It’s a story that’s sad, but true and one of what might have been in the music world of the 1950s: It’s the story of the late great Johnny Ace.
I first heard the name Johnny Ace more than two decades ago, when Paul Simon sang a song about the musician who hailed from Memphis, Tenn. and remains somewhat of an unknown pioneer of rock ’n’ roll. Ace tragically died at age 25 from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head while backstage at the Houston Auditorium moments before he was scheduled to play a concert on Christmas Eve of 1954.
I hadn’t heard Johnny Ace’s name since hearing the song “The Late Great Johnny Ace” on Paul Simon’s 1983 Hearts and Bones album. That is until Ace’s name resurfaced a couple weeks ago.
The Tribune received a press release from Canada-based Dancing Traveller Media, a book publishing company. The release announced the Oct. 15 debut of The Death of Johnny Ace, a novel by prolific Mesa writer Steve Bergsman about the short-lived teen idol to African-American teenagers and the tragic events surrounding Ace’s sudden and mysterious death. The incident reportedly happened in a room filled with Ace’s friends, representatives from the recording industry and Don Robey, the owner of Duke Records — the label which Ace recorded under and reportedly battled against. Eyewitness accounts say Ace was playing with a .22 caliber pistol; others believe he was playing Russian Roulette.
A rock ’n’ roll buff, Bergsman grew up in Levittown, N.Y. where he attended Island Trees High School with classmate Eddie Mahoney (best known as 1980s rocker Eddie Money) and first began writing the book about Ace a decade ago.
“I’m and old rock ’n’ roll junkie,” said Bergsman, a baby boomer who turned 63 on Tuesday. “I just follow this stuff, and the death of Johnny Ace has always been a curious story. There’s always been conflicting accounts of what really happened backstage and who was in the room that night.”
And although Johnny Ace perhaps was best known as a rhythm and blues musician and singer, he also was one of rock ’n’ roll’s pioneers in the early 1950s.
Bergsman, who has written articles for many major newspapers across the U.S., perhaps is best known for writing books such about real estate and finance. Such titles include Maverick Real Estate Financing: The Art of Raising Capital and Owning Properties Like Ross, Sanders and Carey or Maverick Real Estate Investing: The Art of Buying and Selling Properties Like Trump, Zell, Simon, and the World’s Greatest Land Owners.
Last year, Bergsman released a memoir, Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crises, a book chronicling the controversy surrounding what was considered the development of the nation’s first suburb.
The Death of Johnny Ace is Bergsman’s first novel.
A 30-year resident of Mesa, Bergsman said he first began writing the book about Ace 10 years ago and revisited the writing project over the years. About a year ago, Bergsman dusted off the manuscript for the book, tweaked it a little, and now he hopes the finished product will bring attention to the singer who died nearly 60 years ago and deserves to be in the rock ’n’ roll Hall of Fame, Bergsman believes. His rhythm and blues contemporaries were Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and B.B. King, who Ace played piano for.
“What James Dean was to American white teenagers in the 1950s, Johnny Ace was to African-American teenagers in the 1950s,” Bergsman added. “He was a co-figure with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard as rock ’n’ roll was on the verge of becoming the music of teenagers across America. People remember Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, but nobody seems to remember Johnny Ace. He and his band, the Beale Streeters, had somewhat of a cult following in urban African-American neighborhoods. There’s not much out there about his life. I figured if I wrote an interesting novel instead of just about his life, a wider audience would read it.”
Johnny Ace’s real name was Johnny Alexander Jr., was the son of a preacher, and was his father’s church pianist and organist before serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.
Bergsman’s book begins as Ace is returning home to Memphis after serving in the Navy before he made his way to the clubs along Beale Street in search of a career. His music career took off and he recorded hits such as “My Song” in 1952, “Cross My Heart,” “The Clock,” “Never Let Me Go,” and “Pledging My Love,” his first R&B hit to crossover and garner attention on the pop music charts.
The evening of his death, Ace was scheduled to do a show with R&B singer Willa Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who originally sang the song “Hound Dog” later made famous by Elvis Presley.
In 1955, Duke Records announced that the three 1954 Johnny Ace recordings, along with Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, had sold more than 1.75 million records, a pretty good amount for that era.
Although Bergsman said that no one really knows what happened backstage the night Ace died, he said he believes he solved the mystery of Ace’s death, at least in his mind.
“He died just at the tip of rock ’n’ roll music taking off,” Bergsman said. “Bill Haley and the Comets break out year was 1954 with Rock Around the Clock, and everything seemed to happen in 1955. Johnny Ace is the most forgotten rock ’n’ Roll pioneer, and I think the guy belongs in the Rock’N’Roll Hall of Fame. He’s never even been nominated.”
Maybe if the powers-to-be at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland read Bergsman’s book, Johnny Ace will be.
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