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

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University of Illinois Press, 2001 - Biography & Autobiography - 274 pages
If Elvis Presley was a white man who sang in a predominantly black style, Johnny Ace was a black man who sang in a predominantly white one. His soft, crooning "heart ballads" took the black record-buying public by storm in the early 1950s, and he was the first postwar solo black male rhythm and blues star signed to an independent label to attract a white audience. His biggest hit, "Pledging My Love", was at the top of the R & B charts when he died playing Russian roulette in his dressing room between sets at a packed "Negro Christmas dance" in Houston. This first comprehensive treatment of an enigmatic, captivating, and influential performer takes the reader to Beale Street in Memphis and to Houston's Fourth Ward, both vibrant black communities where the music never stopped. Following key players in these two hotspots, James Salem constructs a multifaceted portrait of postwar rhythm and blues, when American popular music (and society) was still clearly segregated. Among the many colorful characters who knew and worked with Johnny Ace-including B.B. King, Johnny Otis, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown-none exerted more influence on his career than the promoter and entrepreneur Don D. Robey. It was Robey and his sometime wife Evelyn Johnson who transformed John Marshall Alexander Jr. into the heartthrob Johnny Ace and promoted him to the top of the R & B charts. But the price of fame was a grueling life of touring on the "chitlin circuit", where successive one-night stands might be 800 miles apart and musicians performed more than 340 days a year. Johnny Ace's career lasted barely eighteen months, yet musicians from Bob Dylan to Paul Simon have acknowledged their debt to him. Ace's inimitable delivery ushered in a fusion of black and white styles that set the stage for rock 'n' roll and changed American popular music forever.

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