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The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R&b to Rock 'n' Roll

James M. Salem

(University Of Illinois Press)

Pledging My Love

When Johnny Ace put a bullet into his brain, while playing Russian roulette backstage in Houston in 1954, he assured himself a minor place in popular culture’s mythology of the damned. The posthumous success of the ballad “Pledging My Love” was just one of many instances where the premature death of a young star added a grisly glamour to his music and assured a sort of immortality. In an impressive and informative book, James Salem makes the case that Ace, and particularly that record, represent something less lurid but far more significant. In tracing the career of this artist and placing it in a musical and historical context, the author has made a valuable contribution to any full assessment of the enormous changes that took place in popular music in the post war period.Essentially, what Salem has produced is a convincing argument for positioning both the unfortunate Johnny Ace and his brief recording career at the centre of any debate about that key transitional moment when rhythm’n'blues mutated into rock ‘n’ roll.


Despite his mythic potential, James Alexander Jnr. (Johnny Ace) is not as well known as he should be and has generally been poorly served by music literature. Too smooth for blues or rock historians, who tend to equate “rawness” with authenticity, he has had none of the detailed analysis or hagiographic attention that is routinely lavished on many of his contemporaries. The long careers of his early partners in the Beale St. Boys, Bobby Bland and B.B.King, have been well documented and one fellow Memphis citizen, Elvis, sustains a book industry single-handedly. Yet during his brief musical life Johnny Ace was more popular than any black artist from that home of so many great black artists, while his influence on the development of American music was, if not quite as seismic as Presley’s, an essential element in the creation of the musical revolution of the mid-Fifties.


Where this book succeeds is in its detailed concern with context and its refusal to buy into the facile myth-making that dogs so much writing about the “live fast, die young” cult figure. This refusal is so determinedly executed that, in fact, the ostensible subject of the study remains a rather shadowy figure. Those searching for psychological insight into what produced such self-destructiveness in one so talented will be disappointed.Those seeking a salacious sex and drugs expose will last till about page four.


Not that the book lacks either characters or characterisation. If Ace is rather downplayed then there is great compensation in the array of larger-than-life figures who form an equal part of this tale. Some of these are well-known, such as arranger and bandleader Johnny Otis, who emerges as triumphantly from this account as he does in any work where he features. Then there is the Machiavellian, but strangely likeable, gambler, record producer and owner of Peacock and Duke records, Don Robey, the treatment of whom is as balanced and, I suspect, as accurate as any that have appeared in print. Ace’s label-mate and stage co-performer, a major singer in her own right, Big Mama Thornton is as formidable a presence in this book as she undoubtedly was in real life. Less well known is Robey’s booking agent and artist manager Evelyn Johnson, whose pivotal function in the career of Ace and many other gospel and blues acts is rightfully rescued from near oblivion.


The concentration on people such as Robey and Johnson is the crux of the matter as this is a book about an entire musical milieu and not a simple biography of a star. All readers, from the devotee to the merely curious, will leave this book with their knowledge of the independent record industry, the lives of black performers in the period and their fragile status in the music business at large greatly enhanced. On top of that, sections devoted to the histories of black Memphis and Houston enrich our sense of place and time considerably.Within this well-mapped set of reference points, the popularity and the importance of Johnny Ace’s meagre output (just 21 sides), along with some wider social ramifications, all start to make sense.


Records such as “My Song”, “The Clock,” and “Pledging My Love” are shown to be crucial in blurring boundaries of white and black musical tastes and styles. Salem falls into the trap of exaggerating the “whiteness” of Ace’s mellow vocal style, but this does not hurt his argument that Ace is perhaps the single most significant artist among the small number who managed to keep a devoted black following while producing a type of rhythm’n'blues that large sections of white youth could equally relate to. In doing so he helped lay the essential foundations what was to shortly emerge seemingly out of nowhere. The phenomenon of Ace’s popularity and the rock’n'roll boom as a whole, was the result of a combination of determinants - formal, economic, historical and structural. It is the careful attention to the congruence and interplay of these forces that is most persuasive and wherein the books main strengths repose.


There are also many incidental delights in this work. The discussion of the moral panic around the perceived obscenity of rhythm’n'blues, in both white and black media, is very illuminating in its exposure of racial and class attitudes of the period. It is also staggeringly familiar to anyone who has followed the more recent expenditure of moral energy regarding gangsta rap. Some comparative studies should now be undertaken. As for the descriptions of the vagaries of the record industry and the grind of the “chitlin circuit”, these are not revelatory but are richly and tellingly narrated. In addition, the many interviews and anecdotes are compelling and rarely irrelevant.


This is a scholarly work and a piece of genuine research, yet it reads easily and has a feel for both period and musical form which ensures that one never overwhelms the other. It is refreshingly free of abstract theorising, all of its arguments firmly supported by both primary and secondary material, the weight of which is never dull or excessive. A fine line between academic rigour and narrative drive is expertly negotiated. It also sends you scurrying off to those haunting, delicate songs that meant so much to so many listeners, always a good sign in any work on music.


The decade following the second world war was an era of remarkable musical innovation and one which prefigured some equally remarkable social upheavals. In helping to make sense of both developments, Salem gives Johnny Ace a belated but well-deserved place at the heart of the former and the music and business circles around him a key role in the latter. If one feels little closer to understanding the text’s central character then the enhanced awareness of his music, its appeal and the environment that surrounded the young singer in his brief, incandescent career more than compensates. Ace lasted about 18 months in the public eye and his records survive, if at all, as marginalia to a largely nostalgic view of rock’n'roll’s formative years. What status he has had up to now depended on a certain ghoulish fascination with the circumstances of his death. In all it was a precarious life and bequeathed an uncertain legacy. That legacy is much more secure with the publication of this excellent slice of social history. R & B is still a much misunderstood and over-simplified genre (or set of genres) but should be less so for anyone who reads The Late Great Johnny Ace.

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