Hi Records star, instrumental hitmaker Ace Cannon dies
He was born John Henry Cannon, but the world knew him as Ace. One of Memphis’ great instrumental hitmakers, a session man at Sun and a pillar of Hi Records, saxophonist Ace Cannon died Thursday morning at his home in Calhoun City, Mississippi. He was 84.
Hailed as “The Godfather of the Sax,” Cannon cut 38 singles and 27 albums for South Memphis’ Hi label during the 1960s and 1970s. With hits like “Tuff” and “Blues (Stay Away From Me),” Cannon became one of the company’s signature stars.
“He was one of Memphis’ premier horn players. He had a sound that was unmatched in music when you think about it. He was rock ‘n’ roll saxophone,” said Boo Mitchell, owner of Royal Studios, the historic home of Hi Records.
Cannon — who recorded for Hi for nearly two decades — was a bridge between the label’s early rock ‘n’ roll roots and its later soul music glory years. “His legacy here speaks volumes to how important he was,” Mitchell said.
Born to music
As author Jimmy McDonough wrote in his 2017 book “Soul Survivor” — a biography of Al Green that also stands as the definitive history of Hi Records — Cannon was born to music. The son of a country guitar and fiddle player from Grenada, Mississippi, he was raised in Memphis’ Hollywood neighborhood — “as a kid Cannon would tell people, ‘I live in Hollywood — I am doomed for stardom.’”
Cannon’s signature saxophone style — a bluesy, barroom sound — was not the product of technical virtuosity but musical personality. “I’m not the greatest saxophone player in the world,” Cannon would tell McDonough. “I’m a stylist. I play from my heart.”
‘Ace could conjure it all’
“Ace could evoke really deep feelings through his saxophone,” said Memphis music historian Robert Gordon, who helped produce the 1995 Hi Records box set “Hi Times.” “Ace’s sound could have you feeling like you were cozied up to a nice fire at home, or maybe throwing open a barroom door to be startled by the first light of day. Ace could conjure it all.”
A jazz fan — particularly of saxophonist Earl Bostic — Cannon began gigging locally with a series of country bands in the 1950s. While still working full time at an irrigation system company, Cannon gained notice as a session player for Sam Phillips’ Sun label, cutting sides with Barbara Pittman, Billy Lee Riley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In 1959, he joined the Bill Black Combo, the instrumental group led by Elvis Presley’s bassist, which had scored a massive chart-topping R&B hit with “Smokie Pt. 2.”
Cannon’s success as a solo artist began in 1962, when he cut “Tuff” for Hi, and landed the tune in the Billboard Top 20. As McDonough wrote of the song, “Cannon — who can wring every drop out of a ballad — slows the tempo way down. Minimal, hypnotic, the vibe is about three hours and four martinis past ‘Smokie, Pt. 2.’”
Contemporary Memphis instrumental combo The Joe Restivo Four carry on the Cannon tradition, regularly featuring his songs during their weekly performances at Lafayette’s Music Room. “Ace’s music hit all the notes of what made mid-century Memphis instrumental music cool,” bandleader Restivo said. “Rough and tumble R&B with a hint of country and western sweetness.”
Cannon’s catalog would include a number of memorable LPs, including 1965’s stellar concert set “Ace Cannon Live,” which — despite its title — was actually cut at Royal studio, albeit with an audience. “We invited 50 of our friends, set it up like a bar,” Cannon said. “Put tables out in the studio, fed ‘em drinks … They couldn’t dance, wasn’t enough room with all of ‘em sittin’ there, but it was live.”
Hi Records co-founder Joe Cuoghi — who’d christened Cannon “Ace” — was a committed fan of the sax man. “I was his favorite artist,” Cannon would recall, “and he wasn’t afraid to tell nobody, either. He wanted to make me the Frank Sinatra of the saxophone.”