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 had a string of hit singles in the mid-1950s. He died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 25.
Alexander was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a preacher, and grew up near LeMoyne-Owen College. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he joined Adolph Duncan’s Band as a pianist. He then joined the B. B. King band. Soon King departed for Los Angeles, and the band’s singer, Bobby Bland, joined the army. Alexander took over vocal duties and renamed the band the Beale Streeters. He also took over King’s radio show on WDIA.
He began performing as Johnny Ace. He signed with Duke Records (originally a Memphis label associated with WDIA) in 1952. His first recording, “My Song”, an urbane “heart ballad”, topped the R&B chart for nine weeks in September. (A cover version by Aretha Franklin was released in 1968, on the flip side 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, according to the results of a national poll of disc jockeys conducted by the U.S. trade weekly Cash Box.
Ace’s recordings sold very well for those times. Early in 1955, Duke Records announced that three of his 1954 recordings, along with Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, had sold more than 1,750,000 copies
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 .32-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.
However, Big Mama Thornton’s bass player, Curtis Tillman, 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 that he knew which chamber was loaded. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head.
According to his biographer Nick Tosches, Ace shot himself with a .32 pistol, not a .22, and it happened little more than an hour after he had bought a new 1955 Oldsmobile.
Ace’s funeral was held on January 2, 1955, at Clayborn Temple AME church in Memphis. It was attended by an estimated 5,000 people. His remains were buried at New Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Pledging My Love” was a posthumous R&B number 1 hit for 10 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 Williamsjust over two years ago.” His single recordings were compiled and released as The Johnny Ace Memorial Album.