Hi Records star, in­stru­men­tal hit­maker Ace Can­non dies

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - Bob Mehr Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal USA TO­DAY NET­WORK - TEN­NESSEE

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.”

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