Getty Images
Getty Images

"The Late Great Johnny Ace"

Getty Images
Getty Images

“The Late Great Johnny Ace”
Written by Paul Simon (1983)
Performed by Paul Simon

The Music

Paul Simon was thinking about the deaths of three different public figures named John—John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, and R&B singer Johnny Ace—when he wrote this dreamy, wistful song for his Hearts and Bones album. 

“It was the first violent death that I remember,” Simon said of Ace's tragic end from an accidental gunshot. In the song's evocative verses, Simon also weaves in references to Kennedy and Lennon.

In September 1981, during the Simon & Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park, Simon performed the song for the first time. During the last verse, about John Lennon, a fan jumped on stage and rushed Simon. The singer pulled away from the microphone. Security grabbed the man, who was yelling to Simon, “I've got to talk to you!” It being so soon after Lennon's murder, Simon was clearly shaken by the encounter, but continued the song without missing a beat. Here's a video of that performance:

The History

John Marshall Alexander, Jr. was born in Memphis in 1929. The son of strict, religious parents, he was a shy kid who started playing piano when he was five years old. John especially loved the blues, but his father, a pastor, forbid him to play the music. Whenever the boy was left alone, he sat down at the keyboard and hammered out the riffs he'd learned by listening to great blues piano players like Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. By the time he was a teenager, John was set on being a professional musician.

He dropped out of high school, did a brief stint in the Navy, then hit the Memphis club scene, playing in the Beale Streeters, a group that included future legends B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. At 16, Alexander was already married with a child, but he put his music first, living on his own in Mitchell Hotel and gigging every night.

In 1952, with the help of a local disc jockey and record label owner named David Mattis, Alexander recorded his first solo record under his new stage name Johnny Ace. “My Song” went straight to #1 on the R&B charts. Eight consecutive hits followed within a two-year period—“Never Let Me Go,” “Please Forgive Me” and “Saving My Love For You” among them. In 1954, Johnny Ace was named the most played artist in a national radio poll.

But Johnny's transition to newfound fame was uneasy. Often he suffered from debilitating stage fright. Rather than stand at center stage behind a mic, he'd relieve his piano player and park himself behind the instrument, almost as a way to hide from his fans.

The Seven Shot Revolver

As another way to deal with his growing insecurities, Johnny took to drinking and carrying a .22 caliber pistol with him. During a December 1954 tour with singer Big Mama Thornton (she introduced “Hound Dog,” later covered by Elvis), Johnny was playing around with his gun during a break between sets. After he dry fired the pistol at Thornton in fun, she took it away from him and kept it for several days. She emptied what she thought were all the bullets out of the chamber, then gave it back to Johnny. It turned out it was a seven-shot revolver and only six bullets were removed.

On Christmas Day, backstage before a show, Johnny was drinking and messing around with the gun. Once again he dry fired at Thornton. She started yelling at him. He said, “It's okay, there's nothing in it, look . . ” pointed it at his head and fired the fatal shot.

When the incident was reported in the papers, the press had Johnny playing a game of Russian Roulette, and that story has stuck for years.

A month after he died, his posthumously-released song “Pledging My Love” went to #1. Billboard Magazine said at the time that Ace's death “created one of the biggest demands for a record that has occurred since the death of Hank Williams just over two years ago.”

Johnny Ace's songs went on to be covered by many artists, including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez.

See the previous Music History installments here.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
music
Your Library Has a Free Music Service That You Probably Didn't Know About
iStock
iStock

Did you know that you can download free music from your local library? Music that you can keep. That's right: not borrow, keep.

It's all possible thanks to a service called Freegal (a portmanteau of free and legal), which gives patrons of participating libraries access to 15 million songs from 40,000 labels, notably including the Sony Music Entertainment catalog. All you need is a library card.

Here's how it works: You can download a few songs a week, and, in many areas, enjoy several hours of streaming, too (the precise number of songs and hours of streaming varies by library). Once you download MP3 files, they're yours. You're free to put them on iTunes, your iPhone, your tablet, and more. You don't have to return them and they don't expire. The counter resets on Mondays at 12:01 a.m. Central Time, so if you hit your limit, you won't have long to wait before you get more downloads. And Freegal has some great stuff: A quick scan of the front page reveals music from Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Cardi B, Simon & Garfunkel, Childish Gambino, The Avett Brothers, Lykke Li, and Sara Bareilles.

Freegal has been around since 2010 and is offered at libraries worldwide. In the U.S., that includes the New York Public Library, Queens Library, Los Angeles Public Library, West Chicago Public Library, Houston Public Library, and more. In the past few years, libraries have debuted some other amazing free digital services, from classic films streaming on Kanopy to audiobooks and e-books available to borrow on SimplyE and OverDrive. But the thing that's so exciting about Freegal is that you can keep the MP3 files, unlike services that limit you to borrowing.

Freegal's site is easy to navigate: You can browse playlists and make your own, check out the most popular tunes, and save songs to your wishlist for when you get more credits. In the old days, music fans would check out CDs from the library and upload them onto their computers before returning them. But Freegal eliminates the need to go to your local branch, check out an album, and bring it back when you're done.

Freegal app
Freegal

To find out if your local library has Freegal, go to freegalmusic.com and click login, then search for your area. It's important to note: Your library's contract might not have both streaming and downloading privileges. You can use Freegal on the web or as an app available on the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon. Of course, the service doesn't have everything. And sometimes, when it does have an artist, it will only have a few of their most popular albums. But if you frequently buy music on iTunes or elsewhere, checking Freegal first may save you a bit of money.

If you don't yet have a library card, Freegal is just one more reason why you should get one ASAP.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
An Anthology Series Based on Dolly Parton's Songs Is Coming to Netflix
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Though she may be best known for her music career, Dolly Parton is a Hollywood powerhouse. In addition to starring in more than a few contemporary classics, from 9 to 5 to Steel Magnolias, she's also been partly responsible for some of your favorite TV series. As part owner of Sandollar Entertainment, a film and television production company, she's been a silent figure behind shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, the queen of country music is preparing to return to the small screen once again—this time on Netflix.

The beloved singer is partnering with Warner Bros. Television to produce an anthology series for Netflix, Engadget reports. Set to debut in 2019, each of the eight episodes will have a theme based on a song by Parton, who will serve as executive producer and singer-songwriter in addition to appearing in the series.

"As a songwriter, I have always enjoyed telling stories through my music," Parton said in a statement. "I am thrilled to be bringing some of my favorite songs to life with Netflix. We hope our show will inspire and entertain families and folks of all generations, and I want to thank the good folks at Netflix and Warner Bros. TV for their incredible support."

The list of songs hasn’t yet been released, but I Will Always Love You, Jolene, and The Bargain Store are among Parton’s greatest hits.

Parton previously worked with Warner Bros. to produce the made-for-television movies Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (2015) and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (2016). She has also nearly finished the music for the upcoming film Dumplin'—based on a novel by Julie Murphy and starring Jennifer Aniston—and the soundtrack will be released via Dolly Records and Sony Music Nashville, according to Parton’s website.

[h/t Engadget]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios