John Marshall Alexander was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1929. After grade school and three years at Booker T. Washington High School, Alexander spent time in the military with the U.S. Navy in thelast days of the second World War and beyond. After his discharge from the service in 1947 he began to tinker with the family piano and soon had enough rudimentary skills on that instrument to seek out local gigs in the Memphis area. His first local band was that of Adolph Duncan and he soon got in with the company of future stars Bobby Bland and Roscoe Gordon, along with local musicians Tuff Green and Earl Forrest. In 1951 he joined the combo of the "Beale Street Blues Boy" Riley "B.B." King and made many area appearances as well as radio broadcasts on Memphis station WDIA. When B.B. King became popular enough to go out on the road on national tours he left the combo which Alexander headed called The Beale Streeters. Alexander auditioned to take over the radio spot vacated by King and his piano playing and newly developed vocal skills were impressive. Soon the new artist now known as Johnny Ace was set to record his very first sides for a local Memphis label Duke Records.
Inearly spring of 1952 Duke #102 is released featuring Johnny Ace & The Beale Streeters. The tunes are "My Song" and "Follow The Rules". By late June the record is a big seller in the Mid South region centered in Memphis. That August Don Robey entered the picture. Robey the owner of the famous Bronze Peacock nightclub in Houston, Texas, also had founded the Peacock record label which was a very successful producer of gospel music. Wanting an outlet for the expamding R & B market of the early fifties Robey purchased outright the Duke Record Company of Memphis and re-located it to Houston. Robey intends to keep the Duke name and feature R & B performers on his new label. By September the record by Johnny Ace continues to sell enormous amounts in many areas of the country until it has become Robey's all time best seller topping "Let's Talk About Jesus" by The Belles of Joy, and "I'm Gonna Play The Honky Tonks" by Marie Adams. The Ace recording of "My Song" now gets the cover record treatment assuring it of hit status. Versions are quickly released by Hadda Brooks on Okeh, Dinah Washington for Mercury, and even Marie Adams for Peacock ! Robey covers all bases by running ads in the trade press touting both versions on his two labels.
The hot new R & B star Johnny Ace hits the road in November at well known night spots such as The Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, The Orchid Room in Kansas City, and The Club Alabam on Central Avenue in Watts. At the end of 1952 Ace and his Beale Streeters are booked with Jimmy Forrest, Marie Adams, and James Moody for a number of dates on the West Coast. After a huge run on the R & B charts and a sales total of close to 500,000, Johnny Ace records his next set of tunes for Duke and the release date is early January. The songs are "Cross My Heart" and "Angel" for Duke #107. After the new record hits the streets Ace teams up with fellow label mate Willa Mae "Big Mama" Thornton for a series of one nighters across the South and Southwest. The second release does not do as well as the initial outing for Ace but it is still a substantial R & B seller. In June Duke #112 features "The Clock" and a great rhythm instrumental called "Aces Wild" showcasing Johnny Ace on piano. It shapes up as another good seller and Ace now has the stature to be a headliner as he gets top billing at Gene Norman's Rhythm & Blues Jubilee Show in Los Angeles that August.
In September of 1954 hoping to cash in on the huge and growing popularity of Johnny Ace, Flair Records releases #1015, a previous recording by The Beale Streeters with one side "Midnight Hours Journey" with Ace on vocal and the flip side featuring Earl Forrest on "Trouble And Me". In mid October Johnny Ace makes his first visit to New York and plays a week at the Apollo Theater with Willa Mae Thornton and Junior Parker. That Thanksgiving Day in Houston, Ace along with Thornton, Parker, and Bobby "Blue" Bland, head up a big show that features an appearance by former band member and now headliner B.B. King. A week later the new Duke record by Ace is released - #118 : "Saving My Love For You" and "Yes, Yes, Baby". In early January Duke Records announces that in the previous year the three Johnny Ace records and Thornton's "Hound Dog" have accounted for more than 1,750,000 records sold for the Texas label.
Ace and Thornton continue to barnstorm across the country with a two week stay at Pep's in Philadelphia and then an extended Midwestern tour and ending with another week at New York's Apollo Theater in mid April. In May Duke releases #128 - "You've Been Gone So Long" / "Please Forgive Me". The Thornton-Ace tour continues across the Southeast and then into Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. The show continues to be a big draw on the road. In September "Never Let Me Go" is released on Duke #132. This is the first record that the many new fans of R & B music influenced by Moondog Freed's move to New York have heard by this major performer. Johnny Ace and Willa Mae Thornton are joined by Faye Adams and Memphis Slim & The Houserockers for a number of dates up and down the West coast. At years end Duke #136 is released and the seventh by Ace pairs "Pledging My Love" and "No Money". Ace returns from the coast to do a big show in the hometown of Duke Records, Houston Texas.
The world of Rhythm & Blues and all of contemporary Black entertainment is shocked by the death of Johnny Ace backstage in Houston. His death was caused by an accidental shooting during a turn at Russian Roulette. He has scored eight hits in a row for Duke and the demand for his newest record, "Pledging My Love", in the wake of his death is enormous. By February there are two movements around recent events concerning Ace. The first is the usual glut of cover records when an R & B record begins to sell. Tommy Mara (MGM), The Four Lads (Columbia) and Theresa Brewer (Coral) are covers of "Pledging My Love". The second movement is a number of tribute records recorded after the death of Johnny Ace. These include "Johnny Has Gone" by Varetta Dillard (Savoy), "Johnny Ace's last Letter" by Johnny Fuller (Aladdin) and Johnny Moore's Three Blazers with vocal by Frankie Erwin (Hollywood), "Why Johnny Why" by Linda Hayes (Hollywood) and Patti Jerome (Jubilee). The Duke recording of "Pledging My Love" goes to the number one position in the country on the R & B charts.
In July of 1955 Duke records reports more than 350,000 copies of Johnny Ace's posthumously released "Anymore" have been sold before the official release date. The flip side is "How Can You Be So Mean" on Duke #144. Duke Records plans to release a memorial LP album and a series of 45 EPs. There were two further single record releases by Ace - #148 in January of 1956 "So Lonely" and "I'm Crazy Baby", and during the summer of that year #154 - "Don't You Know" and "I Still Love You So". This was the last record by Ace and the song was ended.
One of the brightest stars of the R & B world was lost much too soon and certainly because of a moment of foolish youthful indiscretion. Johnny Ace had a definite shot at becoming the first great cross over artist of the rock 'n roll years had he lived. His ballad singing style seemed to transcend the social barriers that had existed up to that time, and his in person performances made him a popular and influential star of the time. If you have never heard the full range of songs by Ace, his memorial album may still be available in CD and includes all of the ballad sides of the Duke releases. He was a once in a lifetime performer, and he left us much too soon.
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