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"The Late Great Johnny Ace"

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“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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This Just In
Police Recover Nearly 100 Artifacts Stolen From John Lennon’s Estate
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Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images

A collection of artifacts stolen from John Lennon’s estate, including diaries, glasses, and handwritten music, has been recovered by German police, the Associated Press reports. After arresting the first suspect, law enforcement is now working to apprehend a second person of interest in the case.

The nearly 100 items went missing from the New York home of the late Beatles star’s widow Yoko Ono in 2006. Years later, German police were tipped off to their whereabouts when a bankruptcy administrator came across the haul in the storage facility of a Berlin auction house. The three leather-bound diaries that were recovered are dated 1975, 1979, and 1980. One entry refers to Lennon’s famous nude photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, and another was written the morning of December 8, 1980, hours before he was shot and killed. In addition to the journals, police retrieved two pairs of his iconic glasses, a 1965 recording of a Beatles concert, a 1952 school book, contract documents for the copyright of the song “I’m the Greatest”, handwritten scores for "Woman" and "Just Like Starting Over”, and a cigarette case.

German authorities flew to New York to have Ono verify the items' authenticity. "She was very emotional and we noticed clearly how much these things mean to her,” prosecutor Susann Wettley told AP. When the objects will be returned to Ono is still unclear.

The first suspect, a 58-year-old German businessman from Turkey, was arrested Monday, November 21, following a raid of his house and vehicles. The second suspect is one of Ono's former chauffeurs who has a past conviction related to the theft. Police officers are hoping to extradite him from his current home in Turkey before moving forward with the case.

[h/t AP]

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science
Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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