Sympathy for the Devil

By  |  January 16, 2015
Photograph of Don Robey. Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images Photograph of Don Robey. Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Don Robey and the Death of Johnny Ace


 

Before Berry Gordy started Motown—before Russell Simmons and Suge Knight were even born—Don Robey epitomized what it meant to be a black music mogul. Working in Houston from the 1930s until his death in 1975, Robey discovered Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. His record company released the original version of “Hound Dog,” and he made Bobby “Blue” Bland a star. Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, and Little Richard were clients of his booking agency, and T-Bone Walker, “Big” Joe Turner, and Wynonie Harris all regularly graced the stage at his nightclub, where legendary after-parties saw the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe jamming with Big Bill Broonzy and Louis Jordan. 

Robey created his empire in larger-than-life Texas style. “He wore great big diamonds on his hand and he was always chewing this big cigar, cussin’ at me ’round the end of it,” said Little Richard. Mornings after a lucrative night in his club, Robey liked to bundle his cash in burlap sacks, pop two shells into his 12-gauge shotgun, and head downtown. Out on the sidewalk of a busy street, he slung the weapon over his shoulder and lugged his moneybags, armed like an outlaw to take bills to the bank. 

Despite Robey’s unprecedented achievements as a promoter and a producer, he is remembered, if at all, for his thuggish image and for purchasing or otherwise claiming composer credit—and collecting the royalties—for songs he didn’t write. As Gatemouth Brown said: “The man was a businessman and we’re young kids and this is a flying life for us, so therefore, what do we know about writer royalties?” Even Robey’s longtime business partner and mistress, Evelyn Johnson, described him as a one-dimensional gangster with a gun and a gambling problem perpetually on his way to the racetrack while she handled the business. 

These characterizations have helped to overshadow a truly meaningful legacy in American music. But Robey’s Runyon-esque character and slick dealings with naïve musicians were common practice among executives during the Cadillac days of rhythm and blues. The improprieties Gatemouth reported and the pistols flashing in so many other Robey stories could have come from any number of record men. But there was one deadly scandal that vaulted Robey into the penthouse suite of the thugs’ mansion. It happened on Christmas night, 1954, when his brightest star, Johnny Ace, died of a gunshot wound in Houston City Auditorium. 

While Johnny Ace’s death placed a black mark on Robey in history, it set the stage for the greatest triumph of Robey’s life—one that’s all the more impressive if he really killed the kid. The two images, of Robey as a bully and Robey as a visionary, don’t quite fit together. Yet such is the essence of the man. His toughness and his brilliance were one and the same. It all culminated in the events surrounding that Christmas night. 

  

Don was born in 1903, in an environment of do-it-yourself capitalism. Just blocks from the white downtown, Houston’s labyrinthine Negro neighborhoods housed an alternate universe. People ran beer joints, dice parlors, and fish fries out of their houses, while Don’s grandfather Franklin, born in South Carolina to a slave and her master, practiced medicine out of the family home in the Third Ward. Robey embraced the ambiguity of his identity. “I’m a white man and a black man,” he would say. “I can outsmart you and kick your ass.”

Robey recognized that black America’s primary struggle—his struggle—would be for financial resources. And he understood that legitimate avenues to prosperity were closed to him, so as an ambitious young man he gravitated toward the dark end of the street. He mastered dice and cards while learning the dangers inherent to his world; crooked game operators killed anyone who enjoyed too much success, and a white vice cop named Eddie Bussard shot up black dice games as he saw fit. So Robey got comfortable carrying a gun. 

By the time he turned thirty, Robey was running the Sweet Dreams Café in a back room on Odin Avenue. He partnered with a fellow capitalist (as gamblers then were known) named Morris Merritt, and in March of 1936 the pair unveiled the Harlem Grill. A reporter visited the grill shortly after its opening and noted that “every conceivable avenue of pleasure was rampant at this center of activity.” 

Robey didn’t confine his activity to the Harlem. In 1935 he’d begun promoting dances featuring touring musicians. Small-time big bands like Frank Tanner and his Melody Makers quickly gave way to Earl Hines and Jimmie Lunceford. By 1940, Robey routinely booked the country’s top black jazz orchestras, including Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Robey put Houston on the map; in less than five years, he carried the city from the edge of the hinterlands in the black entertainment world to its status as a regular stop for premier colored stars. He defended his domain, using his knack for dramatic gesture. When Merritt challenged him in a brief power struggle, Robey showed everyone who was boss. In broad daylight, he punched Merritt in the head and knocked him to the street. “I didn’t think Merritt was treating me right,” Robey explained, “especially when I realized all I had done for him.”

Meanwhile, Robey built himself a territory from East Texas to New Orleans, making friends along the way with dance hall and dice hall owners. Those businessmen became his partners as they co-promoted live shows featuring the acts Robey brought to Houston. He made strongholds in Galveston, Port Arthur, and San Antonio and across the state line into Monroe, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport. It was in this role as a promoter that Robey made his greatest contribution to the sound of American music.  

 

Not long after Robey learned the rules of the music industry, the game changed—World War II shattered the big band business. Sidemen got drafted into the military and gasoline rationing led to a ban on traveling by bus (road orchestras had ridden them all across the circuit). On the other hand, demand for live music boomed as employment and prosperity in black America reached unprecedented levels. A new act gained popularity just in time to answer both the cultural need and the economic reality of the war years. Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five recorded “Knock Me a Kiss” and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” in November of 1941, the month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Jordan and the Tympany Five brought a revolutionary approach to pop music. In an era dominated by eighteen-piece bands, they had six pieces. They played short, punchy songs organized around the vocals instead of following the jazz model that featured star orchestra leaders and arrangers with hot soloists. And in contrast to the sophisticated big band style, they played on earthy, down-home themes. By early 1942, “Knock Me a Kiss” had sold well, though Jordan remained in his regular gig at a Cedar Rapids cabaret—not exactly the last stop on the road to stardom.

Berle Adams, Jordan’s young manager, developed a strategy to get his client to the big time: he hoped that if Jordan could draw well on a tour of the South, he might attract the attention of bookers at bigger venues like Chicago’s Regal Theatre; the Paradise in Detroit; and the jewel of them all, the Apollo in Harlem. But Jordan had no track record to impress the top bookers in the business, and his style had no basis for success in the big band era. He needed help. Fortunately, Don Robey had just the combination of cash and contacts Jordan needed. In the summer of 1942, Robey got behind Jordan and pushed. 

Robey promoted Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five throughout Texas and Louisiana until they opened at the Harvest Club in Beaumont on June 19, played in Galveston on June 23, and finally played at the Houston City Auditorium on June 25. The crowds grew wilder with each stop; Jordan provoked such pandemonium that the auditorium manager in Houston had to close the dance floor due to a pile-up of busted beer bottles. A few days later, the scene at a club in New Orleans “looked just like a wild west movie,” remarked one kid who attended the show. 

Three months after destroying Houston, Jordan headlined at the Regal in Chicago, from there becoming the most successful and influential artist of the decade. As Billboard noted, Jordan’s “unusually good biz . . . may lead to other tours for five and six piece outfits.” Jordan would go on to have six number-one r&b records in the coming years, reshaping the landscape of American pop along the way. Small combos gained popularity over big bands—and the revolution began. Jordan’s was the first high-profile tour of the music that would become rock & roll. Thanks to Don Robey, it all began in Texas.

  

Houston became a hub for the new sound after Jordan’s performance, and nightclubs popped up all over black neighborhoods. Robey opened his own club, the Bronze Peacock, and it became a laboratory of early rock & roll. He showcased small, electrified combos patterned after Jordan’s Tympany Five, rather than Ellington-style big bands. Robey continued pushing the new music—he promoted Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers, Wynonie Harris, Cecil Gant, and Joe Turner. 

As he scouted talent for the club, he expanded his contacts on the road. Over the years, Robey had become part of a fraternity of light-skinned kingpins like himself whose membership spanned the South. They all ran nightclubs rife with gambling, liquor, prostitution—or all of the above. At the national level, these playboys were the backbone of the black entertainment industry known as the chitlin’ circuit. Robey and his colleagues operated in a shadow world, segregated from white society just as black music was segregated from mainstream pop in the r&b category.  

In places like New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago, this group—informally known as “nigga mob”—ingratiated themselves to white men of power: law enforcement, politicians, and business leaders. In return, the playboys offered a taste of the proceeds from across the tracks, and this ensured the fix as it pertained to any legal difficulties they might encounter. Robey carried a badge identifying him as a special deputy of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. His badge was customized with diamond studs. 

In the fraternity, Robey’s closest associate was Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell, a club owner and kingpin of historic Beale Street in Memphis. As singer Pedro Lewis recalled, “Any time you needed to find Don Robey—or anyone else from nigga mob—in Memphis, he’d be up at Sunbeam’s.”

In Mitchell, Robey found a sympathetic soul. Before congregating for a playboy poker game, they planted sealed boxes of marked cards in the venue and with nearby retailers where the game would be taking place, another version of the fix. 

Sunbeam’s Beale Street club functioned like Robey’s Bronze Peacock—as a showcase for established artists and an academy for young aspirants—and it became a pipeline to the talent agency and record company Robey launched in 1949. Robey had already had success as a booking agent with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, but he expanded and sustained his operations with Memphis talent. The house band at Sunbeam’s became the first house band at Peacock Records. B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Little Junior Parker, and Roscoe Gordon all came to Robey’s operation by way of Sunbeam’s. And at Sunbeam’s, a shy piano player named John Alexander Jr. fell into showbiz.

Of this bunch, Alexander seemed the least hungry for stardom. B.B., Roscoe, and Bobby Bland handled the vocal chores at their shows, but Alexander seemed happy behind the piano and out of the spotlight. He showed up at WDIA, the Memphis black radio station, in May of 1952 to play piano on a recording session with Bland. David Mattis, the station’s white program director, had scheduled the session for his fledgling company, Duke Records.

Bland couldn’t get the lyrics straight for his song. But Alexander, getting tuned up and screwing around with Ruth Brown’s hit “So Long,” sounded pretty good. Instead of wasting studio time, Mattis re-worked the song on the spot and recorded Alexander’s impromptu debut single. His name sounded too dull, so in a hell of an inspired fifteen minutes, John Alexander Jr. became Johnny Ace and “So Long” became “My Song.” 

The recording is about what you’d expect from a mop-up group: choppy, with an out-of-tune piano and sodden saxophone. Johnny Ace’s vocals are monotonous but sincere and distinctive. Evelyn Johnson, who managed Johnny’s road career, recalled, “You could go down the block and find ten boys who could sing better than Johnny, but he had that certain something.” 

  

white man in the segregated South, Dave Mattis self-identified as a bleeding heart. He’d devoted his career to the new format of black radio, and he saw his efforts as social progress. When he heard of the Duke Records venture, Robey suggested that he and Mattis form a partnership. Mattis agreed. The idea appealed to his sense of racial justice—plus Robey had experience in the record business. In August of 1952, Robey announced the merger of Mattis’s Duke Records with his own Peacock Records. 

Item one on the agenda: Johnny Ace. In his chitlin’ circuit method—the same approach that made Louis Jordan famous a decade before—Robey booked unknown Johnny at the top of the bill throughout his territory, just as “My Song” began to crackle out of car radios and beer joint jukeboxes. 

Johnny made his first headliner appearance at the Hippodrome, a big skating rink and dance hall on Beale Street. Then “My Song” took off. It hit No. 1 on Billboard’s r&b chart on September 27, 1952, just a month after Johnny’s Hippodrome debut. “My Song” remained atop the charts for nine weeks. Johnny was twenty-three years old.

Meanwhile, Mattis saw none of the cash proceeds from the hit because Robey handled distribution and collection for their company. One day, Mattis showed up at Robey’s office unannounced. “That’s when the .45 came out,” Mattis said, and he didn’t mean the emerging single-play record technology. Mattis eventually accepted $10,000 for his share of the company and dissolved the partnership, leaving Robey in total control of Johnny Ace.

Fame came at Johnny fast. He drank heavily, screwed around with women, and developed a highly disturbing, but safely rigged, good luck ritual: He liked to spin his revolver’s empty cylinder, snap it into place, cock the hammer, jab the barrel against his temple and press the trigger. He also refined his sound, polishing a formula that distinguished a Johnny Ace number from anything else on the radio or the jukebox. He favored lyrics with the emotion and poetry of a teenage love note intercepted in a high school hallway. The musical accompaniments were as fragile as a music box. In less than a year, Johnny scored two more hits. “Cross My Heart” made No. 3 on the Billboard r&b chart in January 1953. “The Clock” made the chart on July 4, and stayed at No. 1 for five weeks. 

Between Johnny Ace’s hits, another of Robey’s artists topped the charts. “Big Mama” Thornton, a tough blues growler, spent nearly two months in the No. 1 spot with the first recording of “Hound Dog.” Though Big Mama and her razor-slashing style contrasted sharply with gentle Johnny, she joined his endless tour. Big Mama rolled in a Cadillac. Johnny and his group traveled in a Woody station wagon that had his name and the titles of his songs stenciled on its body in white. The revue played coast to coast, L.A. to New England, hitting the Apollo regularly in between. Robey’s booking agency and record company ruled r&b. 

 

In five years, Don Robey and Evelyn Johnson’s chitlin’ circuit conglomerate had blossomed into the most elegantly functioning racket anywhere in the industry. As boss of Buffalo Booking Agency, Johnson developed a system that carried weaker groups through the circuit on strong acts’ coattails, bolstering record sales along the way. She coerced promoters to book her lesser-known acts so that she’d sell them sure moneymakers like Johnny. “We got a rotation going where deejays are playing their records,” she explained, “and one hand scratches the other.” Airplay sold concert tickets and records. 

Thus, Johnny Ace pulled Little Richard along while Richard struggled with a group called the Tempo Toppers. The Tempo Toppers needed every bit of help they could get. Their earnings were so low, Little Richard took up a side hustle vending fried catfish. According to legend, Robey accused Richard of breaching his contract and slapped the singer in the face with a hot fish.

The Johnny Ace–Big Mama Thornton revue continually struck box office gold—they played the Apollo eight times in two years. “Saving My Love For You” and “Yes Baby,” Johnny’s duet with Big Mama, were written on the outside of the station wagon. But Johnny’s two-year hot streak on the record charts cooled throughout 1954. “Please Forgive Me,” released in April, reached No. 6 in June, Johnny’s lowest peak chart position yet. His October release, “Never Let Me Go,” might be the highlight of Johnny’s artistry, a seductive vocal ballad with velvety purple accompaniment. It nonetheless revealed that his appeal and his profitability were on the wane. The song reached only the jukebox plays chart, peaking at No. 9. Robey announced a new Johnny Ace record, “Pledging My Love,” with a release date of December 25, 1954.

  

That Christmas, Johnny and Big Mama played at the Houston City Auditorium. That night, a few minutes past 11 p.m., they concluded their duet “Yes Baby” and left the stage to relax in a dressing room during intermission. Johnny sat on a dresser and his girlfriend, Olivia Gibbs, a waitress at Don Robey’s Matinee Club, sat with him. A pint of vodka circulated among Big Mama, Johnny, Olivia, and another couple. Johnny, compulsively fooling with his silver, snub-nosed .22 revolver, pointed it at the other couple in the room. Big Mama told him to quit it and asked to see the gun. When she returned it, she told Johnny not to point it at anyone. 

But he put the barrel of the gun against Olivia’s head and pulled the trigger. Snap. He cackled and everyone yelled for him to stop. Then he said the gun wouldn’t shoot. See? He looked down the barrel, pushed it to his right temple, and pulled the trigger. 

With a quick pop, a bullet fired into Johnny’s brain. He went limp, drooped to the floor, and crashed among empty liquor bottles. The room cleared fire-drill style, and someone got Evelyn Johnson, who was taking tickets and counting money at the auditorium ticket window. She rushed back and saw Johnny lying dead on his side in a pool of blood, with a penny hole in his temple and a smirk on his face. 

A county coroner’s inquest ruled the cause of death as a gunshot: self-inflicted while playing Russian roulette. John Marshall Alexander Jr. was twenty-five.

 

By that point, Robey had earned a reputation of exacting harsh discipline on his employees and associates, of doing business with a gun, of being a modern-day outlaw living in a racial and moral gray area. Little Richard said he was “almost like a dictator.” He was a white man and a black man. He could outsmart you and kick your ass. Perhaps naturally, rumors surfaced of his involvement in the death of Johnny Ace. 

Sax Kari, a man who worked for Robey in the 1950s, believed that Robey had pulled the strings if not the trigger. To Sax, the issue was as certain and unremarkable as the color of the sky on a sunny day. Sax wasn’t in the room, but the way he saw it, Robey coerced Big Mama Thornton into slipping a bullet into Johnny’s gun. In exchange, Robey would make her his one superstar. 

It’s the only conspiracy theory that has some support in the documented facts of the case. Big Mama gave her account of what happened to the county authorities less than two hours after Johnny died. “I asked Johnny to let me see the gun,” she said. “He gave it to me and when I turned the chamber a .22 bullet fell out in my hand. Johnny told me to put it back in. . . . I put it back and gave [the gun] to him.”

Big Mama would have only needed to fabricate the notion that Johnny knew about the bullet—after surreptitiously slipping one into the gun herself. Because if Johnny knew about the bullet, he would have been responsible for its consequences. If he didn’t know about the bullet, he was being set up as either a suicide victim or a murderer. Johnny’s girlfriend, Olivia, in her statement to the inquest, said she did not think that the revolver was loaded. Johnny had been playing with the unloaded gun, as he did habitually, earlier in the day at her apartment. 

For Robey, Russian roulette was a beneficial ruling from the county authorities, implying that Johnny knew there was a bullet in the gun when he pulled the trigger. It was a conclusive, closed case ruling that immediately cancelled any further investigation. 

As a heavy drinker who carelessly toyed with his firearm, Johnny was certainly up to the task of accidentally blowing a hole in his skull. There’s good reason to doubt the Big Mama conspiracy theory: Thornton could not have known where Johnny would point the gun when firing its secretly loaded chamber. He could have killed her just as easily as anyone else in the room. 

As for Robey’s motives, he knew Johnny’s sales were slipping. The death of Hank Williams in 1953, and his subsequent hit “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” had shown the power of a dramatic storyline to generate sales. Perhaps Robey gambled that Ace would be worth more dead than alive. 

  

No matter how the bullet ended up in the chamber, there’s no doubting that Robey orchestrated a brilliant strategy to capitalize on Johnny’s death. So began his second great transformation of American culture. After helping to usher in a new sound with Louis Jordan, Robey would take that sound to new places with the ghost of Johnny Ace. He would integrate pop. 

Johnny’s death occurred on Christmas night, maximizing drama, but it also happened simultaneous to the release of his new song “Pledging My Love.” The corpse fell as the single dropped, and Robey went into action. He organized the biggest black funeral in Memphis history. He hired local photographer and newsman Ernest Withers to cover not only Johnny’s last rites but also Robey’s own dignitary-like arrival at the Memphis airport. He had Withers wire a story and photos across the Associated Negro Press, lifting a sinking entertainer to the front page of every major black newspaper, plus Ebony and music trade publications.   

The results of Robey’s maneuvering proved more spectacular than he ever could have hoped: “Pledging My Love” went
No. 1 on the r&b list. For a while, the Johnny Ace story received immediate, maximum exposure across black America—and white consumers were also taken with the tragic tale. They bought Johnny’s records and heard his fragile, doomed voice. 

The January 15, 1955, issue of Billboard noted: “The recent death of Ace gave added impetus to what would probably have been heavy first week sales in any case. It is spiraling upwards at dazzling speed.” Most notably, the review continued, the song “is almost as popular with pop customers, as with r&b.” Johnny Ace was crossing over. 

None of this caught Robey flat-footed. The same day Billboard recognized Ace’s mainstream buzz, Robey agreed to share half of the publishing revenue from “Pledging My Love” with Wemar Music if Wemar could convince a well-known white pop singer to record the song, thereby gaining himself backdoor entrance into the forbidden white pop market, an unprecedented feat for a black-owned record company. Sure enough, Wemar arranged for Teresa Brewer to cover “Pledging,” and her version charted. In March, Johnny’s version reached No. 17 on the pop chart (while holding the top r&b spot), and Brewer’s version hit No. 30. At the same time, Robey’s record promoter Dave Clark spread payola to white deejays. 

 “Pledging My Love” became a pop sensation, as the Four Lads and even Louis Armstrong covered the tune. Johnny’s original spent ten weeks atop the r&b chart, eventually winning the triple crown as the year’s top seller and leader in both jukebox and radio plays. Robey rushed a greatest hits LP to press. Another single—“Anymore”/“How Can You Be So Mean”—came out in July and reached the r&b top ten.

  

Toward the end of 1955, Billboard marked a major turning point in American music history. The recording industry recognized that black music had become the driving creative force not just of the segregated rhythm and blues market, but for the business as a whole. What’s more, they recognized Johnny’s significance. In a November 12 article, “The Year R&B Took Over Pop Field,” Billboard noted, “Ironically, the pacesetter spin-wise is the late Johnny Ace, whose Duke recordings continue to sell after his tragic accident.”

By 1956, Billboard had desegregated its charts, and Fats Domino, Clyde McPhatter, and Ray Charles regularly appeared in the Best Selling Records list and on the Honor Roll of Hits, mixing with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Pat Boone, and Perry Como. 

In January 1957, Billboard marveled at the sudden diversity of the once-homogenous mainstream record market. “The most numerous invasion force . . . came right out of the pure area of rhythm and blues. As the adulterated product known as rock and roll caught on, the deejays led the kids in the appreciation of the true, original article. This led to the pop success of such performers as Little Richard, the Teen-Agers and many more.”

While Johnny Ace is nowhere near as well known as Little Richard, he helped to pave the way, first on the road and later on the radio, for the iconic singer of “Tutti Frutti.” And though this might have cost Johnny his life, Richard escaped with just a catfish-shaped slap mark on his face. 

In the decades following Ace’s end, “Pledging My Love” became something of a standard. Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye sang a duet version. Elvis Presley, who rose to fame out of Memphis during Johnny’s heyday, recorded it just months before his death in 1977, and Emmylou Harris cut it country style. Aretha Franklin, who was born about a mile from where Johnny grew up, covered several of his tunes. Paul Simon even wrote a tribute called “The Late Great Johnny Ace.” The boy made his mark.

Big Mama Thornton never recaptured her “Hound Dog” days of stardom, but Don Robey prospered above all. He ruled black music from the late 1940s to the dawn of disco, building a legacy unmatched until the hip-hop era. The secrets behind his success died with him in 1975, when he succumbed to a heart attack in his Houston home. 

Playing on his daddy’s horse farm one day, Robey’s son stumbled across a surprising artifact. Out there in a field stood an old Woody station wagon. The boy looked it over. He saw weeds sneaking through the floorboards. In faint white lettering on the car’s body, he made out “My Song” and “Cross My Heart.” He wondered how such an odd relic ended up in his backyard.


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Preston Lauterbach is the author of The Chitlin' Circuit and Beale Streat Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, to be published by W.W. Norton in April 2015.

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