March 13, 2015 by T. Gregory Argall
I enjoy trivia.
I like to think that on some topics there is very little that is little-known that I don’t know. I mainly like to think that because it’s so convoluted a sentence that people might have to read it twice to figure out what I mean.
But I also like thinking it because I know deep down that it’s not even remotely close to being accurate but I can fool most people into believing it anyway.
The tricky part about not knowing little-known things is that you don’t know you didn’t know them until you know them. (And you thought that other sentence was convoluted.) For instance, I was completely unfamiliar with the sad tale of Johnny Ace until found the music of Dave Alvin, and his rocking little declaration the “Johnny Ace Is Dead.”
Here, give it a listen. I’ll wait.
From the opening guitar riff I was intrigued, but the flowing lyrics caught my attention, telling a fascinating story in a plain, simple, yet complex way.
And, based on the fact that I had never heard of Johnny Ace before, I arrogantly presumed that Dave Alvin had made the whole story up in song form. But not being one to rest on my laurels, I did some research.
(Most of you didn’t notice it, but that last sentence was a bit of an inside joke, so far inside, in fact, that only eight people got it. But those eight people are laughing themselves stupid over it. They’re also giggling about it being eight people. Trust me. This is comedy gold, but just for them.)
It turns out that the story of Johnny Ace is real, and Dave Alvin isn’t the first one to write a song about it.
John Marshall Alexander Jr, using the stage name Johnny Ace, was a young soulful blues singer who was riding a significant wave of success when he accidentally killed himself backstage at a Houston music hall on December 25, 1954. There is some debate whether the gun involved was a .22 or a .32 caliber, but the result was the same regardless. There are also varying accounts as to whether he was intentionally playing Russian Roulette, or was simply being irresponsible with his handgun.
Contrary to the version presented by Dave Alvin, some reports say he generally had a habit of playfully waving his gun around and on this occasion someone had scolded him, telling him to be careful not to shoot anyone. Sadly predictable in the comedy of life, he replied, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded. See?” pointed the gun at his head, and demonstrated that it clearly was loaded, thus becoming not only a statistic but a cliche, as well.
In addition to Dave Alvin’s tribute song, Paul Simon recorded “The Late Great Johnny Ace” in 1983, and Varetta Dillard sang “Johnny Has Gone” in 1955. Dillard’s song was the first in what became a significant sub-genre of Rock and Roll, known as death songs, ’50s and ’60s teen tragedy tear-jerkers.
Johnny Ace’s voice has been described as being “like Johnny Mathis but with soul.” It’s a valid comparison.
Johnny’s recording of “Pledging My Love” has been featured in several films, including “Bad Lieutenant,” “Christine,” and “Back To The Future.” So really, I have no excuse for not previously being aware of Johnny Ace and his tragic, stupid ending of what could have been a glorious career. And neither have you.
We’ve got some catching up to do. Enjoy the music of Johnny Ace, and try to be nice to each other.