Cover for SALEM: The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R&B to Rock 'n' Roll

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

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.

"A scholarly work and a piece of genuine research, yet it reads easily and has a feel for both period and musical form. . . . A fine line between academic rigour and narrative drive is expertly negotiated. It also leads you scurrying off to those haunting, delicate songs that meant so much to so many listeners." -- Pop Matters Book Review

"Salem's work represents how academic history can bring greater insight and greater accuracy to the recording of popular music history. . . . [This volume] is a terrific read and keeps you turning the pages, even when you know how it ends. This is the most exciting book on popular music that this reviewer has read in the past few years." -- Robert Pruter, Goldmine

"This meticulously researched volume tells the tragic tale of the star-crossed Memphis crooner whose most famous record "Pledging My Love" rode up the charts in 1955, the year after the talented singer died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The book also sheds serious light on the powerful changes undergone by pop music in the '50s, changes whose effects are still being felt. Just as valuable are the illuminating portraits Salem paints of the thriving musical, social, business, and cultural scenes that existed in Memphis and Houston in the late '40s and '50s." — Kevin Toelle, Illinois Entertainer

"Salem's book is the first all-embracing look at Ace, known for his posthumous hit, Pledging My Love. . . . Read Salem's account — an essential addition to books on Memphis music — and Ace seems all too tragically human." — Bill Ellis, Commercial Appeal

"[Salem] has brought his brilliant research skills to almost every aspect of the history, society, music and popular culture that created the Johnny Ace phenomenon, and every ramification of his death from Russian roulette on Christmas Day, 1954. . . . This is a magnificently historical work, and, of huge interest to music lovers. . . . A genuine high point in the bibliography of our music." — Pete Bowen, Now Dig This

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