Rock and Roll Graveyard, Part 1
The passing of R&B singer/songwriter Teena Marie on the day after Christmas (and, recently, Captain Beefheart) got us to thinking about these rock and roll tragedies, and how many of them happen during the holiday season. Otis Redding’s plane crashed in December 1967, while John Lennon was gunned down in December 1980. James Brown passed on Christmas Day 2006, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson drowned a few days before New Year’s 1984 and guitarist Randy California of Spirit disappeared in a California riptide on the day after New Year’s 1997.
A word here about Teena Marie: she burst onto the scene in the late 1970s as a teenaged protege of funkster Rick James, and until she appeared with him on a 1979 episode of “Soul Train,” many listeners thought she was black. Teena Marie was a white act signed to Motown Records, and her music combined rock and R&B to make her an influence on present-day acts like Rihanna and Beyonce.
OK, let’s turn back the clock a bit to the 1950s and take a look at another R&B great – Johnny Ace. Originally from Memphis, this preacher’s son originally played in a band that had B.B. King as its guitarist. When King left, Ace took over the band and in 1952 Johnny Ace and the Beale Streeters became one of the first acts to record for the fledgling Duke Records.
A great pianist, Ace showed his skill on instrumentals like “Ace’s Wild” but he most often accompanied himself on smoky late-night tunes like “Angel” and “Cross My Heart.” Touring heavily, Ace put together a string of hits that included “Please Forgive Me,” “The Clock,” “Yes, Baby,” “Saving My Love for You,” and “Never Let Me Go.”
Radio loved this guy, and so did concert audiences – usually on a bill with Big Mama Thornton or Duke label mate Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnny Ace was quite a big star in 1954.
It was Christmas 1954, and Johnny Ace was about to play a gig in Houston’s City Auditorium. Backstage, he was fooling around with a pistol and scaring other musicians by waving it around carelessly. When somebody told him to be careful, Ace laughed and said “It’s okay, it isn’t loaded.” He put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger – you can guess the rest. Some reports say Ace was playing Russian roulette, but eyewitnesses confirmed the first version of the story.
After his funeral in Memphis the day after New Year’s, Johnny Ace had a monster posthumous hit with “Pledging My Love,” cut in Houston with Johnny Otis earlier in 1954. Fueled by morbid interest in the singer’s untimely death (he was only 25), “Pledging” rocketed to No. 1 on the R&B charts and stayed there for 10 weeks, and on the pop charts it broke into the Top 20. In the year after Ace’s death Robey continued to raid the vault and Johnny Ace scored a handful more hits before receding into the mists of legend.
He was remembered most famously by Paul Simon in 1983, who wrote and sang “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” which also made reference to the murder of John Lennon. Simon first performed the song in 1981 during the Simon & Garfunkel reunion in New York’s Central Park. Near the end of the performance an audience member rushed the stage, causing Simon to pull away from the microphone. As security yanked the guy away he yelled to Simon, “I gotta talk to you, I gotta talk to you.” Visibly shaken, Simon continued the song but it was a scary moment as seen on video.