Although widely regarded as a New Orleans product, 1950s rhythm and blues powerhouse record label Ace Records was based in Jackson.
Established in 1955 by former Specialty Records producer and salesman Johnny Vincent (born John Vincent Imbragulio in Hattiesburg in 1927), who was responsible for Savoy recordings of Earl King, Huey Smith, and John Lee Hooker, Ace grew out of Vincent’s previous label, Champion. The earliest Ace recordings, including the first Ace hit, King’s “Lonely, Lonely Nights,” took place in the Trumpet Records studio in Jackson. However, most of Ace’s success came from the New Orleans studio of Cosimo Matassa. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Eddie Bo, Joe Tex, Bobby Marchan, James Booker, and a young Dr. John all recorded for Matassa and Vincent. Dr. John also served as engineer and producer on some Ace releases. Vincent enjoyed several early successes with Ace. Huey “Piano” Smith’s recording of “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” rose as high as No. 52 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 9 on the Billboard R&B chart. In 1958 Smith’s “Don’t You Just Know It” peaked at No. 9 and No. 4 on the pop and R&B charts, respectively. Although sales in the relatively limited R&B and blues markets were brisk, Vincent wanted more for himself and his label. To achieve this success, Ace needed a star who could appeal to the much wider white pop audience.
Ace’s greatest success came with crossover hits from Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Ford. Clanton embodied Vincent’s ideal of the clean-cut, all-American teen idol the label needed to gain a piece of the US pop charts dominated in the late 1950s by teen idols such as Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, and Frankie Avalon. Clanton’s biggest hit, “Just a Dream,” scored Ace Records’s only No. 1 hit when it reached the top of the Billboard R&B chart in July 1957 and the No. 4 position on the pop chart in April 1958. Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” actually a Huey Smith recording with Ford’s dubbed vocals, made it to No. 14 on the pop charts in February 1959. From 1957 through 1963 Ace placed nineteen singles on the Billboard Top 100 pop chart. Jimmy Clanton was featured on eleven of these.
In 1964 Vincent entered into a disastrous distribution deal with Vee-Jay Records. Although Vee-Jay appeared to be a strong company, it went bankrupt in early 1965. At that time it owed Ace Records as much as one million dollars. This collapse dealt a severe blow to Ace, for, like many independent record companies, it operated on a very slim profit margin. This financial setback, coupled with changing musical tastes after the British invasion, ended Ace’s run on the pop charts. Despite these difficulties, Ace continued to operate in the Jackson area as a regional label that featured soul-blues artists until Vincent’s death in 2000.
- Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (2nd ed. 1996)
- Mississippi Blues Trail website, www.msbluestrail.org