(Memphis, Tennessee) By the end of this article, I hope to rectify a misconception concerning the death of Johnny Ace which has persisted since his death in 1954. He did not kill himself playing Russian roulette as has been claimed by so many for so long, but indeed died as a result of an unfortunate accident.
Earl Forest, drummer, engineer, singer, mentor and friend
The actual account of this incident was passed along to me by my mentor, Earl Forest, who was a recording artist and engineer back in the early 1950′s. Among Earl’s many accomplishments, he played drums for B.B. King‘s band for many years and actually signed Johnny “Ace” Alexander to B.B.’s band back in those days. As he related the story to me, he met Johnny in the early 1950′s at the Green Beetle on South Main (which incidentally is the oldest tavern in Memphis and is currently closed for renovations). Earl said Johnny often hung out there and drank beer. The guys in the band usually had to go there and pick him up before the gigs as he had terrible stage fright. Earl said that once they dragged him into the car, he was fine, it was just the idea of playing the gig that made him nervous earlier in the day.
Johnny was a wild and carefree youngster who often drove fast, took pot shots at road signs road trips and loved to play jokes on his friends. His father, Rev. John Alexander, was a minister in Memphis who frowned on his son playing the devil’s music and had little to do with him after Johnny began his music career. The Alexander’s home is located about two blocks from the Memphis STAX Museum and one block from Memphis Slim’s original Memphis home.
Duke and Peacock Records
Earl Forest also signed many artists for the Duke and Peacock labels, recording labels which originated in Memphis and were sold by radio dj and WDIA programmer David Mattis to Don Robey of Houston, Texas. Earl Forest was also the engineer for the label. Back in those days Earl bragged of having “Three tracks when (Sam) Phillips didn’t have but two!” Earl also recorded at Phillips and was there for when Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston‘s recorded what is claimed to be the first Rock and roll song, “Rocket 88.”
Earl regaled me with stories about recording sessions during which he relegated Gene “Bowlegs” Miller to playing in the hall outside the big recording room because his trumpet was “just too goddamn loud” in the recording mix. At that time there were not enough channels to separate each instrument onto its own track and the horn section would share a microphone. Earl would potentate the volume of each instrument by placing it closer or further away from the mic, that was the “volume knob.” Bowlegs also played in Earl’s band, the same band that allowed a young Elvis Presley to sit in during one of their gigs on Beale Street.
Earl was busy recording, working as A&R man for Duke and Peacock, cutting his own 78′s under his name, and playing with several bands. Earl, Johnny Ace and B.B. King all were living at the Mitchell hotel on South Main, now known as Ernestine & Hazel’s. This old rooming house was famous for putting up famous blues and jazz musicians during this period and owner sunbeam mitchell always had some great bands on hand to jam at his club when they weren’t gigging other places. Earl said that he, Johnny Ace, and B.B. wore the same size suits at that time and often borrowed clothes from one another during those early days.
In 1948, King assembled his own band; the B.B. King Review, under the leadership of Millard Lee. The band initially consisted of Calvin Owens and Kenneth Sands (trumpet), Lawrence Burdin (alto saxophone), George Coleman (tenor saxophone),[8 Floyd Newman (baritone saxophone), Millard Lee (piano), George Joyner (bass) and Earl Forest and Ted Curry (drums).
Earl Forest played drums on B.B. King’s first hit, “Three O’Clock Blues” (1951) which was recorded in Memphis at the YMCA. They spread sheets on the walls and cut the song on one track, with one microphone in the room. B.B. was soon cutting songs with Sam Phillips who was providing the masters to the Bihari brothers’ RPM label, with whom B.B. had signed a record deal.
After Earl and Johnny Ace spent lots of time in the studio at Main and Winchester Streets in downtown Memphis, one of the songs they had written became the Billboard #1 R & B hit for nine consecutive weeks during 1952. His soulful, strong vocal and Adolf “Billy” Duncan’s saxophone rise above the limitations of the little studio and the slightly out of tune piano he is playing. Johnny had first joined Duncan’s band in Memphis after he was released from the Army and taught himself how to play piano, around 1949.
Here’s a later cut, an instrumental, that Earl Forest recorded, called, Beale Street Popeye. That’s Earl at the end saying, “I’m Beale Street Popeye.” At times it almost sounds like the Marquees.
Listen to this beautiful ballad. That’s the work of Johnny and Earl in the studio, writing and playing and singing. You can hear Earl playing vibes on this one. He was a damn good keyboard and vibes player for a guy who usually played some great drums. When I attended Earl’s funeral at the Antioch Baptist Church in Memphis, B. B. King addressed the crowd that day, saying, “You all had some real nice things to say about Earl. But I want to mention one thing that nobody has mentioned yet. Earl Forest was one hell of a fine drummer!”
Johnny, who up until this time was a Beale Streeter and piano player in B.B. King’s band, hit the road behind this hit and toured the country for Don Robey’s Buffalo Booking Agency out of Houston. He played in one of the two package tours that had been assembled by Robey. One group was headlined by B.B. King and Earl Forest, both of whom were having success on the R & B charts by this point.
Above that’s B.B’s bus, Big Red, that’s Earl in the light suit and standing to the right of him, my friend and former band mate, Evelyn “Mama Nuts” Young who played saxophone. The King’s Palace Cafe sign is still on Beale and the place is still going strong.
Hitting the Road
The other package tour featured Johnny Ace and Big Mama Thornton and Milton Hopkins on guitar. The two groups of musicians would tour half of the USA for several months and then switch, covering the gigs on the east coast if they had been playing out west or vice versa. Both groups were playing about 350 gigs during the year 1954, a grueling schedule.
In 1953, Johnny Ace is joined on another Duke session by Big Mama Thornton(vocals) for the tune “Yes Baby.”
Johnny’s very first release, “My Song,” was followed by a succession of Duke recordings with Ace scoring hit after hit in the same smooth style. “Cross My Heart,” “The Clock,” “Saving My Love for You,” “Please Forgive Me,” and “Never Let Me Go” all made it to the upper reaches of the R & B charts. Some of the famous Beale Streeters join Johnny on the recordings of this era including his friend and band mate B. B. King who plays some great guitar on a couple of these early recording. Earl and Johnny appear on the same disc on Flair records 105, a September 1954 release by the Beale Streeters with “Midnight Hours Journey” by Johnny on one side and Earl singing”trouble and Me” on the flip side.
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. Johnny was voted Billboard Magazine‘s Most Promising R & B Performer in 1954. The touring package show had returned to do a show on Christmas night of 1954 at Duke/Peacock’s home base of Houston. They had moved the recording studios there from Memphis some time after it was purchased by Don Robey.
Christmas Night, 1954
After the first set of the show that night, the band returned to the dressing room. Here’s the article from the Houston paper giving their inaccurate account of what followed:
Tragedy Strikes R&B Field; Johnny Ace Dies in Russian Roulette Game HOUSTON, Jan. 1, 1955 -
Rhythm and blues recording star Johnny Ace accidentally killed himself while playing Russian roulette at a holiday dance here on Saturday (December 25). The shooting occurred at a show featuring the popular singer and his band. Ace had gone backstage for a five-minute break and had been fooling around with a revolver with one bullet in the chamber. Ace, whose real name was John Alexander, was one of the brightest stars in the r&b field. He rose to fame on Duke Records, coming thru with his first hit, “My Song,” in 1952. Since then he has had eight hits in a row, including “Cross My Heart,” “Please Forgive Me,” “The Clock,” “Yes, Baby” and the current “Never Let Me Go.” The news of the singer’s death caused a big demand for his past record hits. Peacock Records, which owns the Duke label, is rushing out an LP of Ace’s sides to meet this demand. In addition, the label is releasing another new single, “Pledging My Love.” The label will also release other sides made by Ace recently. Ace was 25 years old.
Beginning in January ’53, Ace began working with the Johnny Otis Band. They backed Johnny on his most famous song, which was released posthumously, “Pledging My Love.” This song would remain atop Billboard’s R&B lists for ten weeks in early 1955. One further hit, “Anymore,” exhausted Duke’s stockpile of Ace masters, so they tried to repeat the late pianist’s success by recruiting Johnny’s younger brother, St. Claire Alexander, to record as Buddy Ace. When that didn’t work out, Don Robey took singer Jimmy Lee Land, renamed him Buddy Ace, and recorded him all the way into the late ’60s.
Earl Forest and others from these package tour groups were bothered by the misinformation circulated about Johnny Ace’s death throughout the years, so let me set things straight once and for all. Earl spoke with Big Mama Thornton on the phone on Christmas night when Johnny died.
After the mischievous Johnny Ace had “snapped” this pistol on several people as a joke while they toured, the imposing Big Mama Thornton had simply taken it away from him several days previous. He begged to get the pistol back from her for several days and she finally relented on Christmas Day. She had taken what she thought were all the bullets out of the gun, but it was a 7 shot revolver and still had one left in the cylinder. While his girlfriend was sitting in his lap, he snapped or dry fired the gun on Big Mama when she entered the dressing room. She began fussing with him and he said, “there’s nothing in it,” pointed it at his head and fired the fatal shot. It was an accident. Nobody had any idea there was a bullet in the gun.
…and to corroborate Earl’s story…From RealBluesMagazine.com:
“One of the greatest tragedies in American Music History was witnessed first-hand by Curtis; the accidental shooting of Johnny Ace and it still bothered him in 1993 to talk about it. Curtis got somewhat exasperated when the ridiculous ‘Russian Roulette’ story was brought up and despite both his and Big Mama Thornton’s eyewitness accounts of the shooting the Major Media still promotes the erroneous demise of the Great Johnny Ace.
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 outta that dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed hisself!”
Even after his death, his religious family left his new station wagon to disintegrate on the streets of Houston. Earl stated that Johnny would send money home to his parents and that they “sure didn’t mind cashing his checks” but that they would have little or nothing to do with the blues man. Earl shook his head and said, “Nighthawk, it’s just a crying shame, a damn shame.”
To end on a more cheerful note, here’s a cool video of some great harp players from back in those days. Here’s Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Shakey Horton, J.B. Lenoir & Dr Ross all blowing harp:
My CD, Robert Nighthawk Tooms & the Wampus Cats featuring Earl Forest and Richard Hite will soon be released by I-55 Productions. More on that soon.
Check out my website at RobertNighthawkTooms.com
© Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms, 2010