“Johnny Ace” scored a string of hit singles in the mid 1950’s, dying prematurely of an unintentional self-inflicted gunshot wound. Born John Marshall Alexander, Jr, he was the son of a preacher, in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up near LeMoyne-Owen College. Alexander joined Adolph Duncan’s Group as a pianist after serving in the navy during the Korean War. Then he joined the B. B. King group. Shortly King departed for Los Angeles and vocalist Bobby Bland joined the military. Alexander renamed the group The Beale Streeters, additionally taking over King’s WDIA radio show and took over vocal duties.
Becoming “Johnny Ace”, he signed to Duke Records (initially a Memphis label connected with WDIA) in 1952. Urbane ‘heart-ballad’ “My Song,” his first record, topped the R&B charts for nine weeks in September. Ace started significant touring, generally with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.
Ace had been performing at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas on Christmas after touring for a year. During a rest between sets, he was playing with a .22 caliber revolver. Members of his group said he did this regularly, occasionally shooting from their automobile at roadside signs.
It was reported that Ace killed himself playing Russian roulette. Big Mama Thornton’s bass player Curtis Tillman, nevertheless, who watched the occasion, said, “I’ll let you know just what occurred! Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this small pistol he was waving across the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that matter…’ and he said ‘It Is alright! Firearm’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a grin on his face and ‘Bang!’–unhappy, sad thing. Big Mama ran out of the dressing room screaming Johnny Ace killed himself!”
Based on Thornton, Ace pointed the gun at his girlfriend and another girl who were sitting nearby, but didn’t fire. Then he pointed the gun toward himself, bragging that he understood which chamber was loaded. The gun went off, shooting at him in the right or left side of the head.
According to Nick Tosches, Ace really shot himself with a .32 pistol, not a .22, also it occurred little more than an hour after he’d purchased a brand new 1955 Oldsmobile. Ace’s funeral was at Memphis’ Clayborn Temple AME Church, on January 9, 1955 with an estimated five thousand mourners in attendance. As Billboard bluntly put it, Ace’s earthly departure “created one of the greatest demands for a record which has happened since the passing of Hank Williams only over a couple of years back.”
It is highly doubtful that Johnny Ace would have been considered a “One Hit Wonder” if her had led a longer life. For some, success, or the lack thereof is from an artistic, talent, material and kin this unfortunate scenario, untimely death. Now, enjoy some of Johnny Ace’s music while at the pinnacle of his success in the industry.
What is Breaking the Curse Music? How about finding out as we offer a historical look at the many “One Hit Wonders” of the music industry. Do you have a favorite, “One Hit Wonder” Band? Ever wonder why the band couldn’t overcome the dreaded “sophomore slump?” If so, please join our trip down “Memory Lane” as we research even the most obscure music groups and/or solo artists.
The music business is without question a brutal industry filled with high hopes, visions of stardom and dollar signs. Obviously, the majority never come close to realizing these “star-filled” dreams. With that said, please take a listen to the song “Hollywood” from the much underrated Kansas City band, “Shooting Star.”
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