The music business is filled with tragic stories, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of individual tales of opportunities lost and potential unfilled. One of those is the story of Johnny Ace.
Johnny Ace (John Marshall Alexander, Jr.) was a Memphis native and a regular on the local music scene from an early age. A contemporary of B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, he appeared with both in the popular R&B group, The Beale Streeters, playing piano and occasionally singing too. After King began his rise to stardom in the early Fifties and moved on, Johnny became the focal point of the group.
His voice was pleasant if not much different from that of a lot of other singers at the time, but he nevertheless caught the ear of record scouts and soon made his first recording, a smooth R&B tune called “My Song.” To the surprise of many, it caught fire and became a hit — Johnny was on his way.
Johnny began a string of good-sellers that included “Cross My Heart,” “Saving My Love for You,” and “Please Forgive Me,” along with a few others. His fans loved his mellow style and if the ballads he chose to sing were all a little similar, so much the better.
By late 1954 he seemed to have everything going his way. He was selling records and getting more and more attention in the media, and fans were flocking to his successful touring show, which included Big Mama Thornton and other popular acts. But it all came crashing down between shows on Christmas Day.
Accounts differ of just what happened. What’s known is that he was handling a revolver, pointing it at his girlfriend and others and either playing Russian Roulette or just pretending to do so. In any case, when he pointed it at his own head the gun went off.
Ironically – but not surprisingly – his biggest hit was issued posthumously. “Pledging My Love” reached the top of the charts, and Johnny’s shocking story even generated some tribute songs from other singers, but his own legacy is a tale of unfulfilled potential.