Born in Memphis on 9 June 1929, Johnny Ace (real name John Marshall Alexander Jr) returned from service in the US Navy during WWII to play piano in The Beale Streeters, a late 1940s band which also included subsequent blues legends Bobby Bland and BB King.
Becoming “Johnny Ace”, he signed to Duke Records (originally a Memphis label associated with radio station WDIA) in 1952. My Song, his first recording, topped the R&B charts for nine weeks in September. (and was covered in 1968 by Aretha Franklin.)
Ace began touring heavily, often with Willa Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. In the next two years, he had eight hits in a row, including Cross My Heart, Please Forgive Me, The Clock, Yes, Baby and Never Let Me Go.
In December 1954 he was named the Most Programmed Artist Of 1954 after a national DJ poll organised by US trade weekly Cash Box.
Ace’s speciality was the ”beat ballad” where he used the rhythms of R&B to decorate something rather more controlled and less frantic than the output of his contemporaries.
Unfortunately, he did not live to witness his greatest success. After recording Pledging My Love – a chart-topper in early 1955 – he blew his brains out with a 22-calibre revolver while playing Russian Roulette on Christmas Eve 1954 in his dressing room at the City Auditorium in Houston – thus becoming the genre’s first and most dramatic fatality.
Rumours abounded that Ace was actually murdered by Duke Records’ Don D. Robey, with whom he was in dispute. In those days, however, investigating the death of a black man was not a priority.