Johnny Ace – Pledging My Love

7th June 2023 · 1950s, 1955, Blues, Music, Soul

This song has history. In 1955 it gave Johnny Ace his biggest hit single… but only after his unusual death at the age of only 25.

Pledging My Love also has history in the movies, appearing variously in Martin Scorsese’s classic Mean Streets, John Carpenter’s Christine and Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future.

It most recently caught my attention when it popped up – twice – at key moments in Abel Ferrara’s film Bad Lieutenant, the plaintive ballad’s beauty a stark contrast to the grimness of the movie itself, presaging the final scene when Harvey Keitel gets his just deserts.

I would never have been able to name the singer. And I never knew that Johnny, a soulful crooner in the Johnny Mathis mould, had such a fascinating – and tragic – story.

A preacher’s son from Memphis, John Marshall Alexander Jr started out playing piano with The Beale Streeters, a group of Memphjis musicians including BB King and Bobby Bland.

When Bland left the group and King relocated to LA, Johnny took over as the singer and in1951, under the new stage name Johnny Ace, he signed to Duke Records.

He enjoyed a string of RnB hit singles as a solo artist but his career was cut cruelly short when, on Christmas Day 1954, he accidentally shot himself dead during a break between sets backstage in Houston, Texas.

Johnny had been drinking and was waving a handgun around, with a single bullet in one of the chambers. His fellow musicians, including Big Mama Thornton, warned him to be more careful.

But Johnny wanted to demonstrate that he knew which chamber was loaded by pointing the barrel at his own head and pulling the trigger.

He was wrong.

His death soon sparked a craze for death discs, or teen tragedy songs, when Varetta Dillard recorded a song containing several of his song titles called Johnny Has Gone.

It was just one of at least four tributes to the singer, others being Johnny Ace’s Last Letter by Frankie Ervin, Why Johnny Why? by Linda Hayes, Johnny’s Still Singing by The Five Wings, and Salute To Johnny Ace by The Rovers.

Then, in 1983, Paul Simon recorded his own tribute with a song called The Late Great Johnny Ace (also lamenting the deaths of two other Johns – Lennon and Kennedy).