After serving in the navy during WWII, Alexander joined Adolph Duncan's Band as a pianist. He then joined the B. B. King band. Soon King departed for Los Angeles and Bobby Bland joined the army. Alexander took over vocal duties and renamed the band The Beale Streeters, also taking over King's WDIA radio show.
Becoming "Johnny Ace", he signed to Duke Records (originally a Memphis label associated with WDIA) in 1952 . My Song, his first recording, topped the R&B charts for 9 weeks in September. (My Song was covered in 1968 by Aretha Franklin.)
Ace began heavy touring, often with Willa Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. In the next two years, he had eight hits in a row, including "Cross My Heart," "Please Forgive Me," "The Clock," "Yes, Baby." and "Never Let Me Go." In December, 1954 he was named the Most Programmed Artist Of 1954 after a national DJ poll organized by U.S. trade weekly Cash Box.
Ace's recordings sold very well for those times. Early in 1955, Duke Records announced that the three 1954 Johnny Ace recordings, along with Thornton's "Hound Dog", had sold more than 1,750,000 records.
After touring for a year, Ace had been performing at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas on Christmas 1954. During a break between sets, a drunken Ace allegedly decided to play a game of Russian Roulette. He aimed a .45 caliber revolver at his girlfriend, Olivia Gibbs, and pulled the trigger. He then attempted to shoot her friend, Mary Carter. Both times, the hammer fell on an empty chamber. He then swiftly turned the gun on himself and ended his life.
The official story has always been that Ace killed himself playing Russian roulette, but there have been rumors that Johnny Ace was murdered by Don D. Robey. The only official witnesses were record company owner Don D. Robey, who Ace had been trying to renegotiate his contract with, and singer Big Mama Thornton. Both Robey and Thornton testified that Ace killed himself; both went to their graves without ever changing their story — and without convincing many insiders that Johnny hadn't been murdered.
Big Mama Thorton in a written statement (included in the book The Late Great Johnny Ace) said during the investigation 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.
Ace's January 2, 1955 funeral at Memphis' Clayborn Temple AME church was attended by an estimated 5000 people.
Paul Simon wrote a song called "The Late Great Johnny Ace" (on his Hearts and Bones album) that references Johnny Ace's death as well as John Lennon's and John Kennedy's. He performed the song solo during a reunion concert with Art Garfunkel in Central Park in 1981. A fan rushed the stage during the song and was quickly arrested. Simon then completed the song. The incident was shown on the concert video on HBO, but the song was excluded from the live album from that concert.
Rock band Dash Rip Rock has written, recorded & released a song named "Johnny Ace" which tells the story of Johnny Ace's life and death.
Will Oldham (as Palace Music) released a 45 "Gezundeit/Let the Wires Ring" in 1995, "Let the wires ring" last verse mentions Johnny Ace's death.
"Next wave wash your pretty face/ And keep in mind that Johnny Ace/ Was drunk, was fucked, was not on stage/ When he made that silly move he made/ And only after once dead we/ Adore him more, adore that money/ After when his corpse was cool/ That ugly memorable fool/ Who shot the Christmas spirit down/ And lit a fame, that half-made clown."
(full lyrics: http://pry.com/pulpit/lyrics/wiresring.html)
His biggest song, the haunting Pledging My Love, became a hit posthumously in 1955 . His single sides were compiled and released as The Johnny Ace Memorial Album.
David Allan Coe released his tribute version of "Pledging My Love" first on the 1981 album 'Tennessee Whiskey' and then later on his 1990 album 'Headed For The Country'.
Johnny Ace and "Pledging My Love" are mentioned in the early Sam Shepard one-act play Cowboy Mouth.
An early scene in Charles Burnett's 1977 film, Killer of Sheep, includes the line "Going out like Johnny Ace."
He is one of the names mentioned in the television adaptation of Stephen King's short story You Know They Got a Hell of a Band from Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Ace is one of the late musical legends set to appear on stage.
"The Night Johnny Ace Died," short fiction by James Lee Burke, appears in the March 2007 issue of Esquire magazine.
1952 Remember I Love You (SUN, unissued)
1952 I Cried Last Night (SUN, unissued)
1952 My Song / Follow the Rule (Duke 102) - with Beale Streeters
1953 Cross my Heart / Angel (Duke 107) - with Beale Streeters
1953 The Clock / Aces Wild (Duke 112) - Ace playing piano
1954 Midnight Hours Journey / Trouble And Me (Earl Forrest) (rerelease of 1951 Flair 1015)
1954 Saving my Love for You / Yes, Yes, Baby (Duke 118)
1954 Please Forgive Me / You've Been Gone So Long (Duke 128)
1954 Never Let Me Go / Burley Cutie (Duke 132)
1954 Pledging My Love / No Money (Duke 136) (posthumous release, 12 Feb 1955) - #1 on R&B charts for 10 weeks, US pop charts #17.
1955 Anymore / How Can You Be So Mean (Duke 144) - 10" 78rpm
1956 So Lonely/ I'm Crazy Baby (Duke 148)
1956 Don't You Know / I Still Love You So (Duke 154)
1955 Johnny Ace Memorial Album (Duke LP-70) - 10" EP
1974 Johnny Ace Memorial Album (ABC/Duke DLPX71) rhythm and blues blues soul memphis male vocalists