QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
1) Johnny Ace was a historical person. Why write a novel instead of a biography?
A) I could have written a biography, but only a small universe of popular music aficionados would be interested in such a book. On the other hand, if I did my job well as a novelist, then a much larger readership would be interested in The Death of Johnny Ace, not because they knew who Johnny Ace was, but because I wrote a good story.
2) Is this a historical novel?
A) Although historical novels come in many guises, from books about English royalty to renaissance artists and western outlaws, there are very few that create an enchanting new world from an America musician’s arc of life.
3) Why write about Johnny Ace?
A) The story of Johnny Ace always intrigued me: a popular musician who allegedly killed himself just as his career was peaking. He defined the aspirations of young African-Americans in the early- to mid-1950s in the same way that James Dean did to young White America. That’s where the comparison ends. James Dean has attained mythic proportions in American culture, but Johnny Ace has been forgotten, a lagging result of a time when the United States was a segregated land.
4) Most of the novel takes place in Memphis. Was Memphis an important city in the evolution of the music that became rock ‘n’ roll?
A) Early in the last century through the 1960s, Memphis was one of the most important crucibles for the American sound that would become rock ‘n’ roll. It was a way-station for African-American musicians coming up from Mississippi Delta; the clubs on Beale Street, in the heart of the city, were the first stops for musicians as different as Ike Turner, B.B. King, Junior Parker and Johnny Ace. The city was also home to Sun Records, which first recorded the likes Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, and Stax Records, home to Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Booker T. & MG’s.
5) Your depiction of some familiar musicians such as B.B. King is much different than our current vision of who they are. Why?
A) The time line of the book is the very end of 1940s through the mid-1950s. The artists who came to Memphis to make their name were just starting out in their careers. They were hungry to make a name, and probably, a little bit hungry most of the time. They were wiry and wired. Good times and bad diet hadn’t yet taken a toll on their appearance.
6) Was there really an African-American music mogul before Berry Gordy and Motown?
A) Yes there was and his name really was Don Robey. He launched Peacock Records in 1949, which later acquired Duke Records. He ran the labels until 1975. No only did he record Johnny Ace and R&B singers like Gatemouth Brown, but also gospel acts such as The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Bells of Joy and The Dixie Hummingbirds.
7) Should Johnny Ace be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame?
A) Since American culture has all but forgotten Johnny Ace, it’s hard to fathom how important he was to the African-American world in the early 1950s. He was the first African-American teen idol of the modern music era and a constant chart topper. His style and character so influenced the growing African-American middle class, when he died a Johnny Ace cult spontaneously evolved as it did in the White middle class after James Dean died. Few artists in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has had the influence on popular culture that Johnny Ace did during his brief time in the spotlight.
8) Are there other forgotten rock ‘n’ roll heroes who should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame?
A) The Death of Johnny Ace is full of them, from Johnny Ace, himself, to recording artist Big Mama Thornton, to impresario/DJ/singer Rufus Thomas, to music mogul Don Robey.
9) If there is a movie made from the book The Death of Johnny Ace, who should play Johnny Ace?
A) I’m not going to promote anyone in particular, but the person who plays Johnny Ace would need to be youngish, very good-looking and be able to sing soulful ballads as opposed to slamming out hip-hop couplets.