Friday, May 8, 2009

The Two Other Tragedies: Johnny Ace and Eddie Cochran

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic accident that took from all of us three top musicians who were on top of their game and popularity. The plane crash that occurred on February 3rd 1959, interrupting the Winter Dance Party tour has come to be known for variety of reasons as "the day the music died." This explanation is related in large measure to the somewhat cryptic lyrics of the Dan Mclean's song American Pie , whose meaning is convincingly interpreted here. While losing Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly on the same day was certainly a blow to the popular music field, there are other explanations for the shifting grounds of rock and roll styles, including two other accidental deaths that in their own ways had nearly as much impact as the Clear Lake Iowa tragedy.

The truncated career of Johnny Ace began in rhythm and blues and jump blues in the 1940's and extended in full swing until his tragic and untimely death in 1954. Being from Memphis, Johnny Alexander's first association is with by the Beale Streeters and B.B. King on the now legendary WDIA radio shows coming out of Memphis in 1951. Johnny's first recordings reflect his adherence to the R&B jump blues rave of the time, as heard here in "No Money". But Johnny's true legacy was forged in his love ballads, songs which, along with doo wop interpretations, form the counterpoint of the wilder R&B and rockabilly sounds emerging at the same time. Johnny's calssic ballads are "Saving My Love for You", "Anymore" and the classic "Pledging my Love." Johnny's ballads were taking off in popularity by 1954 and his heartfelt style and velvety smooth vocals promised huge national crossover potential at a time when it was becoming possible for a black musician to work into the larger popular music market. His accidental death by self- inflicted gunshot in 1954 deprived all of us of one of pop music's up and coming stars on the cusp of something much bigger. His work has been covered by countless musicians and memorialized here by by Paul Simon.

The quality of music produced during Eddie Cochran's short and prolific recording career qualify him a well deserved place in the rock and roll/rockabilly pantheon, along with Carl Perkins, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent. His creativity, energy, remarkable voice and rebellious edge make Eddie a unique 1950's talent and later, a posthumous icon of the period. Whether it was delivering alluringly catchy rockabilly with songs like "C'mon Everybody" and the lesser known "Stockings and Shoes" , or showing his rebellious side with Nervous Breakdown and "Summertime Blues," Cochran work defines the direction of popular music in the 1950's. His last hit, "Three Steps to Heaven" which charted in 1960, demonstrates the move to a tamer style and thematic that was emerging by the time Eddie's embarked on his ill fated tour to England in the same year. The taxi accident in which Eddie perished before his 22nd birthday also injured Gene Vincent, ultimately shortening his music career.

The accidental deaths of Johnny Ace and Eddie Cochran, while not receiving the attention the Clear Lake Iowa tragedy did, deprive the period of two of its greatest performers and songwriters whose careers were just beginning. Occurring at both ends of the rock and roll era, Johny Ace and Eddie Cochran, each in his own way, are emblematic of trends that shaped the decade and set up the music to emerge in the coming decade.

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