Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Late, Great Johnny Ace


In my boyhood room on the night table next to my bed there was a plastic, box radio with a large moon dial with the word  
“Philco” engraved in a semi-circle across the top. If you turned the dial all the way to the right, you could sometimes hear Wolfman Jack howling out of Mexico. The middle of the dial brought you WLS in Chicago with Dick Bionde, or KXOK in St. Louis and Johnny Rabbitt. All the way to the left of the dial was channel 56 and Daddio Dewey Phillips with “The hottest cottin’ picking show in the country, 'Red, Hot, and Blue,’ coming to you from WHBQ, on the ‘magazine’ floor of the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis.” Dewey would say that he was “downtown about as far as you can get.” Phillip's radio show was on late when I was supposed to be asleep. But every night, right after Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, I turned down the volume and leaned in close to the radio to get the greatest lesson in Rhythm & Blues on the air. Dewey had such a thick southern drawl and was so frenetic, he probably should never have been on the air in the first place. He was the complete opposite of what a radio announcer was supposed to sound like in the fifties. WHBQ only hired him because of the business being generated by WDIA, the first Negro station in the nation. The commercial potential for Memphis’ African-American community could no longer be ignored and WDIA proved that. Except WDIA went off the air at sunset, leaving fans of "race music" with nowhere to turn. Enter Dewey Mills Phillips.

If Rufus Thomas was the strong, steady presence on Memphis radio, Dewey Phillips was its’ shooting star. He shined brightly for a while and then burned out. However, during his command of the airwaves, he held the listening public in thrall for most of the fifties with his outrageous jabber and his taste for hot music. Dewey was not merely the first man to play an Elvis record on the radio; he was the first white disc jockey in the Mid-South to play black music, laying the groundwork for Elvis to emerge. Dewey’s voice; nasal, country, and rapid-fire, was more suited for a Southern auctioneer or a carnival barker. But his experience as a salesman in the record department of W.T. Grant’s on Main Street gave him an expanse of knowledge about Rhythm and Blues music and a proximity to Beale Street enjoyed by only a very few white men. He was also close to the Hotel Chisca where the WHBQ studios were located. Dewey somehow convinced the station manager that he was the man for the nine to midnight shift after WDIA, "the black spot on your dial,” went off the air, and he was right. Every night, WDIA’s massive audience switched the dial to Dewey along with growing numbers of white children discovering the music for the first time. All through the segregated 1950s, Dewey Phillips offered up a sampling of juke, jive, and jump, along with a healthy selection of black gospel music, to an ever-growing audience that was anything but segregated, and all right in the heart of Dixie.

My memories of Dewey begin in adolescence. Although I do not recall exactly when I began to listen, I know it was as early as age seven in 1954, because my paternal grandmother died that year. My sister and I returned from school to find our house filled with weeping relatives. Susan burst into tears, but I was uncertain how to react, so I put on a grim face and pondered it. My grandmother was only in her mid 50s, but she had seemed older to me. All day and night, the house filled with mourners and well-wishers until it was my bedtime. I lay in the dark pondering death until it was time for Dewey's program when I again leaned in close to the radio. I was delighted by his deranged ramblings but felt that I should not be having this much fun when everyone else was so sad. In the rest of the house, people were crying or talking in hushed tones. But in my bedroom, Dewey was playing Louis Jordan singing, "Dadgum your hide, boy/Dadgum your dirty hide/ Dadgum your hide, boy/ I gave you a pig but you wanted a sow,” and I had to laugh. I was transported to a world that the adults knew nothing about. Still, it felt odd that while the grown-ups were in the living room grieving, I was in my bedroom, grooving.

In that same year, on the night of my Davy Crockett Christmas, I wore my brand new coonskin cap to bed and tuned in again to Dewey, expecting some yuletide revelry. It was only a week after my eighth birthday, and I was still supposed to be sleeping. So, once again, with the volume low, I leaned in to listen. Dewey had the unusual practice of yammering right over the record; or if a lyric made a statement or asked a question, Dewey would answer it. Sometimes he even sang along, which made it tough for music lovers, but delighted Dewey's fans. It often seemed that the music was merely the background soundtrack for Dewey’s manic patter, but his listeners kept growing. On that Christmas night, he was as zany as ever until suddenly something unprecedented  happened; Dewey stopped being funny. The first sign was he allowed an entire song to play without interruption. When he returned to the air, Phillips was serious and somber. He said that he had just gotten off the phone, long-distance from Houston, and was sorry to announce that Johnny Ace was dead. Even as a child, I knew who Johnny Ace was, if for no other reason than every time Dewey played one of his records, he introduced it as “Memphis’ own Johnny Ace.” I listened wide-awake while Dewey described the scene in Houston. Ace was in his dressing room between Christmas shows at the Houston Civic Auditorium with a group of fans and friends when he put a pistol to his head as some sort of game and pulled the trigger. The gun went off and Ace fell over dead. It was chilling news, made more so by Dewey’s introduction to the next song. For the very first time, Dewey uttered the phrase that would become famous in popular music history. He introduced "Pledging My Love," the brand new record by, "the late, great Johnny Ace.” Then a slow ballad with a tinkling vibraphone began and the echo-drenched baritone voice of Johnny Ace sounded like it was coming from the grave itself. "Forever my darling, my love will be true,” the chimes rang like chapel bells. "I’ll forever love you, the rest of my days/ I’ll never part from you, and your loving ways.” Johnny sang as if he knew his fate in advance. I remembered that earlier night when my grandmother had died, and I was stunned to realize that I had just been listening to a voice from the beyond. At song's end, Dewey said once again, “the late, great Johnny Ace, dead at age twenty-six.”

The next morning, I asked my father what Russian Roulette was and he asked where I possibly could have heard that. I told him about Johnny Ace, but he said there was nothing about it in the newspaper. The death of Johnny Ace did not command the attention of white Memphis, but the hometown Tri-State Defender reported that an overflow crowd of five thousand people jammed the two thousand-seat Clayborn AME Temple, the same site of Martin Luther King’s final speech, for the funeral, while near hysterical mourners poured into the street. It was Memphis’ largest funeral gathering since the death of  E.H. “Boss” Crump, but neither the morning paper, The Commercial Appeal, nor the afternoon Memphis Press Scimitar printed a word about it. It became underground news for the city’s white teenagers because in attendance at the obsequies was Dewey Phillips. His words, “The late, great Johnny Ace,” would enter the lexicon of pop music, both as the title of a Paul Simon song, and as the description of the first shocking casualty of rock and roll. Whenever I hear the plaintive opening notes of "Pledging My Love," chiming like heavenly harps, I get the same unearthly feeling as when Dewey first played the record on the very night that Johnny Ace ended his life.

(Click on title to hear "Pledging My Love.")
an excerpt from the memoir "Can a White Boy Sing the Blues," by Randy Haspel

11 comments:

william said...

THANKS FOR THE UP DATE RANDY, RESPECTFULLY YOURS BILLY WICKS

william said...

I WOULD SPEND TIME WITH RON MARONIE AND NICK CHARLES AT W.H.B.Q. AT THE CHISCA HOTEL AT NIGHT. YOU BROUGHT BACK MEMORIES,THANKS RANDY

Father Farken said...

Randy! Thank you for sharing from your memoir a real piece of your soul. The mere mention of Dewey Phillips brings a smile on many a Memphian's heart. I too remember that haunting night when Dewey announced the death of Johnny Ace. With a big sister & three older brothers & mother & dad that were lovers of Fats Waller & Louis Jordon & what Poplar Tunes called Race Music... our home in Frayser was so intensely solemn I had no idea that the death of Johnny Ace was ignored by the Memphis press.

It brought back memories of when Rufus Thomas announced with so much dignity that Dina Washington took her own life. What is even more haunting is that the great Elvis Presley's last recording was a tribute to the late, great Johnny Ace...PLEDGING MY LOVE! Thank you Randy. I look forward to your upcoming memoir. The Peace of the Lord! FFF

Ellis said...

Born-Again Hippies has become sacramental to me. In it I am reminded of people and things that went before, always with clarity, wit and bon homie. You ought to be on the radio, like Dewey Phillips.

Lonnie said...

Randy-That was an outstanding Blog. I have heard recordings Of Dewey Phillips, and learned about him when I was in Junior High or maybe High school. I never heard him wen I first lived in Memphis (1963-1971)cos my famile almost always listened to WMPS,and Im sorry I never got to hear him in his late prime. Same for Johnny Ace.
You really captured a time in our youth of actions we took and how the world was so different then. I can see the bed and your room and all of the mourners in your house and know those mixed feelings.

A wonderful piece of writing Randy-THANK YOU!!

Cindy said...

Just lovely, Randy.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ellis, FYI, Randy was on the radio. Remember, he had two shows on WEVL until they canned him because his views didn't coincide with Geo "W", as well as the Wimps that run WEVL and their right wing Board of Directors who tried to put words in Randy's mouth. Take that not so long ago walk down Memory Lane.

Sireen said...

Ellis too busy making movies with Peschi & Hanks to know all that! Memphis is spread all over this world these days! Give the man some slack! We just can't seem to keep our fingers out of the Memphis pie no matter where we are!
LOL! XXXs & OOOs Sireen

SIREEN said...

Randy! My dear mother would be so proud that you had written such an exquisite editorial on the late great Johnny Ace! But I must reveal to you what she unveiled to me. She said that Ace was not killed by no Russian Roullette & that Ehvis didn't die on no camode
in Graceland! She said that the mafia pulled the plug on them both! Just like Sonny Liston & Mario Lanza. Case closed!

You see! We live in the most difficult of times! Just look what the Tea Baggers did to Big Mike on American Idol! They took the best black male voice since Luther & dropped kicked his big ass right out of Hollywood! Mark my word! He will emerge! Then he will have nothing to worry about..except that damn Mafia! A call to all for a little closer walk with our merciful Lord through that long & winding gravel road we call Life! There! I said it! Thank you Jesus! SIREEN

tonytunes said...

I, too, have fond memories of listening to our National shortwave/AM radio late at night...I was in Iowa, digging the above-mentioned Dick Biondi on AM and the BBC on shortwave. Another treat was to listen to Little Rock's high-wattage AM station (I don't recall the call letters) and hear weather forecasts prognosticating "a high in the mid-fifties tomorrow", in February when our own weatherman was announcing temps 35 degrees lower! We had good coverage of early rock-a-billy artists in Davenport, since Sun Records were widely distributed there, and we even had a nutty dj (radio name was Mark Stevens)who colored his patter with short, recorded drop-in commentary. I would love to have heard Dewy Phillips, though, as it is obvious that he had a real genius for his work. Today's radio is so different...keep up the great work, my friend.

Drew said...

True story. 1961 and I am the Press Scimitar delivery boy for Mr. Dewey Phillips at his palatial Frayser estate, corner of Steele and Haywood. I bike by one day at the usual 3:45, prepared for the mighty fling. The Press was skinny and made you look like a good thrower, even if you weren't. But I digress. There against the carport storage room door, in gear, at idle speed, sits a white Impala with a passed out Dewey behind the wheel. I walked up, shook his shoulder, and he became immediately awake. "Hey, how you?" was all he said as he turned off the ignition, exited the vehicle and strolled into the house. That was quite a route. Besides Dewey, I also had Sputnik and Treacherous in the mobile home park on Highway 51 near N. Watkins. Oh, and Ellis was my debate partner at Westside.