Johnny Ace: Singer Kills Himself Accidentally on Christmas, 1954

Johnny Ace 25, died on Christmas, 1954 when he shot himself during a break between sets in Houston, Texas.

Johnny Ace an up and coming rhythm and blues singer had it all going his way until he shot himself on Christmas of 1954. For some reason Russian roulette is identified ,as the cause of his death. However two eyewitnesses tell a different story.

Big Mama Thornton’s bass player Curtis Tillman,  who was in the room at the time said this in Wikipedia about his death:

It was widely reported that Ace killed himself playing Russian roulette.[4][5] Big Mama Thornton‘s bass player Curtis Tillman, however, who witnessed the event, said, “I will tell you exactly what happened! Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ – sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran outta that dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed himself!”[6]

However Big Mama Thornton, who also witnessed the shooting tells a slightly different story:

Thornton said in a written statement (included in the book The Late Great Johnny Ace) that Ace had been playing with the gun, but not playing Russian roulette. According to Thornton, Ace pointed the gun at his girlfriend and another woman who were sitting nearby, but did not fire. He then pointed the gun toward himself. The gun went off, shooting him in the side of the head.

There has been speculation that Ace was murdered, but after reading the two eyewitness accounts of Tillman and Thornton, that seems impossible since neither mentions anyone else having a gun.

What we do know for sure is that Johnny Ace was born June 29, 1929 in Memphis, Tennessee and that he was born John Marshall Alexander, Jr. He later changed his name to Johnny Ace and appeared to be on his way to a successful recording career, when fate intervened and ended his life before his career could take off.

Johnny Ace singing Pledging My Love which became a posthumous No.1 hit.

Ironically, his biggest hit Pledging My Love was released after his death and was at the top of the Billboard R&B charts for ten weeks beginning on February 12, 1955.

56 years later the song is still being recorded and is one of the most recognizable songs among rhythm and blues fans.

Singer David Allan Coe sang Pledging My Love in concerts relating how he heard the news of his death. Elvis Presley recorded it during his last recording session in 1976 on his Moody Blue album.

The memory of Johnny Ace will live on as Pledging My Love will continue to be sung for years to come in concerts and on albums that have yet to be released.


Author: Andrew Godfrey

Retired from newspaper work after 38 years. Had served in the Army in Hawaii and Vietnam in the 60's. Am now retired and living in Sulphur, Louisiana.

21 thoughts on “Johnny Ace: Singer Kills Himself Accidentally on Christmas, 1954”

  1. His real name is John Marshall Alexander, Jr. His last name is not African alone, but the last name came from landowners.

  2. Pingback: Johnny Ace | Wugez
  3. Thanks for this. Very informational. Since I was born in 1962, I never knew who Johnny Ace was. I learned of him through a song on one of my favorite Christmas albums (by the Squirrel Nut Zippers):

    It’s Christmas Eve, people
    But someone’s got to go
    It’s Christmas Eve, people
    But someone’s got to go

    I never thought he’d have the nerve
    But that just shows you what I know

    He had a sweet and lonely voice
    How I wish that he had stayed
    He had a sweet and lonely voice
    How I wish that he had stayed

    But the dealer dealt the cards
    And the ace has done been played

    He used to talk about forever
    Forever and a day
    But when you get down to it
    Things just don’t work out that way

    Merry Christmas Johnny
    Though you’re leavin’ now
    The anticipation’s better
    Than the real thing anyhow

      1. I was born in 1945 so I remember Johnny Ace very well. I got just about all his records. I remember that tragic day.From what I read in the newspapers back then, was that his girlfriend bought him that gun for a Christmas present. It was so sad. RIP Johnny Ace. PS. No one can sing his songs like him.

  4. although only age 10 when I first heard the song it has been unforgetably a very sad yet rich vocal. it was not until years later I heard the Russian Roulette story which goes well with the sadness of the vocal, I dj for fun now and enjoy it as much as 60 or so years ago. Thanks (mozambeek)

  5. hi i have 2 lps memorial album, on vogue cant find it anywhere how much is it worth both lps bit scratchy but plays nice, andy

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