Gary James' Interview With
Ace Cannon

He started his career in Memphis, Tennessee, recording on many of the 1950's hits on Sun Records. He played in the Bill Black Combo - one of the most popular instrumental groups of the 50s. He appeared, as part of the group, on the top TV shows of the day including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and Dick Clark's American Bandstand.

In 1962, he recorded the instrumental smash "Tuff". Since that time, he has recorded 52 albums and 37 singles. In 1986, he performed on "The Class Of '55" album, which brought together Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison for the first time.

The late, great Sam Phillips called him "the greatest saxophone player who ever lived." By now you know we are talking about Ace Cannon. Mr. Cannon recently shared his thoughts about a remarkable career with us.

Q - I saw this P.B.S. documentary on Sun Records and Sam Phillips a few years back, in which you were featured. What I took away from this documentary was that guys like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash got all the attention, while guys like Ace Cannon were overlooked. Would you agree?

A - I don't know Gary. At that particular time in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was raised, me and about one more saxophone player was all Memphis had. I never was a Sun artist. I was only a sideman. Only thing I know is play sessions.

Q - And then you went on to another lable?

A - Yeah. See, I was with the Bill Black Combo, 1959, 1960 and '61. Then I when I cut "Tuff" in '62, that's the first time I had been on a label on my own. So, I was on Hi (Records) from '62 until the time they closed down. Then I been doing other project since then...TV, albums, records on my own label, records for overseas, the Bahamas, WIRL (Records), stuff like that. I know that's further on down the road, so we'll go back to whatever you was talking about. I don't know if I was overlooked 'cause in all of his (Sam Phillips) statements, I was the greatest saxophone player in the world, 'cause I came out of the same stable as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and and that bunch. He had plenty of opportunity if he wanted to do anything with me solo. At that time, he was definitely into rockabilly and them three or four guys.

Q - Maybe Mr. Phillips was just overwhelmed with all the work attending to those three or four artists.

A - Right. Bill Justis was about the only instrumentalist that I knew he hired, that he signed, when he put out "Raunchy". Instrumentals weren't real big in the 60s. And then just about everything we had on Hi Records was instrumentals.

Q - Tell me some of the records you played on in the days of Sun Records.

A - Oh, I wish I could. I wish I could remember all that. I see my name under sessions in that Sun book that's out, who played on what and all that. I played on stuff for Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Lee Riley, whenever they wanted a horn. We were in a little discussion about it the other day on who played baritone sax on "Lonely Weekend" with Charlie Rich. We finally figured out it was Martin Wilits. The reason I said that about who all I played on, 'cause I just can't remember all the artists that was going at that time.

Q - They really kept you busy didn't they?

A - Yes, sir. There were other little labels around besides that one that I recorded for some too. Anytime anybody needed a horn, they would call either me or Martin Wilits. But, there just wasn't a whole lot of horns used on Sun Records at that time.

Q - When did you take up the sax?

A - Well, I started playing when I was ten. It really all came from my Daddy's genes. My Daddy was a guitar, fiddle player. You heard of people being born with a silver spoon in their mouth, well, I was just almost born with a musical career. There was no doubt what I was fixin' to do.

Q -Your father was a professional musician then?

A - Yes.

Q - Did he play with anyone famous?

A - No, strictly local stuff around Memphis.

Q - Where did this name Ace come from?

A - That came from Mr. Joe Coughi, the owner of Popular Tunes. My real name is John. I recorded some things under Johnny Cannon. I think that's the way I'm more or less known over in Europe. Now they call it Johnny Ace Cannon. Some people think I'm dead, on account of when Johnny Ace died, the black, blues singer, a lot of people think I'm gone. (laughs)

Q - Well, we're here to remind them you're not.

A - Right.

Q - What was it like to record in the Sun Records studios? A certain sound was created there that I believe has never been duplicate anywhere.

A - I don't know what made it so outstanding. I know everybody had to be on the floor at the same time. There was no separation like they do today, where each individual may have a little room where he plays in, to keep their instruments from bleeding over into the other mikes. It was a great feeling down there. There used to be a restaurant right next door to it. Hell, I used to just sit down there at that restaurant in the daytime. If they needed you, they'd just come over and get you and bring you over. I always checked with 'em every morning, to see if anything was going on.

Q - You probably sat down and talked with all the Sun artists...Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis.

A - Yeah. The least amount of time I spent was with Elvis. I later on worked with Carl Perkins for a year in 1986. I toured with him; the opening act for his show. And I was on that "Class Of '55" album. That was Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. A lot of other stars on that particular album, but, it was just a hoot, I promise you. I had more fun cutting that album than any one I ever cut.

Q - I take it you liked all the people you worked with.

A - Yes Sir. We all got along just great. It was just like one big family.

Q - In 1959, you started with The Bill Black Combo?

A - Right.

A - Does that mean you were a co-founder of the group, or were you invited to join?

A - He invited me to join the group. Marty Wilits, the other sax player I was telling you about, he had already cut "Smokey". Then they got a chance to go on the road. Somebody signed 'em up and wanted them to hit the road. Well, I got the job because Martin Wilits did not want to go on the road. So, from then on, I started doing the recording and touring.

Q - Where did you tour?

A - Oh, wow. I guess we made every state in the United States, plus we went down to the Bahamas, down to the Caribbean.

Q - Were you headlining or opening shows?

A - Well, when we were playing dances and just being booked on our own, and I'm gonna tell you a surprise here...most of our jobs were Black clubs. Everybody thought the Bill Black Combo was Black. Then G.A.C. (General Artists Corp.) put out these tours that lasted like sixty days. Two or three Greyhound buses just car-loaded with stars. We traveled with that Fabian tour in 1960, where Fabian was the headliner. We had Brenda Lee, Jimmy Clanton, Duane Eddy, The Bill Black Combo, Chubby Checker. All those would be colisiems.

Q - Did you go overseas?

A - We didn't go overseas with the package show. We did go overseas with The Drifters. The Bill Black Combo and The Drifters went. We went to the Caribbean. We worked the Bahamas, Montego Bay, Nassau, Freeport. That's the only Caribbean tour we done down there. But, we was in Canada and every state in the union before Alaska got in. I've never been to Alaska. I've been to Hawaii four times.

Q - What year did you perform on The Ed Sullivan Show? Was that with The Bill Black Combo?

A - That was with The Bill Black Combo. It was before The Beatles came over here. I think it was either '59 or '60.

Q - What was it like to be on The Ed Sullivan Show?

A - Oh, man. That was the top show going at that particular time. We wound up making Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark and American Bandstand, Merv Griffin. Then, some big disc jockey out of Baltimore named Buddy Dean. I know we made them four TV shows for sure.

Q - Didn't Bill Black open shows for The Beatles?

A - The Bill Black Combo, and this is after I had left them, this was in the early '60s, they traveled with The Beatles. They done a complete tour.

Q - Why did you leave Bill Black?

A - I put out my recording. We recorded at the same studio. Black was on the same label I wound up on. Hi was a record label that had Willie Mitchell, Ace Cannon, Bill Black Combo, Jean Simmons' "Haunted House". Later on, Al Green, Carla Thomas.

Q -Your bio says you're considered a "musical genius." Do you see yourself as a musical genius?

A - No, I don't consider myself as a musical genius. You know, I hear a song one time and play it. I just got a good ear and I just been doing it for 60 years. I've always been tops in anything I've tried, such as in school, if I belonged to the glee club or something like that, you could hear my voice above everybody eleses. I was playing the horn in clubs I wasn't supposed to be in, at a very young age. My mother had the owner of the band take me as a parent or guardian. I just started at an early age. I grew up faster than normal. I took every kind of music in college. I took music theory. I didn't even go for two semesters and I had already went through the junior high school band, the high school band and went to college for a little while at Memphis State. I was gonna major in music but then I quit. Like some people at the age of 19, quit, got married and got a day job. I had it for six years. It's the only day job I ever had in my life. The rest of it's been music.

Q - What'd you do in that day job?

A - I started out as a file clerk and ended up as a personnel manager.

Q - For a big business?

A - Yes, sir. For a big company known all over the world. They made irrigation pumps. Layne Pumps. They're irrigation pumps where they flood rice fields. The company I worked for made the pumps. Then they've got subsidiaries all over the world.

Q - Now are you sorry you didn't stay in college and finish it out?

A - No, not really. Not the way my music career went.

Q - Why does the public always seem to hear more about Boots Randolph than Ace Cannon?

A - Boots was raised in Nashville and he had the Nashville clique behind him. Him and Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins went out with a deal called "The Million Dollar Band". He had a whole lot of more publicity than I did.

Q - What are you doing these days?

A - Still working about 50 dates a year, cutting records on my own label. That particular label, we sell 'em on the internet and off the bandstands and try to peddle 'em to another record label that's bigger than this. Instrumentals have just not been big again since the '60s. The closest thing that's came to that was Kenny G making that spurt in the '90s. I don't even hear of him as much as I used to. He's even fallen off the charts or whatever. But, he's the biggest instrumentalist I heard of since the days when they were real big.

Q - Why don't we have any "hit" instrumental records anymore?

A - It's amazing. (laughs) I don't know, 'cause some of this stuff out here today, man, I don't think we're looking for music anymore.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* Ace Cannon placed two songs in the Top 40 of the Billboard Pop Chart in 1962
"Tuff" (#17) and "Blues (Stay Away From Me)" (#36)