As owner of and producer for Ace Records, John Vincent played an important part in the prime years of New Orleans R&B in the late '50s, working with Huey Smith, Frankie Ford, Jimmy Clanton, and others. Born John Vincent Imbragulio, he got into the music business as a retailer, distributor, and talent scout. At this time he was also starting to produce blues and country singers in Jackson, MS, including Big Boy Crudup. He bumped up another level when he started working for Specialty Records as head of their New Orleans operations in 1952. It was at the suggestion of Specialty's Art Rupe that he changed his name to John Vincent.
Working for Specialty, Vincent crossed paths with John Lee Hooker, the Soul Stirrers, Lloyd Price, and others, and produced Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do," usually regarded as a pivotal moment in the transition from R&B to rock music. He left Specialty in 1955 as relations between him and Rupe became strained, founding his own label, Ace Records, that year. From his work in New Orleans for Specialty and other companies, Vincent already had solid contacts to much Crescent City talent, and got his first R&B hit quickly with Earl King's "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights." Vincent began recording frequently in the famous New Orleans studio of Cosimo Matassa.
For a while a teenage Mac Rebennack, later to become famous as Dr. John, worked for Ace as a producer, session musician, and recording artist. In his autobiography, Dr. John recalled the experience in a manner that made it difficult to determine whether he admired or despised Vincent: "Johnny Vincent was a very good con artist. For instance, if the session was with Huey Smith, he'd say, 'Huu-ree, put some sh*t into it.' And everybody would respond and, sure enough, put some sh*t into it. That was it; that was the compiled wisdom of Johnny Vincent's approach to making records."
Ace didn't become a leading independent company, however, until Vincent got hits with Huey "Piano" Smith, first crossing over to the pop market in a mild fashion with "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," then getting a pop smash with Smith's "Don't You Just Know It." Smith epitomized the good-time, humorous aspect of early New Orleans rock & roll, and whatever his exact contributions to A&R, Vincent deserves credit for recognizing his potential and releasing his music. It was also Smith who did the original version of "Sea Cruise," rightly recognized as the finest early New Orleans rock record. In a somewhat controversial decision, Vincent replaced the vocal on Smith's version (by Bobby Marchan of Smith's band the Clowns) and dubbed a different one by white teenager Frankie Ford onto the same backing track. Ford's version became a big national hit and all-time classic, and when tapes of the original Marchan-sung track become available on reissues, it seemed clear that Vincent had exercised good judgment in using Ford's vocal rather than Marchan's.
Vincent made other ventures into white New Orleans rock & roll with another young singer, Jimmy Clanton. Although Clanton's hits "Just a Dream" and "Go, Jimmy, Go" are sometimes classified as teen idol rock, and Clanton was certainly marketed to the teen idol music, they did retain a New Orleans R&B-rock feel. It was Clanton and (to a lesser degree) Ford who gave Ace its greatest success as the 1950s ended, although Vincent continued to record more blues- and R&B-directed artists such as James Booker and Alvin "Red" Tyler.
In the early '60s, Ace Records began to struggle as the New Orleans sound began to sound passé in the midst of other developing pop/rock trends. Vincent made a distribution deal for Ace with one of the biggest independents in the country, Vee-Jay, but this backfired badly when Vee-Jay went out of business in the mid-'60s. Vincent even lost control of his masters, and left the music business altogether for a time, selling the publishing rights to some of his hits for far less than they were worth. He did assume control of a reactivated Ace in the 1990s, when some of the Ace catalog was transferred to CD. (Vincent's Ace Records, incidentally, was and is totally unrelated to the label of the same name based in London, which is one of the world's leading reissue labels.) ~ Richie Unterberger
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