Johnny Ace: Rock's First Star, Rock's First Tragedy

The tragic story of the balladeer who almost ruled R&B

Johnny Ace
Johnny Ace. Getty Images

Who was Johnny Ace?

​Johnny Ace was one of the first R&B stars to master the blend of urban styles that would come to define the rock and roll era, and he did it before the advent of Elvis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. But his life was tragically snuffed out within theee years, ironically making him the first rock and roller to set off a period of national mourning.

Johnny Ace's best known songs:

  • "Pledging My Love"
  • "My Song" 
  • "The Clock"
  • "Please Forgive Me" 
  • "Cross My Heart"
  • "Never Let Me Go"
  • "Saving My Love for You"
  • "Anymore"
  • "Don't You Know"
  • "So Lonely"

Where you might have heard him "Pledging My Love" remains the epitome of '50s R&B balladry, a slow dance number unmatched in its era, which is why it's often used in period pieces and films as diverse as Back to the Future, Christine, and Mean Streets. You'd have to go searching for his other stuff, however -- but if you like "Pledging My Love," there's plenty more where that came from

Born John Marshall Alexander on June 9, 1929, Memphis, TN; died December 25, 1954, Houston, TX

Styles '50s R&B, Jump blues, Boogie-woogie

Instruments Vocals, piano, organ

Claims to fame:

  • Rock's first tragedy
  • A smooth balladeer who influenced countless R&B tenors
  • His mix of Memphis blues and West Coast polish laid the groundwork for the emergence of rock and roll
  • An urban bluesman and pianist who mastered several of the genre's styles
  • Inspired countless tributes and homages

The history of Johnny Ace

Early years

The boy who would become Johnny Ace was a restless one, enthralled by Memphis' thriving blues and R&B scene but forbidden to play or even hear secular music by his minister father. Johnny dropped out of high school and joined the Navy, then was dishonorably discharged after sneaking out to play piano in local bars.

Now back on the streets, the young singer joined the backing group of a rising star named B.B. King; when King's new manager insisted he be signed without a band, Johnny took it over, renamed it the Beale Streeters after Memphis' famous musical strip, and made quite a bit of noise around town. When local Duke Records signed one of the Streeters, Bobby "Blue" Bland, he showed up too drunk to perform, and label head David Mattis became intrigued with Johnny after hearing him fooling around with a Ruth Brown hit called "So Long."

Success

Mattis wanted an original song, however, so Johnny took the Ruth hit and changed it just enough to make it his own: now called "My Song," and with a label proclaiming the artist as "Johnny Ace," it shot straight to #1 R&B and stayed there for two solid months. In fact, Ace was one of the most popular black artists of the next few years -- every song charted, which was a rarity in itself for the time, and he moved millions of 45s. His urbane yet passionate style, a sort of pop croon adapted to a slick West Coast kind of blues balladry, proved enormously popular, although as a pianist, he could and often did explore boogie-woogie and jump blues on his b-sides.

Death

However, just as Johnny was primed to take his place in rock and roll's early mid-50s pantheon, he accidentally ended his life: on Christmas night, 1954, Ace was showing off his pistol backstage at a concert in Houston. Much as would later happen with Chicago's Terry Kath, he put the gun to his head to prove it wasn't loaded, and promptly killed himself with one shot. Scandal sheets of the time erroneously claimed Ace had been playing Russian Roulette, and the error was picked up by the national media, starting a rumor that still unfortunately persists today. More important was the effect of his death: for the first time, several artists recorded "tribute records," and Duke assembled a "memorial album" of his few sides that proved so popular it was still selling in record stores 30 years later.

More about Johnny Ace

Johnny Ace awards and honors Beach Music Hall of Fame (2001)

Fun facts and trivia about Johnny Ace:

  • Rosco Gordon and Earl Forest were both members of the Beale Streeters
  • Was friends with legendary blues diva Big Mama Thornton, who sadly was present during his accidental death
  • Johnny Otis produced most of Ace's Duke sides, and his band can be heard on "Pledging My Love"
  • Ace had just purchased a brand-new car the day of his death, further debunking "suicide" rumors
  • Paul Simon famously wrote a tribute song, "The Late Great Johnny Ace," which links memories of his death with John Lennon's
  • Duke Robey, who distributed Duke through his own Peacock label, passed off a singer as Johnny's "brother Buddy" for decades afterward
  • A 12-year-old Lou Reed wore a black armband all day when he heard of Ace's death

Johnny Ace songs, hits. and albums

#1 hits
R&B "My Song" (1952), "The Clock" (1953), "Pledging My Love" (1955)

Top 10 hits
R&B "Cross My Heart" (1953), "Saving My Love for You" (1954), "Please Forgive Me" (1954), "Never Let Me Go" (1954), "Anymore" (1955)

Notable covers Swamp-poppers tend to love "Pledging My Love," which is why it's been covered by Elvis Presley, Aaron Neville, Van Broussard, and Jerry Lee Lewis have all recorded versions of it. But only pop singer Teresa Brewer of "Music! Music! Music!" fame took it to the Top 40, not coincidentally just a few months after Ace's death. "Never Let Me Go," however, remains the most popular of his R&B originals, covered by Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Ruth Brown, and Luther Vandross