Rock and roll has a long and ridiculous history of tragedy. And it probably all started with the accidental shooting death of R&B star Johnny Ace who would have, should have, been 80 years old today.
Born John Marshall Alexander, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee in 1929, Ace was a pianist and balladeer and the first postwar solo black male rhythm and blues star signed to an independent label, Duke Records, to attract a white audience. His first of many hits, "My Song," was released in 1952; other hits followed including "Cross My Heart," "Please Forgive Me," "The Clock," "Yes, Baby" and the classic "Pledging My Love," which was on its way to the top of the R&B charts when he died. Johnny Ace's career lasted barely eighteen months. He only recorded 21 songs.
On Christmas Eve in 1954, Ace was performing at the City Auditorium in Houston. Also on the bill was Big Mama Thornton. They had been on a long, grueling promotional concert tour for most of a year. Ace had put on a lot of weight and was exhausted by the schedule of performing more than 300 shows, playing successive one-night stands sometimes hundreds of miles apart. Ace had become fond of playing with his .22 caliber revolver. Members of his band said he often would point or even unload the gun in their direction or at roadside signs from their car.
In Houston during a break between sets, Ace was, as usual, playing with his gun. First he pointed the gun at his girlfriend and then at another woman who was sitting nearby. He then pointed the gun toward himself, said, "I'll show you how it works." The gun went off into the side of his head.
According to legend Johnny Ace was playing Russian roulette. But witnesses gave a different account. Big Mama Thornton's bass player Curtis Tillman was there: “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 o.k.! 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 that dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed his self; Johnny Ace just killed his self!”
Johnny Ace died several hours later on Christmas Day. He was 25 years old.