CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Not even 48 hours after the accident that took his daughter Payton’s life, David Cannon is trying to focus on the happy memories.
One of the happiest, he explains, is from long ago, when he would help his then-baby girl drift off by singing the classic Rod Stewart song “Maggie May.”
“It’s a terrible song to sing to a child. ... Inappropriate,” says the man better known to most as “Ace,” co-host of “The Ace & TJ Show,” which airs weekday mornings on iHeartRadio’s WHQC (HITS 96.1). “But it made her go to sleep. And I would often wonder during that, like, you know, who’s she gonna be? What’s her life gonna be?”
Last fall — more than two decades after he created that ritual — Cannon co-wrote, recorded and released a single and a music video inspired by that memory.
“‘Maggie May Dreams,‘” he says on Thursday afternoon, his voice breaking, “was going to be the song that she and I were going to dance to at her wedding one day. So —” he pauses to clear his throat. “Maybe we’ll —” his voice hitches again, and then he apologizes.
“I don’t have the capacity — and I talk for a living — to explain to people how broken my heart is.”
Around midnight on Wednesday morning, Payton Cannon died when the rental car she was driving slammed into a tree on the side of a rain-slickened stretch of road near Trump National Golf Club Charlotte on the edge of Lake Norman. The oldest of the two children the Charlotte radio host shares with his ex-wife Shonnette Cannon of Mooresville, Payton had celebrated her 21st birthday less than four weeks earlier.
News of her passing spread quickly after it was shared on the show’s Facebook page later that day. And it perhaps struck a uniquely painful chord with fans of the show (which is syndicated in North Carolina and five other Southeastern states) because they may have felt like they actually knew Payton, at least in some small way.
After all, her dad has been talking about her on the radio her whole life.
‘IT’S GONNA BE CRAZY FUN ... ARE YOU KIDDING?’
David Cannon has on multiple occasions retold the story of receiving confirmation that Shonnette was pregnant with Payton while he and a group of radio contest winners were having lunch with the band Barenaked Ladies.
And — not surprisingly, given her father’s line of work — Payton’s life continued to intersect with music after she was born.
In fact, she had a memorable first concert, at age 3, when her parents took her to see a show headlined by Sheryl Crow that featured Train as the opening act: “She had her headphones on, and Train came out, and she danced and danced and danced,” he recalls, “... and by the time Sheryl Crow started, four songs in, she was sound asleep.”
She would get plenty of other chances to see live music, eventually attending so many concerts she lost count, and could brag that she’d gotten to meet the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and One Direction (among others) thanks to her dad.
Over the years Payton also managed to land the occasional on-air opportunity, from live drop-in visits during the show when she was younger to the time in 2017 when she got to play entertainment journalist for a day, after her dad finagled an opportunity for her to go backstage at PNC Music Pavilion to chat up rapper G-Eazy.
Superfans of “Ace & TJ” got to know her best, perhaps, when she appeared on Cannon’s solo podcast “Ace At Large” in June of 2018, right before she was to graduate from Lake Norman High School.
“She was very sharp, and ... very, very funny,” Cannon says, recalling that half-hour conversation, “and with a kind of a unique sense of humor, that sometimes could get edgy, and like, ‘Oooo, was that an OK joke to make or not?’”
At one point during the father-daughter podcast, he told her: “I think you’ve got a huge life ahead of you that’s gonna be very exciting and fun to be a part of. ...”
“It’s gonna be crazy fun to be a part of, are you kidding?” Payton responded. “When I’m living in my big eight-bedroom home housewife-ing it up, cleaning things and you ... get to come over and just hang out and I’m cooking food and our maids are tidying up behind you. It’ll be fantastic.”
She indeed had an appreciation for material things, much of it courtesy of her parents; her dad gave her a BMW for her 18th birthday, and for her 21st, her mother bought her a Tiffany necklace and a Gucci ring.
But there was a serious side to her as well.
After visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of a class field trip as a seventh-grader at Brawley Middle School, she became fascinated by World War II history, particularly as it pertained to Jewish persecution. On her own time, she read Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” and Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
And when her dad gave her the choice of pretty much anyplace she wanted to visit as a reward for graduating from high school — while her friends were celebrating in sunny, tropical locales — Payton picked a week in Poland, so she could tour Auschwitz-Birkenau and Oskar Schindler’s factory.
She finished high school wanting to pursue the study of child and family psychology, but wavered after three somewhat direction-less semesters at Mitchell Community College in Mooresville. So she made a plan to take 2020 off from school.
July started with lots of fanfare thanks to her milestone birthday on the 3rd.
After a day spent celebrating with her mom, who surprised her with the jewelry she’d been lusting after, her father and his fiancee Amanda Sisco treated Payton and several friends to dinner at the trendy rooftop restaurant Fahrenheit in uptown Charlotte. Her big gift? She learned that Amanda was taking her to Las Vegas in October on a bachelorette trip.
On the 16th, though, things took a turn when a Jeep plowed into Payton’s car from behind while she and her 17-year-old brother Cade were at a stoplight on the way to visit their father. They escaped without injury, but her BMW was totaled. Her parents say it was the first time she had ever been in a car accident.
The following week came more good news: Payton wound up landing a job as a hostess at Fahrenheit, not far from her uptown apartment.
“She was excited about that, excited about the new people she was around, excited about the new environment that she was in in the city,” her father says. “She really was just starting to get her legs underneath her in life, and figuring out a direction that she wanted her life to go in, and beginning to kind of put it all together for herself, I think — when this happened.”
‘I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND HIM TAKING HER’
On Tuesday, Payton and Cade had lunch with their father; then Payton joined her father and his fiancee for dinner at his place, also in uptown. They watched some TV, they enjoyed some TikTok videos — or, she enjoyed them, he says — and just generally “had a fun time, we cut up, laughed.”
Then she hugged her dad and his fiancee, they exchanged “I love yous,” she said “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” and left for her mother’s home in The Point Lake Norman community in Mooresville.
There, she visited with her mom but also took a blanket and sat outside in the driveway with a couple of friends for awhile, Shonnette Cannon says. Midway through the evening, she came back in for a hug and a kiss. Almost exactly like with her dad, “I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow,” were the last words she would ever say to her mother.
She drove the black 2020 BMW that she was renting further out on The Point and spent time hanging out in the jacuzzi at a friend’s house, and around midnight got back in the car and headed north up Brawley School Road in the direction of her mother’s house.
At that point, it had been storming. Standing water had formed quickly on the sides of the road, where the posted speed limit was 45 mph. Police say she was traveling 80 mph to 90 mph when she lost control and slammed into a tree.
David Cannon admits that he wasn’t surprised when he learned she was speeding.
“I’ve told her a hundred times: You’re going too fast,” he says. “If she’d been a little slower, maybe she’d still be here. ... So if anything, I hope that other people take from this to just be a little more cautious in those types of moments, because if she had been, maybe we wouldn’t be going through all this right now.”
Shonnette Cannon, meanwhile, says she can’t imagine her daughter would ever have been that fast.
“That’s just not my kid,” she says. “If there’s standing water, she drives very slow. So I just find it hard to believe.”
Still, she’s finding it hard to fathom anything at all right now. “I understand that God has a plan for all of us, but I just don’t understand him taking her, at 21,” Shonnette says, fighting back sobs. “I just don’t understand. I mean, I have faith. I have a lot of faith. But I just wasn’t ready for my child — not my child — to go.”
David Cannon is doing a better job of holding it together, his voice for the most part sounding just like it does on the air. But several cracks form in it, too, as he remembers his daughter, especially when he talks about the future.
“January 4th, (my fiancee and I) are going to get married and Payton was to be the maid of honor,” he says. “Because they had become very close over the last three years while Amanda and I were dating. And Amanda has said, ‘She’ll still be the maid of honor.’”
He clears his throat, and his voice shakes as he continues: “We’ll have her picture there, or something.”
As for his return to the show, it could be at least a week before he’s back. There’ll be a visitation on Saturday and a service on Sunday in Mooresville, then the family is headed to Ball, La., where she will be laid to rest alongside other members of Shonnette’s family. (David and Shonnette are both Louisiana natives.)
David Cannon says he’s thinking that he could conceivably be back to work on Monday, Aug. 10. But whenever he reappears, “I absolutely will talk about it, because I need to,” he says.
“The beautiful thing about radio, and what I love about it so much, is it’s such an intimate medium. That’s what has built this outpouring of love from people, is that they feel emotionally connected to us, because we’ve shared the good and the bad of all of our lives. The good of Payton’s life, the bad of Payton’s life, of my life — all of it has been there on display for people. So I absolutely will (talk about Payton), if for no other reason than to say thank you to the thousands of people who have sent messages and called and texted and posted on social media.”
And maybe — just maybe (“I don’t want to make it too dramatic or anything”) — Ace will play the song on the radio that he had always hoped they’d dance to at her wedding.
How’d we get here to this place
So many lines upon my face
From the laughter that you bring
But just one time again
I wish I had my head on your shoulder, hands on my wrists
I would sing and you’d fall fast asleep
I’d pray to the Lord for the moment to keep
Everything was as perfect as it seems