Ace UK Records
Frankie Ford. Ace UK Records
Johnny Vincent was born John Vincent Imbraguglio to a couple who ran a restaurant in Laurel, Miss., in 1925; he went into the Merchant Marine straight out of high school. After mustering out, he ran a jukebox business in Laurel for a while, but in 1953, he took a job with L.A.'s Specialty label as its local talent scout. He sent one good record after another to Specialty, but the label went nowhere. Finally, he organized a session in New Orleans with Eddie Jones, who called himself Guitar Slim, and had a young piano player named Ray Charles assemble the arrangements.
The song, "The Things I Used to Do," was a top seller in 1954, so after one too many arguments with Specialty, Johnny Vincent set up his own label, Ace. Early on, he leased songs from smaller labels or did one-off sessions in Jackson or Houston, but it was when he discovered J&M Studios in New Orleans and the musicians who worked there that his label took off.
The track "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu" announced that the group singing was Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns, a group which had nearly as many personnel changes as it had personnel over the years — there are even a couple of records under this name on which Huey "Piano" Smith doesn't appear. As huge a classic as it is today, though, "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu" barely dented the pop charts, although it was a Top 10 R&B hit.
Cosimo Matassa, co-owner of J&M Studios, found Ace its best-selling artist. A band from Baton Rouge, the Rockets, had auditioned there, and Matassa thought the lead singer, Jimmy Clanton, had something. He was right.
What Jimmy Clanton had was a good-looking white face, and an ability to write material that suited the times. Dick Clark liked him and made him a national figure. Vincent figured this was the way to go and looked for another like him. Frank Guzzo from suburban Gretna, La., was his man. Renamed Frankie Ford, he turned out to be another hitmaker, but of an entirely different sort.
If the backing band in Ford's hit "Sea Cruise" sounds like Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns, that's because it is: Vincent wasn't shy about putting different vocals in different tracks, and this was a track that whoever was singing lead for the Clowns on the day it was recorded hadn't nailed.
As the owner of a successful label, Johnny Vincent was often approached by artists whose contracts elsewhere had run out, and this is how Joe Tex got to record "You Little Baby Faced Thing" for Ace. But the reason none of his records there were hits, of course, was that he was trying to sound too much like others — Little Richard, in this case.
Darren Rumney/Ace UK Records
The Ace Story, Vol 1. Darren Rumney/Ace UK Records
By 1960, New Orleans had sprouted some labels, most notably Minit, which drained some of Ace's talent away from it. Saxophonist Alvin "Red" Tyler had been arranging sessions, but he followed the exodus, leaving things in the hands of a strange young kid named Mac Rebbenack. Rebbenack, also known as Dr. John, was a great rock 'n' roll guitarist until an incident with a gun injured his left ring finger, and he switched to piano, which figures in the track "Sahara" — cut in 1961 before he, too, left the label.
Johnny Vincent always blamed The Beatles for the decline of Ace Records, but the fact is that the times left him behind well before the British Invasion. Jimmy Clanton's pop success had blinded him to the proto-soul music his sometime session musician Allen Toussaint was making, and when Toussaint became the talent scout at Minit, Ace's fate was sealed. A British company called Music Collection, however, paid Vincent a reported million pounds for his catalog in 1997, and he died rich and happy three years later.