Johnny Ace was born John Marshall Alexander, on June 9, 1929. He was in the US military and in the Korean war. In 1951-52, he toured as a sideman for B.B. King, after which he went solo. He opened for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and other acts. From 1952 to 1954, he had eight hit singles in a row.
Ace was known for drinking and for playing with guns. He had a .22 pistol that he took on tour and shot at road signs. On December 25, 1954, sixty five years ago today, that combination killed him. There are two accounts of his death by witnesses, either that he was playing Russian Roulette, or that he drunkenly pointed the gun at his head and said “it’s not loaded” before pulling the trigger. Either way, his life ended prematurely due to the combination of guns and alcohol. Ace is considered to be Rock and Roll’s first tragedy.
After his death, his remaining unreleased songs continued to make the charts until 1956 when there were none left. You have to wonder how successful he could have been as a Rock and Roll musician had he lived. His influence is as massive as Buddy Holly, namechecked and his songs covered by many – Johnny Otis, Johnny Copeland, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Aaron Neville, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, etc. The list goes on and on.
On youtube there is a playlist: The “Memorial Album For Johnny Ace”, released in 1956, containing all his 21 songs. It makes for wonderful listening.