Born John Vincent Imbragulio, 3 October 1925, Laurel, Mississippi
The name Johnny Vincent is more or less synonymous with Ace Records, a label that he founded in August 1955. Ace was the first local label of note in New Orleans, even though it was operated out of Jackson, Mississippi, 196 miles away. It released some of the best New Orleans rock and roll in the second half of the 1950s.
Born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1925, Vincent learned the business as a jukebox operator, record shop proprietor and distributor before establishing his first record label, Champion, around 1950. The best known artist on Champion was Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, who was under contract to RCA Victor. Therefore Vincent released his single (“I Wonder”/ “My Baby Boogies All the Time”, 1952) under the name Arthur ‘Blues’ Crump & His Guitar. In 1955 it was reissued on Ace 503. None of the Champion singles sold more than a few hundred copies.
In the spring of 1953 Art Rupe, owner of the Specialty label in L.A., decided to open an office in New Orleans and offered Vincent a job as A&R man / promotion man / talent scout / distributor for the Deep South. At the time Johnny still went by his real name of Imbragulio, but Rupe convinced him to adopt Vincent as his last name, for the sake of simplicity. Among the artists Vincent worked with at Specialty were John Lee Hooker, Earl King, Frankie Lee Sims and Huey Smith, but his biggest success was with Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) and “The Things That I Used To Do”, an R&B # 1 hit in 1954. Vincent was totally dedicated to Specialty and remained the label’s southern representative until early 1955, when he was “laid off” as part of a budget cutback by Art Rupe. The real reason was probably a personality clash ; Rupe saw Vincent as a loose cannon who was difficult to control. The split was less than amicable, but Vincent soon bounced back.
By August 1955 he felt confident enough to form his own label, Ace. He took some of Specialty’s promising talent with him, including Earl King and Huey Smith, but it didn’t seem to bother Art Rupe too much once he was riding high with Little Richard. Ace’s roster was dominated by New Orleans R&B talent and almost all Ace sessions were held at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in the Crescent City, with such top session men as Lee Allen, Red Tyler, James Booker and Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams. The first hit success came with “Those Lonely Lonely Nights” by Earl King (Ace 509), a # 7 R&B hit. A cover by Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson on RPM also went Top 10. The first entry into the pop charts was “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns in 1957 (# 52 pop, # 5 R&B). This outfit had an even bigger hit the next year with “Don’t You Just Know It” (# 9 pop). By the second half of 1958, Vincent was also recording white artists and had great success with Jimmy Clanton (“Just A Dream”, # 4, followed by ten other chart entries on Ace) and, a little later, Frankie Ford (“Sea Cruise”, # 14).
In May of 1958, Vincent inaugurated a subsidiary label, Vin Records. 29 Vin singles were released between 1958 and 1961, but nothing charted, in spite of the generally good quality of the records.
Jimmy Clanton’s success made Vincent blind for new musical developments. The Minit label had begun its operations in 1959, with Allen Toussaint as the driving force. Almost single-handedly, Toussaint changed the sound of New Orleans R&B in the 1960s. By 1962, Ace’s fortunes were on the wane. Vincent tried to get better distribution of his product by signing a five-year distribution deal with the much larger Vee-Jay label out of Chicago. Ace was to be maintained as a separate label and Vincent was also to produce for Vee-Jay. This alliance went off to a good start with a big hit for Jimmy Clanton, “Venus In Blue Jeans” (# 7, autumn 1962), but within months of the signing of the deal, Vee-Jay was beset by its own financial problems and the label collapsed in 1965.
Ace didn’t release any product between 1964 and 1971. Johnny Vincent gave up the record business in favour of other interests. Because of intense interest in the Ace label by record collectors and music historians, Vincent reactivated the label in 1971 to produce some new music and reissue the treasure from the label’s vaults. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Vincent kept the label alive by (re)issuing old material (some of it previously unreleased), along with a few new recordings, and by leasing the masters to other labels (notably Ace Records UK).
In 1997, Vincent sold the label to Music Collection International, a British company that started a new label, Westside Records (run by Bob Fisher), initially with the sole purpose of reissuing Ace material on CD. (Later it also reissued music from other US labels, most notably King Records.) I think it is safe to say that every Ace track of significance was reissued by Westside between 1997 and 2000. Vincent continued to live in Jackson until his death (of a heart ailment) in February 2000.
Recommended listening : The Ace Story, Vol. 1-5 (UK Ace, 2010-2012). 24 tracks per CD. The US versions (Ace 2031-2035) have only 16 tracks each.
Acknowledgements : John Broven, Jeff Hannusch, Bill Dahl.
YouTube (three of the biggest hits on Ace) :
Dik, October 2016
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