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"The Late Great Johnny Ace"

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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.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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