Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: One of the history channels ran a show about famous lynchings, including a segment on Tom Dula, who the Kingston Trio immortalized as “Tom Dooley.”

Apparently there was insufficient evidence to convict Tom of killing his sweetheart, but he was neither the first nor the last whose innocence would not be determined until after the execution.

Seemed like a big story, so why did it take nearly 100 years for someone to make a record about it?
—Terry Lombard, York, Pa.

DEAR TERRY: A big story indeed, probably the O.J. trial of its day, minus Court TV.

What is known is Dula's pregnant fiancée, Laura Foster, was stabbed to death in Wilkes County, N.C., in May 1866. As to the killer's identity, the truth may never be known.

Reportedly, more evidence pointed to Ann Melton, Dula's “other woman,” than to himself. Tom maintained his innocence without implicating Melton, right up to moments before he swung from the gallows (May 1, 1868).

The Kingston Trio's version suggests a lover's triangle existed between “a condemned man named Tom Dooley,” “a beautiful woman” (Foster) and “a Mister Grayson.”

Col. James Grayson did assist in the capture of Dula, but the third corner of that “eternal triangle” was Ann Melton, not Grayson.

Ironically, James Grayson's nephew, Gilliam B. Grayson, a singer and fiddler, wrote the first song about “Tom Dooley” (changed from Dula) in September 1929. He teamed with guitarist Henry Whitter, and, performing as Grayson and Whitter, they recorded G.B.'s tune (Victor V-40325).

From this original, the Kingston Trio retained the “hang your head, Tom Dooley, hang your head and cry, you know you're bound to die,” refrain.

They also kept G.B.'s nod to his uncle James, so both versions include “hadn't a been for Grayson, I'd be in Tennessee.”

Ninety years later, and allowing for a conviction loaded with reasonable doubt, the Trio omitted accusatory references such as “ya killed poor Laura Foster … you took her on the hillside and there you took her life.”

To this day, an official marker stands near the execution site, placed by the United States Department of the Interior - National Park Service. It reads: “The song [“Tom Dooley”] did not reveal the other woman [Ann Melton], who may have done the deed.”

DEAR JERRY: I have a 45 of “Saving My Love for You,” one of Johnny Ace's biggest hits. Of course I had to check out the flip side, “Yes, Baby,” and I was surprised to hear a woman singing with Johnny. It's actually a duet, though the labels on both sides credit only “Johnny Ace and Band.”

Who is she and why is she unnamed? Possibly someone signed to another label who was moonlighting?
—Curly Henderson, Norman, Okla.

DEAR CURLY: As rampant as moonlighting was in the first half of the 20th century, whether uncredited or using pseudonyms, that is not the case with the babe on “Yes, Baby.”

She is Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, whose original version of “Hound Dog” (Peacock 1612) topped the R&B charts about seven months before doing “Yes, Baby” with Johnny Ace (Duke 118).

Because Duke was a subsidiary of Peacock Records, there was nothing sneaky about Thornton's collaboration with Ace.

Thanks to Big Mama's “Hound Dog,” and three straight smash hits by Johnny Ace (“My Song”; “Cross My Heart”; and “The Clock”), Duke-Peacock sold over 1.5 million records in 1953.

It's hard to understand why the company ever pressed “Yes, Baby” without Willie Mae's name on the label, but it didn't start out that way. First pressings properly credit “Saving My Love for You” to Johnny Ace and Band, and “Yes, Baby” to Johnny Ace & Willie Mae Thornton.

In early 1954, just as “Saving My Love for You” was heading toward No. 2 on the R&B charts, Johnny Ace, and Willie Mae Thornton, accompanied by C.C. Pinkston's Orchestra, were touring Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Next Johnny and Big Mama hooked up with the Johnny Board Orchestra for a jaunt through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

Duke-Peacock seemingly had multiple reasons to plug both Ace and Thornton; however, subsequent pressings of “Yes, Baby” credit only “Johnny Ace and Band.”

Maybe it was something Big Mama said.

IZ ZAT SO? One little known yet extraordinary accomplishment by Johnny Ace, who — other than an oddball split single with Earl Forest (Flair 1015) — recorded exclusively for Duke, is that every one of his first eight Duke records rose to a single digit position on the R&B charts, including three chart-toppers:

No. 1 “My Song” (1952, Duke 102)
No. 3 “Cross My Heart” (1953, Duke 107)
No. 1 “The Clock” (1953, Duke 112)
No. 3 “Saving My Love for You” (1953, Duke 118)
No. 6 “Please Forgive Me” (1954, Duke 128)
No. 9 “Never Let Me Go” (1954, Duke 132)
No. 1 “Pledging My Love” (1955, Duke 136)
No. 7 “Anymore” (1955, Duke 144)

Even among the all-time R&B giants (James Brown; Ray Charles; Fats Domino; Louis Jordan; Michael Jackson; Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder; Temptations; Isley Brothers; Aretha Franklin; Gladys Knight; Dinah Washington; etc., etc.) this intriguing streak by Johnny Ace stands alone.

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