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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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ABBA Is Going on Tour—As Holograms
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Missed your chance to watch ABBA perform live at the peak of their popularity? You’re in luck: Fans will soon be able to see the group in concert in all their chart-topping, 1970s glory—or rather, they’ll be able to see their holograms. As Mashable reports, a virtual version of the Swedish pop band is getting ready to go on tour.

ABBA split up in 1982, and the band hasn't been on tour since. (Though they did get together for a surprise reunion performance in 2016.) All four members of ABBA are still alive, but apparently not up for reentering the concert circuit when they can earn money on a holographic tour from the comfort of their homes.

The musicians of ABBA have already had the necessary measurements taken to bring their digital selves to life. The final holograms will resemble the band in the late 1970s, with their images projected in front of physical performers. Part of the show will be played live, but the main vocals will be lifted from original ABBA records and recordings of their 1977 Australian tour.

ABBA won’t be the first musical act to perform via hologram. Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, and Dean Martin have all been revived using the technology, but this may be one of the first times computerized avatars are standing in for big-name performers who are still around. ABBA super-fans will find out if “SOS” still sounds as catchy from the mouths of holograms when the tour launches in 2019.

[h/t Mashable]

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6 Great (and Not-So-Great) Works of Art Made by Robots
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Cold, calculating, unfeeling—none of the stereotypes associated with robots seem to describe makers of great art. But that hasn’t stopped roboticists from trying to engineer the next Picasso in a lab. Some machines and algorithms are capable of crafting works impressive enough to fool even the toughest critics. As for the rest of the robot artists and writers out there, let’s just say they won’t have creative types fearing for their jobs anytime soon. 


If you heard the song above at a party or in a crowded store, you might assume it’s just a generic pop tune. But if you listened closer, you’d hear the dissonant vocals and nonsense lyrics that place this number in the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley. “Daddy’s Car” was composed by an artificial intelligence system from the Sony CSL Research Laboratory. After analyzing sheet music from a variety of artists and genres, the AI generated the words, harmony, and melody for the song. A human composer chose the style (1960s Beatles-style pop) and did the producing and mixing, but other than that the music is all machine. It may not have topped the pop charts, but the song did give us the genius lyric: “Down on the ground, the rainbow led me to the sun.”


Will the next War and Peace be written by a complex computer algorithm? Probably not, but that isn’t to say that AI can’t compose some serviceable fiction with help from human minds. In 2016, a team of Japanese researchers invented a program and fed it the plot, characters, and general structure of an original story. They also wrote sentences for the system to choose from, so the content of the novel relied heavily on humans. But the final product and the work required to string the components together was made possible by AI. The researchers submitted the story to Japan's Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Contest where it made it past the first round of judging. Though one notable Japanese author praised the novel for its structure, he also said there were some character description issues holding it back.


Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, a 3D printer did something extraordinary: It produced a brand new painting in the spirit of a long-dead artist. The piece, titled “The Next Rembrandt,” would fit right in at an exhibition of art from the 17th-century Dutch painter. But this work is entirely modern. Bas Korsten, creative director at the Amsterdam-based advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, had a computer program analyze 346 Rembrandt paintings over 18 months. Every element of the final image, from the age of the subject and the color of his clothes to the physical brushstrokes, is reminiscent of the artist’s distinct style. But while it’s good enough to fool the amateur art fan, it failed to hold up under scruntiny from Rembrandt experts.


What do you get when you dump thousands of unpublished romance novels into an AI system? Some incredibly bleak poetry, as Google discovered in 2016. The purpose of the neural network was to connect two separate sentences from a book into one whole thought. The result gave us such existential gems as this excerpt:

"there is no one else in the world.
there is no one else in sight.
they were the only ones who mattered.
they were the only ones left.
he had to be with me.
she had to be with him.
i had to do this.
i wanted to kill him.
i started to cry."

To be fair, the algorithm was designed to construct natural-sounding sentences rather than write great verse. But that doesn’t stop the passages from sounding oddly poetic.


Christmas songs rely heavily on formulas and cliches, aka ideal neural network fodder. So you’d think that an AI program would be capable of whipping up a fairly decent holiday tune, but a project from the University of Toronto proved this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Their algorithm was prompted to compose the song above based on a digital image of a Christmas tree. From there it somehow came up with trippy lyrics like, “I’ve always been there for the rest of our lives.”


Art made by a robot.

The image above was painted by the mechanical arm of a robot, but naming the true artist of the piece gets complicated. That’s because the robotic painter was controlled by multiple users on the internet. In 2015, the commissioned art service Instapainting invited the online community at Twitch to crowdsource a painting. The robot, following script commands over a 36-hour period, produced what looks like graffiti-inspired abstract art. More impressive than the painting itself was the fact that the machine was able to paint it at all. Instapainting founder Chris Chen told artnet, “It was a $250 machine slapped together with quickly written software, so running it for that long was an endurance test.”


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