I Was There: The Night Johnny Ace Died

I Was There: The Night Johnny Ace Died
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Our city has a long, compelling, live concert history. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the Bayou City boasted a live music venue as early as 1838, which hosted American and European artists performing opera and classical pieces. From turn-of-the-century gospel music conventions to the Beatles at Sam Houston Coliseum, from Jean-Michel Jarre’s Rendez-Vous Houston (once the Guinness Book entrant for largest outdoor concert ever) to Selena’s last show, we’ve seen some spellbinding concert moments.

In this series, Houstonians share their recollections of the artists and audiences that made certain local shows memorable. In doing so, they recall what life was like in Houston before, during and after the encores.

The Show: Johnny Ace, City Auditorium, Christmas Day 1954.

Ace was a rising R&B crooner with a hit song titled “The Clock” and a mega-hit to come, “Pledging My Love.” He was on the bill with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Johnny Otis and headliner B.B. King. The show was held at the City Auditorium, a venue at Texas and Louisiana that dated back to 1910 and would be replaced by Jones Hall in the 1960s.

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During an intermission, Ace fatally shot himself backstage with a .32 caliber pistol. “Pledging” went on to become a posthumous hit for the 25-year-old singer. The tragic event has been memorialized in song by Paul Simon and Dave Alvin, and “Pledging My Love” has been covered by several artists, including Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Bob Dylan.

The Audience Member: Two years ago, Jim Tucker shared his recollections of producing A Day of Joy, a 1970 music fest that may have been Houston’s first outdoor rock festival. Tucker grew up in La Marque, by way of Galveston, and moved into the city to pursue a career as a lawyer. Before he did any of that, he fell in love with blues and R&B music. Here’s Jim:

“I had a ’49 Chevrolet that had twin Smithy mufflers, no lead on the back, of course standard shift, and a hula girl knob on the steering wheel. A guy named Mike Cox rode along and I forget who his date was, but I took this little girl named Beth Puckett with me, who could really dance.”

Our man on the scene, Jim Tucker
Our man on the scene, Jim Tucker
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

We asked if he’d invited Miss Puckett to a quaint soda shop for a malt before the show.

“Oh no, we had a cooler of beer lined up in the back,” he said matter-of-factly. “I had a job at the only big grocery store in town. I got to be a stocker and it was not unusual for a case of beer to make its way out onto the dock, with plenty of ice in it, to be picked up by a co-conspirator. Another thing we used to do was get a big pickle jar and get it filled with draft beer and cups. How we didn’t get caught for drunk driving, I don’t know, but I had this ’49 Chevrolet and it seemed like I could get about 12 people in that thing."

Tucker said he would comb through albums at record shops where the R&B discs were grouped as “Race Music.” American life was segregated in 1954. And there was no such thing as “rock and roll.” He recalled getting tickets to the show from Galveston radio station KGBC, where disc jockey George Prater ran a show called “Harlem Echoes” that kept local R&B fans in the know. He couldn’t recall how much the tickets set him back.

“It wasn’t that expensive to go, but understand, that music was not that popular back then among the whites. Until Elvis came along and did crossover, they just didn’t play it on the ‘Hit Parade’ stations, as you would call them. And when they did, it was funny. Like Pat Boone covered ‘Tutti Frutti’ – there was a teenaged club in La Marque back then and somebody put Pat Boone’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ on the record player and I said, ‘Oh no, that’s not gonna go.’ So I brought my Little Richard record and there was no comparison.”

“B.B. King had been coming to play concerts every Christmas and I guess the African-American community bought him a two-tone green Cadillac, and it was sitting right out in the lobby when you walked in. I don’t know how they got it up there,” he said. ““He was, of course, to close the show. He was the big dog at that time. The auditorium was packed that night. I just remember seeing Big Mama and Johnny Ace singing the first several songs and it wasn’t too up-tempo. Then, the Johnny Otis Band started playing a lot of songs to get people out on the dance floor and dancing.

“The whites had to sit up in one section and the African-Americans could dance on the floor. Well, it didn’t take me and Beth Puckett long to get right down on the floor. No one said a thing to us. There were not that many whites there, but a bunch of others got down there, too.”

The crowd was an estimated 3,500. He was only 15 at the time, but Tucker had a drivers' license and a fascination with R&B music. 

“The African-American clubs back then were called ‘black and tan clubs,’” he said. “Whites were welcomed. I think they charged us a nickel more for our beer and we had to pay a fifty-cent cover charge instead of twenty-five, but we were welcomed.”

Ace was a rising star on a label owned by Houstonian Don Robey, Tucker recalled. He said Robey ran his music empire, which included Duke and Peacock Records, from offices on Southmore, pointing as if it were within our line of sight.

“(Ace’s) records had Don Robey as the songwriter. Peacock had some recordings by Little Richard, and the most famous on Duke was Bobby Blue Bland. Don Robey booked them all over the U.S. I don’t know if he got credit for their songs or not, but there was a rumor that Johnny Ace had given notice to Don Robey that he was getting off of his record label and was going to sign with another one.”

For a short time, that rumor implicated Robey as somehow involved in the tragedy. But that was after the show.

“The Johnny Otis Band was playing and then, all of sudden, they stopped and Big Mama Thornton came out and grabbed the microphone. She was crying or had been crying and she just said, ‘The concert is canceled. Johnny Ace has just been killed.’”

“She was very, very upset and made the announcement,” Tucker recounted. “I don’t remember the exact words but it was something like, ‘There ain’t gonna be no music tonight. Johnny has been killed. We’re thinking, ‘Johnny has been killed? What the hell are you talking about?’

“Everybody was kind of shocked and started filing out. We sat there for a while wondering if B.B. King was going to play, and finally we left. That was about the last show I saw at the City Auditorium.”

We agreed if such a tragedy occurred today, audience members would have the full story within minutes, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. But even 50 years ago Tucker and his friends knew at least the basics before they ever made it home that night.

“Back then, there were two black radio stations —  KCOH, which had the King Bee and Daddy Deep Throat and Dizzy Lizzy. And there was KYOK,” he recalled. “On the way back to Texas City to drop off my date, we tuned into one of those stations. We always had those two stations on.

“They said he had been shot playing Russian roulette. That was the first we knew of it, going home, listening to it on the radio. They played a bunch of his songs then. Somebody else later said, no, there was a pistol back there and that he didn’t think it was loaded and he shot himself, but he did not commit suicide and Don Robey had nothing to do with it whatsoever.”

This was all later confirmed by Thornton, who apparently witnessed the event, which was deemed an accidental shooting. Tucker said there was enhanced interest in Ace’s music after his death, which helped solidify his place in music history but also had some negative consequences.

“’Pledging My Love’ was later covered by Teresa Brewer and, in 1955, by The Four Lads, of all things. That’s as bad as Pat Boone covering ‘Tutti Frutti,’” he said.

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