Johnny Ace sat backstage at Houston’s City Auditorium on Christmas Day 1954, taking a short break between sets. In just two whirlwind years, Johnny had gone from stumbling into the vocalist role in B.B. King’s band to a string of eight consecutive hits on Duke Records. And now, as part of the touring company supporting headliner Big Mama Thornton, Johnny was headed to real stardom. The stardom for which he hoped would show his preacher father that his time was not wasted singing “the Devil’s music.”
Johnny was a bit on the mischievous side and Johnny liked guns. He was known to lean out the window of a moving car and fire off a few shots at billboards and street signs, laughing as the bullets ricocheted in all directions. So, while it was a bit unnerving to some, it wasn’t unusual to see Johnny playing around with a small .22 caliber handgun as he rested before his next performance.
Big Mama Thornton had had enough of Johnny’s carelessness with his firearm and confiscated it early in the tour. But, on Christmas Day 1954, she felt bad for Johnny and returned the pistol to him. Smiling, Johnny twirled the gun and pretended to fire off shots. Thornton, acting as a surrogate mother to the 25-year-old, issued a warning to “Be careful with that!” Johnny laughed and reassured her, “There’s nothing in it… see?” He playfully raised the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger in demonstration, blasting a single bullet through his head. Thornton screamed and ran out of the dressing room crying, “Johnny Ace just killed himself!”
Johnny’s biggest hit, “Pledging My Love,” was released two months after his death and it stayed at the top of the Billboard R&B Chart for ten weeks.