John Marshall Alexander, Jr. (June 9, 1929 – December 25, 1954), known by the stage name Johnny Ace, was an American rhythm and blues singer. He scored a string of hit singles in the mid-1950s before dying of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Alexander was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a preacher, and grew up near LeMoyne-Owen College. After serving in the navy during the Korean War, Alexander joined Adolph Duncan's Band as a pianist. He then joined the B. B. King band. Soon King departed for Los Angeles and vocalist Bobby Bland joined the army. Alexander took over vocal duties and renamed the band The Beale Streeters, also taking over King's WDIA radio show.
Becoming "Johnny Ace", he signed to Duke Records (originally a Memphis label associated with WDIA) in 1952. Urbane 'heart-ballad' "My Song," his first recording, topped the R&B charts for nine weeks in September. ("My Song" was covered in 1968 by Aretha Franklin, on the flipside of "See Saw".)
Ace began heavy touring, often with Willie 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," "Saving My Love for You," and "Never Let Me Go." In December, 1954 he was named the Most Programmed Artist of 1954 after a national DJ poll organized by U.S. trade weekly Cash Box.
Ace's recordings sold very well for those times. Early in 1955, Duke Records announced that the three 1954 Johnny Ace recordings, along with Thornton's "Hound Dog", had sold more than 1,750,000 records.
After touring for a year, Ace had been performing at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas on Christmas Day 1954. During a break between sets, he was playing with a .22 caliber revolver. Members of his band said he did this often, sometimes shooting at roadside signs from their car.
It was widely reported that Ace killed himself playing Russian roulette. Big Mama Thornton's bass player Curtis Tillman, however, who witnessed the event, said, "I will tell you exactly what happened! Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ — sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran out of the dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed himself!"
Thornton said in a written statement (included in the book The Late Great Johnny Ace) that Ace had been playing with the gun, but not playing Russian roulette. According to Thornton, Ace pointed the gun at his girlfriend and another woman who were sitting nearby, but did not fire. He then pointed the gun toward himself, bragging
g that he knew which chamber was loaded. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head. According to Nick Tosches, Ace actually shot himself with a .32 pistol, not a .22, and it happened little more than an hour after he had bought a brand new 1955 Oldsmobile.
Ace's funeral was on January 9, 1955, at Memphis' Clayborn Temple AME church. It was attended by an estimated 5,000 people. "Pledging My Love" became a posthumous R&B No. 1 hit for ten weeks beginning February 12, 1955. As Billboard bluntly put it, Ace's death "created one of the biggest demands for a record that has occurred since the death of Hank Williams just over two years ago." His single sides were compiled and released as The Johnny Ace Memorial Album.
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. He was a once in a lifetime performer, and he left us much too soon. (Info mainly Wikipedia)