Born John Henry Cannon, Jr., 5 May 1934, Grenada, Mississippi
(Some sources say Hubert John Cannon.)
Died 6 December 2018, Calhoun City, Mississippi

Saxophonist, bandleader. Nicknamed The Godfather of Sax.

Johnny "Ace" Cannon and Martin Willis were the two principal white horn players in Memphis during the rock n roll era and both played countless sessions in the town. Where Willis was destined for relative obscurity, Ace Cannon made it in his own right with five Top 100 entries on the Hi label in the 1960s.

Johnny Cannon's love for music came from his father, who played fiddle and guitar. His family moved to Memphis when he was still a young child. He took up playing sax when only ten years of age and persisted all through his adolescence. Soon he was playing in the school band with much older students. Though he played a lot of country tunes, his true musical interest was jazz, with Earl Bostic proving a particular favourite. Cannon learned to read music and - after graduation from high school - planned to major in music at Memphis State University, but he soon dropped out, got married and found himself a day job at Layne & Bowler, a company that manufactured pumps and irrigation systems.

In between his day job and nightclub stints, Cannon occasionally played saxophone on sessions for Sam Phillips's Sun label (and other Memphis labels), first behind the Miller Sisters (1955-56), later for Barbara Pittman, Billy Riley ("Red Hot"/"Pearly Lee"), Warren Smith, Bill Justis, Brad Suggs and Jerry Lee Lewis (1960-61). In 1956 he joined the western swing band of drummer Johnny Bernero. The group recorded seven tracks for Sun in November 1956, but Sam Phillips failed to release them. Towards the end of 1959 Cannon joined Bill Black's Combo as a replacement for Martin Willis. He quit his day job to concentrate full-time on music. In the spring of 1960 he had the first release under his own name (still Johnny Cannon then) : "Big Shot"/"Rest" (Fernwood 117, reissued on Fernwood 137 in 1964, with a different B-side). With the help of his former bandmate Johnny Bernero, Cannon was signed as a solo artist by Hi in 1961, after being fired by Bill Black for hitting the bottle a little too often. His first single for the label, "Tuff", gave him the biggest hit of his career (# 17 pop, # 3 R&B, early 1962), but not without a tidal wave of legal problems.

We need to go back to 1958. In that year, Cannon offered two tunes to Bill Justis at Sun, "Cattywampus" and "Summer Holiday". Justis agreed to record them if he would get half of the songwriting credits. The two songs came out on one single (Phillips International 3529) in June 1958, credited to Cannon - Justis. In 1961, Cannon reworked "Cattywampus" into "Tuff" (it was slowed down and played in a different key), together with Johnny Bernero, with whom he had formed a partnership. They agreed to go 50/50 on the record, but when "Tuff" became a hit, Cannon reneged on the deal and the pair split up. Bernero sued for 50% of the earnings, although he settled for $ 2,850 in an out-of-court settlement in September 1962. Thurman Enlow, Bernero's pianist, also sued, as he claimed to have written the flip-side ("Sittin'" aka "Sittin' Tight") without getting any credit. Eventually he settled for $ 400. Sam Phillips also wanted a piece of the action, being the publisher of "Cattywampus", and so did Bill Justis. But before Sam's lawyers could get their feet off the ground, everyone (including Cannon) was sued by Jimmie Davis (composer of "You Are My Sunshine" and at that time Governor of Louisiana), who pointed out that "Tuff"/"Cattywampus" bore an uncanny resemblance to his 1927 composition "Columbus Stockade Blues" !

Nevertheless, "Tuff" proved to be the beginning of a long (1961-78) and fruitful association between Hi and Ace Cannon. In fact, Cannon and Bill Black's Combo were the cornerstones of the label, without whom the company could not have survived financially. During this period Hi released 37 singles and 25 albums by Cannon. After "Tuff" there were further pop hits with "Blues Stay Away From Me" (# 36, 1962), "Sugar Blues" (# 92, 1962), "Cottonfields" (# 67, 1963) and "Searchin'" (# 84, 1964). LP-wise, only the first album, "Tuff Sax", made the Billboard Top 200, peaking at # 44. His choice of material has always been eclectic : everything from rock n roll to country, pop, jazz and blues. Gradually, his recordings became more and more middle of the road. His 1976 recording of "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain" (Hi 2313) was nominated for a Grammy award in the category Best country instrumental performance.

In 1980-1981 Cannon recorded two successful TV-promoted albums for the Gusto label. In 1985, he performed on "The Class of '55" album which brought together Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. This led Ace and Carl Perkins to perform together for most of the year 1986, playing show dates all over the U.S., and a tour of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and the World's Fair in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Ace Cannon has travelled far and wide and is highly respected by his colleagues. His awards include inductions into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Musicians' Hall of Fame. He lives in Calhoun, Mississippi, just 30 miles away from where he was born. Cannon still loves being part of the music business and has no desire to quit.

More info :

Official website :

Discography :

CD's :
- The Best Of Ace Cannon : The Hi Records Years. (Capitol 27837, 2001.) 18 tracks.
- 22 All-Time Greatest Hits (King Records KSCD-0312, 2002). A compilation of the two Gusto CD's. 22 tracks.
- Hi in the UK has released several "2-LP's-on-1-CD" Hi albums in the early 1990's, but these are no longer in print.

Acknowledgements : Adam Komorowski, David McKee, Hank Davis.

YouTube :
Bill Justis, Cattywampus :
Tuff :
Big Shot :
Blues Stay Away From Me :
Cottonfields (live) :
Sea Cruise :

Dik, March 2012

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

-- Return to "This Is My Story" Index --