Ace Cannon : Tuff Saxophone


Johnny “Ace” Cannon was born May 5, 1934, in Granada, Mississippi. As a saxophone player, he worked sessions at the Sun studios in Memphis, such as Billy Lee Riley’s “Pearly Lee” from 1957, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” and its flip side “John Henry” from 1960. In 1959 he joined the Bill Black Combo—Black was Elvis Presley’s former bassist—and played of some of their hits. He left the band when “Tuff,” a slow bluesy shuffle under his own name that hit the top 40 in 1962, made a solo career feasible. Five of his singles entered the national hit parade in the early 1960s, and four of them were on the Hi label of Memphis.

Cannon has made dozens of albums, mostly in the easy listening style, and had much success with them, performing widely. But he has retained his rock and roll connections, appearing on Class of ’55 : Memphis Rock and Roll Homecoming (1986), which featured Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison ; also Billy Lee Riley’s Blue Collar Blues (1992), and one track on Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana’s All the King’s Men (1997). That track, “Goin’ Back to Memphis,” credited to the Bill Black Combo, was nominated for a Grammy Award. I interviewed him before his performance in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 16, 2005, at the Rockin’ Fest II. The photo I took of him that day is on the right. You can see his website here.

Ace Cannon : My father was a musician. He played guitar, fiddle, more or less into the country end of it. Him and a couple of other cab drivers, [which] is what he done for a living at the time when I was growing up, had a radio show called “Joe, Slim, and Johnny, the Yodeling Cabbies.” Johnny was my father, Johnny Cannon. That’s my real name also and I’m a junior. My musical roots were just there. It was just a God-given talent plus the genes that he had.

He never was interested in nothing like a saxophone. He told me to pick out any instrument I wanted to. This was when I was in the 5th grade so I couldn’t get in the school band. I was 10 years old. At the school you had to be in the 7th grade to participate in band. I picked up the saxophone and the little school, being as small as it was, had one saxophone and it was a baritone saxophone. I was about three foot tall, always small for my age when I was in school, and I found out they made them in different sizes. I told him I wanted to play the alto sax. He said “whatever you pick out I’ll buy you one.” So that was that. In the back seat on the way home [from the music store] I played “Beer Barrel Polka,” enough to where you could tell what it was just by ad-libbing, no music, nothing like that. I’d heard it on the radio. I’d never had one in my hand.

When I realized where I was and what I was doing and I was a human being, it happened in Memphis at the age of about 5. That’s when I realized we were living in Memphis. I started school one year out in an area of Memphis called Fort Pickering for the 1st grade. The first day of school I fainted while pledging allegiance to the flag in the assembly in the morning. I just fell out ; I was taking the measles. So I missed the first week or so of school.

Craig Morrison : Why did the family move to Memphis ?

AC : Couldn’t find no work [around Granada, Mississippi]. They wasn’t farmers, well they picked cotton. My daddy worked for something called the WPA which went around planting trees along the roads and stuff like that.

CM : So he was a cab driver when he was in Memphis, but when he was in Mississippi he was doing farm work ?

AC : He was picking guitar up around the town square for tips. He picked that one-string, thumb-pick thing like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins would do, and sang Blue Yodel #1 and 2, everything that Jimmy Rodgers had. He was a big Jimmy Rodgers fan. I didn’t really care for that. The night I was born he was up there. I was born in the house, didn’t get to the hospital. This is all my mother telling about all this.

CM : What made you choose the saxophone ? What had you heard or how did you even know about the saxophone ?

AC : I didn’t, until I walked in the band room. When he told me to pick out what I wanted. I was singing already before I started getting interested in the horn. I’d go down to the store to get my mother ; it wasn’t but half a block from the house. We weren’t really worried about all this picking kids up and taking them away. At that time you never heard of that kind of stuff. I’d go down there and I’d sing “You Are My Sunshine” and like that for the people at the store. They’d give me a “belly-washer”—flavored drinks like strawberry, grape, orange—and a candy-bar. It’s what they sell now for a big liter drink. I know one thing : it was too much for a kid to drink all at one time.

CM : How did you know “You Are My Sunshine” ?

AC : I heard it on the radio and heard my daddy singing it. My daddy and them would have a little music over at the house, like four or five musicians come over there and play. I was supposed to be in my room. Sticking your head around the corner and listening and watching them and just what’s going on. One of them played mandolin. They had banjos. There wasn’t anything like drums or pianos or nothing like that, it was all strings.

CM : A hillbilly string band.

AC : Right.

CM : In your recording career did you ever go back and remember any of those old tunes and do them in your own style ?

AC : Oh yeah. I’ve done several Hank Williams’ tunes like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and some of his slower ones. At our last session we done “You Are My Sunshine” and then the whole band just jumped up and start singing with me on the last chorus. But we had to leave that one off of our latest album. We’ve got it saved for another one.

CM : So were you just self taught at that time ?

AC : Right. I was playing by ear, strictly by ear. I started playing the saxophone when I was 10. I couldn’t get in the band until I was 12. The first note I ever read was once I got into the 7th grade. But ad-libbing and playing by ear was still my favorite thing to do, because I done got to where I could play about anything. As far as the reading career, on up through junior high school, 7th, 8th and 9th, that’s as high as that school went. Then I went to high school and I played it in the 10th, 11th and 12th. I went to Memphis State [University] to major in music supposedly. I was taking music theory, strings, I played bass, the upright bass, and loved to play it ’cause I’d been around a bunch of hillbillies. I loved to play it when it said pizzicato where you could put that blamed bow down and pick it like I’d seen it picked by these country guys. I joined the Army Reserves and joined in the 431st Army Band. I stayed for eight years and got out in ’61. I took a leave of absence in ’59, ’60 and ’61 to go with the Bill Black Combo.

But before all of that came about I was playing just clubs around town, had my own band. Sometimes I was playing real modern, what they call easy listening music today. They had little books called Combo Orks that had “Blue Moon,” that kind of stuff. That was what we was playing for dances, proms, and churches. Whatever we played, we’d play out of them books and sit behind real stands, sitting down and reading. We had the regular deals like a whole saxophone section, which is a first alto, a second tenor, third alto, fourth tenor, and bari. We had five saxes. I played first alto.

CM : Did you have a trumpet section and a trombone section too ?

AC : Yes.

CM : Four trombones ? Four trumpets ?

AC : Right.

CM : It was a whole big band. And this would be in the ’50s.

AC : Right.

CM : And your rhythm section, was it piano, bass, drums, and guitar ?

AC : We had all of them.

CM : So you had a four-piece rhythm section, four-piece trumpet section, four-piece trombone section and five-piece sax section. That’s a lot of guys to pay.

AC : And worked the heck out of all of them. Pay wasn’t even involved in more or less that. We were doing that for school projects. All the way up to the time when I was 18 and then this just happened like on vacations, on the weekends. But I had jobs playing with country bands, going out on the road with a group called Clyde Leoppard and the Snearly Ranch Boys, and then Buck “Snuffy” Turner and his Buckaroos. I was one of the Buckaroos, one of the Snearly Ranch Boys. People got a little acclaim in them days. When you read through Sun’s book [Good Rockin’ Tonight : Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins] they mention both of them groups ’cause they were very popular.

CM : The Snearly Ranch Boys recorded, but did the other hillbilly group also make records ?

AC : Yes, I don’t know if they sold or not. I never was on one of them. Buck “Snuffy” Turner had a talk show with him and Lewis Fossey that came on every morning at 6:30 on WRSC there in Memphis. So I was just playing around the town with them, mostly nightclubs.

CM : How did people that played country music or listened to country music take to having a saxophone in the band ?

AC : They didn’t seem to mind.

CM : When you were playing with those guys were you the only horn player ?

AC : Yeah. Well I got the extra attention with being so young. I was in places where I wasn’t supposed to be. I had to have one of the men that run the band be a parent or a guardian and sign for me. The places that had age limits like 21 before you could get in, they made amends to that or something on account of me being in the band.

CM : When your father and his friends were playing at home were you able to play with them ?

AC : It got to that where I could, yes.

Fernwood label promo shot, courtesy of Dave Travis, reproduced from the booklet of the CD Hot Rockin’ Music From Memphis Volume 2 on Stompertime. This CD contains three tracks of Ace Cannon from 1962, backed by a band that includes Scotty Moore (who produced the session) on guitar, and Bill Black on bass.

CM : What I’m trying to figure out, was anybody offended or surprised by a saxophone ?

AC : Oh no. I always was treated real special because what I was doing was at such a young age.

CM : There weren’t very many guys playing saxophone in country, but I guess maybe people had heard Bob Wills and some of the western swing guys with the saxes.

AC : See I was doing it, and this is not bragging but the deal was I was doing it so good at that 10, 11 age. For some school functions we’d black our face with cork. I remember blacking our face and using burnt cork and going around and playing like at veterans’ hospitals for the sick, for the boys that got hurt in wars. We’d go play different kind of places. We stood around the corner up there in a little town called Hollywood where I was raised and we’d get in front of the drugstore and just clown around. Some of the guys couldn’t even play an instrument but they’d black their faces just to get up there and call it a blackface thing. All the movements and all the things we were doing we’d just get tips. We had a jar there and get tips for it. There’s always that one that acts crazy, all the time whether you’re in blackface or not.

CM : I met Marcus Van Story and there’s a picture of him with a straw hat on and one of his teeth blacked out like it had been knocked out but it’s just colored.

AC : Marcus played with my daddy for a long time. Later on in life I played in different bands with Marcus and Lightnin’ Chance [both bass players]. Some of them boys that played had radio shows in Memphis, like Ed Hill, Slim Rhodes, Jim Steele. They had good musicians. Finally it got to where they would be on TV, several of them. Rhodes, you know all them, they really done good with their TV show. Spec Rhodes, he made it big in Nashville, with “Hee-Haw” and that, acting. Like you said, with a bunch of them teeth out or dressed up in a plaid suit and a derby.

CM : Did you hear black music in the community ?

AC : You could go up on Beale Street and they’d be sitting around in the parks blowin’ on French harps. Of course at that young age I really didn’t spend a whole lot of time up on Beale Street that early in life. I have since then. Beale Street, that was home for them, their street.

CM : I went to Beale Street before it was renovated. I was in Memphis for the first time in the early ’80s and it was a strange feeling because the buildings were burnt out and derelict and falling apart. There was one store working in the whole four or five blocks, and that was Lansky’s.

AC : Lansky Brothers, yes.

CM : But the weird thing about it was the street was brand new. The pavement, the sidewalks were brand new and it was like being in the twilight zone, walking down a brand new street and seeing these burnt-out buildings. Very strange. It was just the first phase of the renovations.

AC : Well they tried to renovate that several times before they really got to it. The last time it really worked. It turned into a great project. It’s really been a lot of fun down there since.

Anytime a horn was needed at Sun Records, I’d hang out at Taylor’s restaurant right there next door. That’s where the musicians met. If you knew they was cutting a session over there and you knew Sam Philips and Jack Clements and the ones doing all the engineering and they’d know you was over there, they’d come over and say “we need a horn on this song, come on.” There wasn’t many horn players to pick from. I had the monopoly ; me and another gentleman got the monopoly on the horns, Marty Willis. He played with the Bill Black Combo, and Billy Lee Riley’s Little Green Men. I did too, after he left. Me and Marty was raised in the same little town, Hollywood. I knew Marty all the time, all my life. He’s down in Florida in the hotel business, managing a hotel. We talked on the phone a couple of times in the last five years. He invited me down.

CM : Do you remember which was the very first record you made ?

AC : No, I sure can’t. I can’t tell you that, or the artist either. I just know that I played on a bunch of them. I’d go through this Sun discography book that tells you who’s on the sessions and you’ll see my name. Johnny Cannon, it won’t be Ace.

CM : When did you become Ace ?

AC : When I put out “Tuff.” They named me that in football, and it meant the opposite. Too little to play football but wanted to. So I just went ahead and stuck with the band.

CM : Did you have a mentor in your music, someone who opened doors for you or showed you things, or someone that you looked up to that guided you ?

AC : I guess you would have to call that my father, because he really opened the doors. He was the first one I heard play live and he gave me the chance to have my first horn. And then like I said we were playing together, when we moved to Mississippi. He was promised a job down there.

CM : Where did he move from ?

AC : Memphis. This is later in life but he was promised a job at Ford Harrison’s machine shop. We went down there and stayed about five months. I went in my senior year and stayed down there for two or three months and came back and finished it back at Tech High School in Memphis. ’Cause the job didn’t turn out but while we were down there we played with some pickers, and played some VFWs in small towns and high school gymnasiums.

CM : So you had a lot of experience playing all over the place.

AC : We’d take about a 200-mile radius, was about as far as we’d go to play a job at that time. Pickers, like I told you about : Buck “Snuffy” Turner, Clyde Leoppard and the Snearly Ranch Boys. I never will forget being about 15 years old and went to Bald Knob, Arkansas, to play and we went over that night and it was in Christmas ’cause it was Christmas night, and the next time we went a week later, New Year’s. We’d work for the door is what we’d do. They paid me $55 for that Friday night. We went back the next New Year’s Eve and made $80 and I thought I was rich. It wasn’t heard of. My mother and daddy wasn’t making that kind of money at their day jobs, and both of them worked. I was playing a lot of jobs but most up through [age] 18 and 20 was country music. The first taste of rock and roll I ever had was playing with a group somewhere around Jackson, Tennessee, called Kenny Parchman. I didn’t record on the record but I did have the opportunity to travel around with him. That was the first time that I met Smoochie Smith. I had a lot of fun playing in that band.

CM : Did you have to change your style to play rock and roll ?

AC : No, but it was different. Different kind of leads. Country music was a little mild compared. Playing rock and roll, there was a lot more action to it. I started making these shows up where I’d jump off the bandstand, go sliding out on the floor. I’d be on the floor playing my horn. People would gather around in a big circle, clapping, giving you the “keep it up” and all that stuff. At that time, tenor was my favorite. When I was growing up, I got the alto, but later on in life I played more tenor. At a younger age, like in my 20s, and that’s what I was playing when I went with the Bill Black Combo. When I really got attached to the alto was when I started my career. I cut “Tuff” on it.

CM : Were you always a full-time musician ?

AC : I had one day job in my life. It was at Layne and Bowler Incorporated [a manufacturer of irrigation pump systems for agriculture] : file clerk. I finally worked myself up to personnel manager. In fact I hired my daddy. You weren’t supposed to hire anybody over 40. He was 42. We got that pulled off without a hitch, and he wound up retiring there, stayed there 20 years. I started there February 17, 1953, and stayed there until the Bill Black Combo job, ’59. We played a whole lot. We played, I guess, every state in the Union. We went to the Bahamas. Spent a lot of time up in Canada. Didn’t miss a state except Alaska and Hawaii at that time because they weren’t our states, I don’t think. I don’t know when they came in, but there weren’t but 48 when I started. Everybody thought Bill Black was black. We played a lot of black clubs all over the United States. We were one of the groups that could just walk in. We played the white ones too but you know the way the situation was back at that time. Sort of scary, really. To walk in and not know what’s going to happen. But never a problem. I mean they loved us.

I moved to Nashville in 1985 and stayed until ’88. Too big a rat race for me. Too late. Everybody had things covered there. I think Duane Eddy’s horn player had just got there six months before I did, and Jim Horn had all the horn [jobs]. As far as using horns he already had most of them. He got most of the calls.

CM : What are you most proud of in your life or in your music ?

AC : Being nominated for a Grammy Award. Having the opportunity to cut an album with Al Hirt—we done a duo album together. The Class of ’55 and the rock and roll with the experience of traveling with Carl Perkins in 1986. I fronted his show for him and stayed with him for a year. All of that came from the album Class of ’55, ’cause I’m all over that in the horn section with Wayne Jackson, Jack Hale, who was supposed to be the Memphis Horns, but Andrew Love wasn’t there that day. They had a lot of people on that particular album, the Judds and John Fogerty and Ricky Nelson, so many I can’t just sit here and name ’em all of to you. It was just fun making it, feel good music all the way through it. And to be with them four greats ; ain’t but one of them living today except Jerry Lee ; everybody thought he’d be the first one to be gone. Roy Orbison, Carl, Johnny, all gone. And the one that produced it : Sam Phillips, gone.

All my hits are the slow ballad-type. That’s what I’m famous for. I played lots of fast songs but as far as playing the dances they just seemed to like the ballads. I’d rather play the ballads. Whatever I played, they’d want to get up and dance by it. You can’t hardly keep them still. You can tell them that they’re not allowed to dance in certain places and they’ll go and find a hole somewhere big enough to get up out there and dance.

CM : Did you have a favorite saxophone player ?

AC : Earl Bostic. I had every album he had out.

CM : Did you ever get to meet him or get to see him play ?

AC : No, sir, no. Just all his albums. He had a style all of his own. That’s what I wanted : a style all my own. That’s what I got. People will tell you right now all they’ve got to hear is three or four notes they know who it is. That’s the way I like it.

CM : How would you describe the Ace Cannon style ?

AC : Sexy, played from the heart. Pouring it out, like I was just pouring it out of my heart for you to receive it that way. If it doesn’t come from the heart it’s not music anyhow.

comments or questions ? email me

I have also posted several interviews with musicians from the 1950s and 1960s. To go to the index page, click here.

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006