in the R&B charts and then crossed into the pop charts as myth took hold and Don Robey milked it for as long as he could. That's showbusiness. Goodnight sweet prince, and thanks for all the bucks.

 Billboard January 22nd, 1955.

The law of diminishing returns - Billboard January 1956 - not a hit.

The Tracks:

01. Pledging My Love - Duke 136
02. Ace's Wild - Duke 112
03. Anymore - Duke 144
04. Yes Baby - Duke 118
05. My Song - Duke 102
06. Never Let Me Go - Duke 132
07. Don't You Know - Duke 154
08. The Clock - Duke 112
09. No Money - Duke 136
10. Angel - Duke 107
11. Follow The Rule - Duke 102
12. Burley Cutie - Duke 132
13. Please Forgive Me - Duke 128
14. You've Been Gone So Long - Duke 128

Johnny Ace Singles On Duke:

Duke 102 - My Song / Follow The Rule - released May 1952. Number one in Billboard R&B chart for 9 weeks.

Duke 107 - Cross My Heart / Angel - released December 1952. Number three in Billboard R&B chart.

Duke 112 - The Clock / Ace's Wild - released May 1953. Number one in Billboard R&B chart for five weeks.

Duke 118 - Saving My Love For You / Yes Baby - released December 1953. Number two in Billboard R&B chart.

Duke 128 - Please Forgive Me / You've Been Gone So Long - released April 1954. Number six in Billboard R&B chart.

Duke 132 - Never Let Me Go / Burley Cutie - released September 1954. Number nine on Billboard R&B Juke Box Play chart.

Duke 136 - Pledging My Love / No Money - released December 1954 / January 1955. Number one in Billboard R&B chart for ten weeks. Number seventeen, Billboard pop chart.

Duke 144 - Anymore / How Can You Be So Mean - released June 1955. Number eight in Billboard R&B chart.

Duke 148 - I'm Crazy, Baby / So Lonely - released January 1956. Did not chart.

Duke 154 - Still Love You So / Don't You Know - released July 1956. Did not chart.

"Pledging My Love" and "Anymore" were remastered with backing vocals by The Jordanaires and re-released on Duke 136 (original issue number of "Pledging My Love") in December 1958.

In September 1953 Flair released a 1951 recording by Johnny Ace, "Midnight Hours Journey" b/w "Trouble And Me" by Earl Forest (Flair 1015). Did not chart.

Sources - discographic information from the usual websites -,, Billboard on google books. Also the following books - Unsung Heroes Of Rock 'n' Roll by Nick Tosches and The Late Great Johnny Ace by James M. Salem.

Recommended book - I've recommended "Unsung Heroes Of Rock 'n' Roll" by Nick Tosches numerous times. It has a chapter, "Number One With A Bullet" on Johnny Ace which amuses and appalls at the same time.

The definitive book on Johnny Ace is by James M. Salem - "The Late Great Johnny Ace and the transition from r&b to rock'n'roll." University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Much of what I've written above has been adapted from this book which I highly recommend.

Recommended listening purchase -

I don't have this - but it looks like the best buy if you really want to immerse yourself in Johnny Ace. A 2 CD set from Fantastic Voyage with 55 tracks. Includes all his released singles plus session work plus "tribute records" by other artists. Probably out of print but worth keeping a lookout for this one.

Elsewhere on the blog -