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Johnny Ace: A Case Study in the Diffusion and Transformation of Minority Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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Johnny Ace, the mellow crooner of “Pledging My Love” (1955), may have been an influential transitional figure between rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll, but he certainly did not die at age twenty-four playing Russian roulette with the singer Little Esther in a motel room in El Dorado, Arkansas. I heard this account from a black woman who saw him in person on the chitlin circuit, and who paid $2.50 in December of 1953 (“a hard amount to get in those days”) to attend a “Colored Only” dance featuring the Johnny Ace Band at the Elk's Rest Club in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The details she recalls of Ace's death are inaccurate, but the general story she remembers – the legend of Johnny Ace the rhythm & blues star as it exists today in the oral tradition of African-American culture – is closer to the truth in spirit than almost everything ever written about him by rock historians.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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1. A resident of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, born in 1934.

2. For an account of Ace's career as described by rock historians in the 1980s, see Salem, Jim, “Johnny Ace: His Death and How it Played in America,” Goldmine, 10 5, 1990, pp. 34, 38, 146.Google Scholar

3. For a discussion of the various names for black music employed by major labels too embarrassed to use the term “Race” in the postwar period, see Gillett, Charlie, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, rev. and expanded ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1983), p. 122Google Scholar. Billboard called black music “Race Records” until June 25, 1949, when, without comment, it changed the name to “Rhythm & Blues Records,” the term used by RCA Victor.

4. See Escott, Colin, “Johnny Ace: The First Rock ‘n’ Roll Casualty,” Goldmine, 11 21, 1986, pp. 1617.Google Scholar

5. Early, Gerald, “One Nation Under a Groove,” The New Republic, 07 15 and 22, 1991, p. 38.Google Scholar

6. Friedman, Joel, “Coast Lends Spark to Giant $25,000,000 R&B Year,” Billboard, 01 29, 1955, p. 65.Google Scholar

7. See Leonard, Neil, Jazz and the White Americans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962)Google Scholar, for the story of the acceptance of jazz in American mainstream culture between the two world wars.

8. A&R stands for “artist and repertoire,” a music industry term for the individual responsible for choosing appropriate material for a record label's performing artists and deciding which records to release – a powerful position in the traditional music business of the 1950s.

9. Shaw, Arnold, “Jerry Wexler Interview,” chapter in The Rockin' '50s (New York: Hawthorn, 1974), p. 79.Google Scholar

10. Parker, Jim, telephone interview by the author, 04 3, 1992Google Scholar. The term “Beach Music” is still used by collectors and music historians to identify some 1950s R&B records from Atlantic and other labels. In addition, there are important differences between Virginia-Carolina beach jukebox tastes of the period and those of the Florida beaches. In Sound of the City, Gillett estimates the number of jukeboxes in America at the time to be nearly half a million, accounting for up to 40 percent of total record sales (p. 41).

11. Gillett, , Sound of the City, p. 37Google Scholar. Actually the Mills Brothers, from Cincinnati, emerged in 1925 and the Ink Spots, from Indianapolis, ten years later. See Shaw, Arnold, Black Popular Music in America (New York: Schirmer, 1986), pp. 182–84.Google Scholar

12. Hansen, Barry, “Doo-Wop,” in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1950–1980, ed. Miller, Jim (New York: Random House/Rolling Stone, 1980), p. 83Google Scholar. Musicologist Barry Hansen is more popularly known nationally as the syndicated deejay Doctor Demento.

13. The Harlem group the Crows – a five-member “quartet” – formed in the early 1950s and were “discovered” at an amateur night at the Apollo Theater. Like most R&B vocal groups of the period, they were one-hit wonders. Though George Goldner's independent New York label, Rama, generated some income from a Latin version of “Gee” by Joe Loco and his Mambo Stylings on sister label Tico Records (Tico 10–208), the Crows' own follow-up, “Baby” backed with “Untrue,” failed to attract either an R&B or pop audience. Goldner later named a new label after the song and put Frankie Lymon & and the Teenagers on it for “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (Gee 1002, 1956).

14. “Reviews of This Week's New Records,” Billboard, 06 27, 1953, p. 26Google Scholar. Most sources cite a much later release date for this record because it did not debut on the R&B or pop charts until another ten months had passed.

15. “Notes from the R.&B. Beat,” Cash Box, 01 1953Google Scholar, reprinted in Gart, Galen, ed., First Pressings: The History of Rhythm & Blues, Volume 3: 1953 (Milford, N.H.: Big Nickel, 1989), p. 75Google Scholar. A display ad from Cash Box is also reprinted on this page. Gart's First Pressings series reprints valuable dated material from contemporary issues of Cash Box not available in their original form. Billboard made Rama 5 one of “This Week's Best Buys” on July 19, noting that most of the R&B territories favored “I Love You So” (p. 24).Google Scholar

16. “Rama's ‘Gee’ A Switcheroo,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1953, p. 98Google Scholar. The song appeared on the Billboard R&B territorial chart as Number Four in Los Angeles on December 19,1953 (p. 51).

17. “Rama's ‘Gee’ to Meridian” and “Notes from the R.&B. Beat,” reprinted in Gart, Galen, ed., First Pressings: The History of Rhythm & Blues, Volume 4:1954 (Milford, N.H.: Big Nickel, 1990), pp. 34.Google Scholar

18. “Notes from the R.&B. Beat,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1954, p. 27.Google Scholar

19. The April 10, 1954, Billboard charts for popular music indicate “Gee” in the Number Fifteen position for radio airplay and Number Seventeen for jukebox play (p. 32). Interestingly, the song does not make the chart that week for R&B jukeboxes, though it does debut at Number Six for retail sales (p. 45). Billboard did not publish an R&B radio airplay chart until January 22, 1955. Imperfect as the methodology for tracking record sales and jukebox plays was, of all the trade magazines covering American popular music Billboard is considered to be the most reliable. Cash Box, for example, measured only the influence of songs, not individual records, and lumped all recorded versions of a song together for purposes of assigning chart positions. Weekly chart positions in this article have been taken from rhythm & blues charts of dated issues of Billboard as noted or from the three pop charts that monitored popular recordings: “Most Played in Juke Boxes,” “Most Played by Jockeys,” and “Best Sellers in Stores,” the most reliable of the popularity charts and the one that eventually became the basis for the current Billboard “Hot 100.” (Billboard had similar charts for country & western). For summaries of the various Race and rhythm & blues charts as published by Billboard, beginning with the World War II “Harlem Hit Parade,” see Joel Whitburn's Top R&B Singles 1942–1988 (Menomonee Falls, Wis.: Record Research, 1988)Google Scholar. For summaries of Billboard popular music charts, see Whitburn, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits: 1955 to Present (New York: Billboard, 1983)Google Scholar; and Whitburn, 's Pop Memories 1890–1954 (Menomonee Falls, Wis.: Record Research, 1986).Google Scholar

20. Hansen, , “Doo-Wop,” p. 85.Google Scholar

21. Shaw, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues (New York: Macmillan, 1978), p. 430, emphasis added.Google Scholar

22. Cat 104 was released in April of 1954 by parent company Atlantic Records. It should be noted that “Crying in the Chapel” by the Orioles (Jubilee, 1953) is sometimes cited as the first R&B crossover song, but it was not an original performance – it was a cover of a country song. Hansen, for example, considers it a “fluke” (“Doo-Wop,” p. 85).Google Scholar

23. “Atlantic Launching Cat Label Subsid,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1954, p. 37.Google Scholar

24. “Reviews of New R&B Records,” Billboard, 04 24, 1954, p. 52.Google Scholar

25. “This Week's Best Buys,” Billboard, 05 22, 1954, p. 59Google Scholar. About this time, the label corrected its initial error in releasing Cat 104 and announced to the trades that “Sh-Boom” was now the “A” side of Cat 104 and had been recoupled with a new song, “Little Maiden,” also written by the Chords (“Notes from the R.&B. Beat,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1954, p. 59).Google Scholar

26. “Notes from the R.&B. Beat,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1954, p. 50.Google Scholar

27. Shaw, , Rockin' '50s, pp. 7377Google Scholar. The animus Shaw refers to is the attack on the song waged by Stan Freberg, whose parody of “Sh-Boom” and comments about R&B on the television show Juke Box Jury represented heavy animosity.

28. Eliot, Marc, Rockonomics: The Money Behind the Music (New York: Franklin Watts, 1989), pp. 4344.Google Scholar

29. “250G Suit Over ‘Sh-Boom’” reprinted in Gart, Galen, ed., First Pressings: The History of Rhythm & Blues, Volume 5:1955 (Milford, N.H.: Big Nickel, 1990), p. 125.Google Scholar

30. “Review Spotlight on…,” Billboard, 04 10, 1954, p. 46Google Scholar. “Big” Joe Turner's career went back to the 1930s, when he recorded for Vocation. Signed to Atlantic in the early 1950s, this was his second number one R&B hit for the label.

31. “Reviews of New R&B Records,” Billboard, 04 17, 1954, p. 28.Google Scholar

32. Atlantic producer Jesse Stone was the real author of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” He used a pseudonym, he says, as a way of collecting writer's performance money from both ASCAP and BMI (Toches, Nick, Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll [New York: Scribner's, 1984], p. 16)Google Scholar. In addition, Gillett points out that sexual content was not the only characteristic that kept Joe Turner's records contained within the subculture. All of the blues shouters, he says, were “too adult in their concerns and terms of reference” for an adolescent audience (Sound of the City, p. 127).Google Scholar

33. “Moon(dog) Looming Large Over Gotham; WINS May Guarantee Him $75,000 Yearly,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1954, p. 67.Google Scholar

34. “Notes from the R.&B. Beat,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1954, p. 83.Google Scholar

35. “Bursting Old Barriers,” Billboard, 04 24, 1954, p. 13.Google Scholar

36. Ackerman, Paul, “R&B Tunes' Boom Relegates Pop Field to Cover Activity,” Billboard, 03 26, 1955, p. 18.Google Scholar

37. Sanjek, Russell, From Print to Plastic: Publishing and Promoting America's Popular Music (1900–1980) (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1983; I.S.A.M. Monographs no. 20), pp. 812Google Scholar. Sanjek marvels at just how extraordinary the compulsory license decision was in a free-market economy: “For the first time in American history,” he says, “the peacetime bargaining process between a supplier and a user was regulated by the federal government, and the price for use of private property fixed by national law” (p. 9).

38. McNeil, Alex, Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to 1980 (New York: Penguin, 1980), p. 796.Google Scholar

39. Hughes, Langston, “Highway Robbery Across the Color Line in Rhythm and Blues,” New York Age-Defender, 07 2, 1955, p. 10Google Scholar. The reference to the 1840s was to minstrelsy, which “swept the nation” during this decade and was patterned the same way. See Toll, Robert C., Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).Google Scholar

40. “TV Ain't the Real Thing,” Chicago Defender, 03 19, 1955, p. 9Google Scholar. “TV will not be a truly American ‘thing’ until it integrates all people, regardless of color,” the Defender said.

41. Shaw, Arnold, Rockin' '50s, pp. 125–26.Google Scholar

42. “La Vern Baker Smiles Over Tune's Success While Defying ‘Lifts’,” Chicago Defender, 02 19, 1955, p. 6Google Scholar. Actually, there were six covers in all, including a country version by Pee Wee King, but Vicki Young (Capitol) was the only other singer Baker mentioned.

43. “Evelyn Knight Decca Sensash,” Variety, 01 8, 1949, p. 14.Google Scholar

44. “Supreme Loses Case for 400G Against Decca,” Billboard, 05 13, 1950, p. 12.Google Scholar

45. “No Copyright on Arrangement,” Variety, 05 10, 1950, p. 35.Google Scholar

46. “When Is a ‘Copy’ Not a Steal? When It's a ‘Cover’ of a Disk,” Variety, 12 21, 1955, p. 35.Google Scholar

47. Sanjek, Russell, American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), vol. 3, pp. 4344.Google Scholar

48. “Lavern Baker Seeks Bill to Halt Arrangement ‘Thefts’,” Billboard, 03 5, 1955, p. 13.Google Scholar

49. Atlas, Ben, “Diggs Intros Copyright Fact-Finding Measure,” Billboard, 04 9, 1955, p. 14Google Scholar. The Diggs bill was identical to a House bill filed in January by Rep. Frank J. Thompson, Jr., a New Jersey Democrat. Billboard labeled the Congressional activity a “new flurry of interest in copyright fact-finding,” with Diggs providing “a boost on the House side” to favorable treatment by the House Judiciary Committee.

50. “R.&B. Disks Dropped for Miss Gibbs,” Billboard, 03 12, 1955, p. 22.Google Scholar

51. Whitburn lists Gibbs's “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” as a number one pop song (Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, p. 123)Google Scholar, but his summary calculations credit the highest position achieved on any of the charts, in this case “Most Played in Juke Boxes” (05 28, 1955).Google Scholar

52. “Coast Girl Asks $10,000: Thinks Tune Was Born of Her Hit the ‘Wallflower,’” Chicago Defender, 06 4, 1955, p. 18.Google Scholar

53. “Ban on ‘Copy’ Records Enacted by Station WINS,” reprinted in Gart, , First Pressings: 1954, p. 91.Google Scholar

54. “1955: The Year R&B Took Over Pop Field,” Billboard, 11 12, 1955, p. 126.Google Scholar

55. Norma (Alexander) Williams, sister of Johnny Ace, telephone interview by author, February 8, 1991. Born in 1928, Norma is older than John, Jr., but since “he told everybody we were twins” she is sometimes referred to as his twin sister Norma. Interviews are essential to an understanding of Ace's childhood because the few printed accounts of his life are sketchy and unreliable.

56. Toches, , Unsung Heroes, p. 133.Google Scholar

57. George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm & Blues (New York: Plume, 1988), p. 41.Google Scholar

58. Sawyer, Charles, The Arrival of B. B. King: The Authorized Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 5867.Google Scholar

59. Moonigan, George A. and Meeden, Roger, “Duke Records-the Early Years: An Interview with David J. Mattis,” Whiskey, Women, and … (06 1984): 1825Google Scholar. Virtually all acounts of the early Duke years rely on this 1984 interview.

60. Gart, Galen and Ames, Roy C., Duke/Peacock Records: An Illustrated History with Discography (Milford, N.H.: Big Nickel, 1990), p. 3.Google Scholar

61. Gart, and Ames, , Duke/Peacock Records, p. 51.Google Scholar

62. Otis, Johnny, telephone interview by the author, 11 7, 1989Google Scholar. Johnny Otis, who produced most of the Ace sides, is an important figure in the transformation of R&B to rock ‘n’ roll. The Johnny Otis Show (billed as the Rhythm and Blues Caravan) was one of the last of the great R&B touring bands of the 1950s – Little Esther and Big Mama Thornton were among the featured vocalists. In 1958, he had a Top 10 record for Capitol called “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Born of Greek parents in 1921, Otis grew up in Berkeley, California, in an integrated neighborhood that became a total Negro community. His friends were black, the high-school sweetheart he married was black, the music he loved was black. In his book about the Watts riots (Listen to the Lambs [New York: Norton, 1968]) Otis explains how he became “black by choice.”

63. Billboard, 08 2, 1952, p. 105.Google Scholar

64. Moonigan, and Meeder, , “Mattis Interview,” p. 22Google Scholar. Mattis says that when he tried to exercise what he understood to be an authentic partnership agreement with Robey, Robey pulled a gun on him and said, “There'll be nothing like that.”

65. “Strange Case of Johnny Ace,” Ebony (07 1955): 65.Google Scholar

66. Gart, and Ames, , Duke/Peacock Records, p. 3Google Scholar. After twenty-five years as head of this independent record operation, Robey sold his companies to ABC/Dunhill in 1973 for a reported one million dollars. By this time his Lion/Don publishing catalogues had almost three thousand songs, and his Duke/Peacock/Songbird/Backbeat record labels had an estimated one hundred contracted artists. Scandalous stories involving Robey abound, and it is alleged that he was a “black Godfather,” “a czar of the Negro underworld,” “a character out of Guys and Dolls” (Patoski, Joe Nick, “Don D. Robey, R&B Pioneer, Dead at 71,” Rolling Stone, 07 31, 1975, p. 22).Google Scholar

67. Shaw, , Honkers and Shouters, 92Google Scholar. LeRoy Carr was born in Nashville, Tennessee, raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, and made his reputation with “How Long, How Long Blues” (Vocalion, 1928).Google Scholar

68. “Talent Corner,” Billboard, 01 29, 1955, p. 34.Google Scholar

69. Rolontz, Bob, “Rhythm & Blues Notes,” Billboard, 08 23, 1952, p. 35Google Scholar. Contemporary cover versions of “My Song” were released by Dinah Washington (Mercury), Hadda Brooks (Okeh), and Marie Adams (Peacock), in which Don Robey was in effect covering his own song.

70. Reproduced without attribution in Moonigan, and Meeden, , “Mattis Interview,” p. 21Google Scholar, but believed to be a Cash Box item.

71. Rolontz, Bob, “Rhythm & Blues Notes,” Billboard, 11 8, 1952, p. 48.Google Scholar

72. Quoted in Travis, Dempsey J., An Autobiography of Black Jazz (Chicago: Urban Research Institute, 1983), pp. 214, 216.Google Scholar

73. “Johnny Ace Discs Hits [sic],” New York Age-Defender, 02 13, 1954, p. 9.Google Scholar

74. Holford, Bill, interview by author, Houston, Texas, 03 8, 1991Google Scholar. Holford kept meticulous studio logbooks of songs that he recorded and mastered for pressing.

75. Leadbitter, Mike and Slaven, Neil, Blues Records, 1943–1987: A Selective Discography (London: Record Information Services, 1987), p. 12Google Scholar. This is the standard discography in the postwar blues field.

76. “Strange Case of Johnny Ace,” p. 67.Google Scholar

77. Thornton, Willie Mae, Deposition, State of Texas, County of Harris (12 26, 1954).Google Scholar

78. Gibbs, Olivia, Deposition, State of Texas, County of Harris (12 26, 1954).Google Scholar

79. Carter, Mary, Deposition, State of Texas, County of Harris (12 26, 1954).Google Scholar

80. Inquest Proceedings: John Alexander known as Johnnie [sic] Ace, State of Texas, County of Harris (December 26, 1954).

81. “Strange Case of Johnny Ace,” p. 63.Google Scholar

82. “Final Notes Sound for Johnny Ace,” Memphis World, 01 1, 1955, p. 1.Google Scholar

83. “This Week's Best Buys,” Billboard, 01 15, 1955, p. 60.Google Scholar

84. Gart, and Ames, , Duke/Peacock Records, p. 77.Google Scholar

85. “This Week's Best Buys,” Billboard, 02 26, 1955, p. 46.Google Scholar

86. “Salute to Johnny Ace” (The Rovers, Music City [number unknown]); “Johnny Ace's Last Letter” (Johnny Moore, Hollywood 1031, and Johnny Fuller, Aladdin 3278); “Why Johnny, Why” (Linda Hayes, Hollywood 1031); “In Memory” (Marie Adams/Johnny Otis Band, Peacock 1649); and “Johnny Has Gone” (Varetta Dillard, Savoy 1153). Other tributes were released, “Johnny's Still Singing” (The Five Wings, King 4778), for example, but I have not been able to find a copy, nor have I been able to rule out the possibility of additional contemporary tributes.

87. In “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” a young musician hears of Ace's death in 1954 and sends away for his photograph. “It came all the way from Texas, with a sad and simple face / And they signed it on the bottom from the late great Johnny Ace” (Simon, Paul, Hearts and BonesGoogle Scholar [WBR CD 2–23942]). It is a British notion that Ace was the “coloured James Dean” (Leadbitter, Mike, ed., Nothing But the Blues [London: Hanover, 1971], p. 183)Google Scholar. See also Grendysa, Peter, “Johnny Ace, the ‘Ace’ of Duke,” Goldmine, 09 25, 1987, p. 28Google Scholar; and Toches, , Unsung Heroes, p. 133.Google Scholar

88. Dalton, David, James Dean: The Mutant King (New York: St. Martin's, 1974), pp. 280–81.Google Scholar

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