This Thursday, at the age of 84, the legendary saxophonist Johnny "Ace" Cannon, Jr. passed away in Calhoun City, Mississippi, where he settled in his fifties and very near his place of birth. But he grew up and defined his style in Memphis, and both the man and his distinctive playing on records for the Hi and Fernwood labels will be forever associated with this city.
Cannon, backed by Bill Black's Combo, catapulted to fame in 1961 with "Tuff," his first single on Hi Records, which peaked at #17 on the U.S. pop charts, #3 on the R&B charts. With that first shot across the bow, he defined a style that served him well for over half a century. He continued playing sax (and golfing) right up to the end.
Local reed man extraordinaire Jim Spake has a few thoughts on Cannon's influence and sound. "My mom had the Tuff album. She had that and the Boots Randolph record with 'Yakety Sax' on it. I guess 'Yakety Sax' was her John Coltrane, and 'Tuff' was her Cannonball. But Ace Cannon was seriously the first saxophone I probably ever heard on the old hi-fi at home. I think simplicity was his thing. He wasn't trying to be something he wasn't. He just played the song. That's what people liked about him, you know? And he came out of that whole Bill Black thing."
Indeed, it was Hi co-founder and Bill Black's Combo producer Joe Cuoghi who nicknamed Cannon "Ace," but his influence didn't stop there. As detailed in Jimmy McDonough's Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green(still the best source on Hi's pre-Green history), Cuoghi played a large role in defining the style of the combo, Hi's first hit makers. Sometimes against the band's better judgement, he would strip the arrangement down to the basics, and slow the tempo so plenty of space hung in the mix. You can hear his influence for yourself on this hit from 1960.
This was the sound of the combo and Hi Records just before Johnny Cannon, Jr showed up and replaced saxophonist Martin Wills. Bare bones and more than a little wacky, the combo's sound was a perfect match for the player they'd come to call Ace. But while Bill Black's Combo reigned on both the pop and the R&B charts for a time, Cannon's own musical upbringing was decidedly more country.
Speaking to George Klein on WYPL TV-18 about his early days, Cannon recalled his first experiences as a performer. "I started playing when I was ten years old. With my father [Johnny Cannon, Sr.]. He played guitar and fiddle. Remember [renowned local DJ] Joe Manuel? They used to have a group called “Joe, Slim & Johnny - the Yodeling Cabbies”. They were all cab drivers. And I was singing at the time instead of playing the horn. And then [my father] picked me up and told me, 'Anything you wanna play at school, I'll get ya one.' ... The only saxophone they had was an old baritone saxophone that was twice the size that I was. Then I found out they made different sizes! I told him I wanted to play alto, and we took it out in the back seat of the car, and I played "Beer Barrel Polka."
Playing with various groups, including (according to this anonymous bio) Buck ‘Sniffy’ Turner & his Buckaroos, Clyde Leoppard and the Snearly Ranch Boys, and Billy Lee Riley’s Little Green Men, Cannon's tastes and influences expanded. "Earl Bostic was my favorite," he told Klein. Yet, to create what would become an R&B hit, he reached way back to a country blues his father had likely played, "Columbus Stockade Blues."
As Cannon recalls, "Me and Johnny [Bernero] was messing around with a tune called 'Cattywampus.' It was the old 'Columbus Stockade Blues,' and we changed it to 'Cattywampus,' and we got Bill Justis to do it. After they had a hit on 'Raunchy,' he put out 'Cattywampus.'"
Just hearing the Bill Justis record is an object lesson on the Hi Records sound, and its perfect fit with Cannon's style. Whereas "Cattywampus" is crowded with band members all playing full-on, that same song, as "Tuff," became a study in restraint. Describing Cuoghi's production methods at Hi's Royal Studios, Cannon told McDonough, "He'd be right there in that engineerin' room, and if I got off the track just a little bit, tryin' to play Earl Bostic, a little jazz, he'd say, 'Stop the tape, stop the tape — tell him to stick to the melody!' I was his favorite artist, and he wasn't afraid to tell nobody, either."
As Spake explains, the simplicity is the key. "They didn't dress things up, Bill Black. When I play 'Tuff' live, I like to play it like the record. I ain't trying to bring nothin' new to 'Tuff.' If you listen to it, it's the dumbest song in the world, but it's great. Much Memphis shit is like that, you know? Like 'Last Night.'"
He explains further, "They just play the melody, AABA BA. Done. You know, it's probably two and a half minutes long, if that. And there's no solos, you know? There's no improvisation. It's just playing the melody with feel. I think more people could learn from that."
Brilliant as "Tuff" and his many other Hi Records tracks were, many now know the name Ace Cannon from another source. As Klein remarks, "I remember I used to see those TV commercials for you and Al Hirt late at night." Spake, too, remembers them with some amusement.
"There were these TV commercials for Ace Cannon," he recalls. "Gee, I wish I could see one now. Ace Cannon Plays the Hits, or whatever. You know those cheesy local commercials, where the titles are scrolling by? And you hear him play six beats of any given song. I remember one was 'The Beautiful Blue Danube.' And he would go da da dee da dahhh, dut dut, dut dut. You're supposed to go up an octave at the end. And he wouldn't make the octave. Like, why go to the extra trouble? Keep it simple."