Rising R&B star Johnny Ace shot himself in the head today (December 25, 1954) while backstage at Houston’s City Auditorium.
Johnny Ace, born John Marshall Alexander, was playing a game of Russian roulette with his girlfriend when the tragedy occurred.
Ace had finished singing “Yes, Baby Yes” to 3,000 screaming fans. During a 5 minute intermission, he went back stage, where his girlfriend Olivia Gibbs, Mary Carter and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton were sitting amongst others.
Olivia Gibbs told officers that earlier in the day Johnny Ace had been fooling with the .22 pistol as he usually did and that the gun, which he purchased from another musician while in Florida, was not loaded.
“I saw Johnny look at the gun and then he put it up to my head and pulled the trigger and it snapped,“ Olivia Gibbs told Police. “I saw him look at the gun again and then he put it up to his head and pulled the trigger and the gun fired. He then fell off the table and onto the floor everybody ran out of the room except Mary Carter, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and me. I thought he was just playing and I picked up his head and then I saw the blood. I then ran to the box office and told Evelyn Johnson that Johnny had shot himself.”
To be technical, Johnny Ace was not actually playing the “game” of Russian Roulette.
Although he was obviously taking chances with the gun, he pointed the weapon first at his girlfriend and pulled the trigger, before turning the pistol on himself fatally.
Contrary to reports circulated for promotional purposes by Peacock Records owner Don Robey, Ace died today, December 25, not the day before, as is widely reported.
Johnny Ace was originally a member of the Beale Streeters, a legendary group from Memphis, Tennessee that featured artists like BB King and Bobby Blue Bland.
“When I first started performing… I got a trio on the radio: Johnny Ace on piano, Earl Forest on drums, Billy Duncan on tenor sax. That’s when I made ‘Three O’ Clock Blues’. We recorded our first hit in the YMCA in Memphis. They wanted me as a solo act so I gave up my band, gave it to Johnny Ace, which is how he got started.”
Mattis sold his label to Peacock Records’ feared boss Don Robey, who owned the most successful black distribution network in the business in 1952.
The hits continued for Johnny Ace with songs like “The Clock,” “Cross My Heart,” “Please Forgive Me” and the beautiful ballad “Never Let Me Go.”
Even in death the hits continued with the song “Pledging My Love,” and another “Anymore,” which Duke released posthumously.
Although he left an imprint on decades of musicians, Johnny Ace recorded only 21 song when he died at the age of 25.
A number of artists have remade Johnny Ace’s signature tunes throughout the years including Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and Paul Simon, who made a tribute record to the singer titled “The Late Great Johnny Ace.”