February 8, 1899
New Orleans, LA
June 16, 1970
In this month’s installment of OffBeat’s “Masters of Louisiana Music” series, JohnSwenson profiles the father of all lead guitarists, Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson. Renowned as the inventor of the single string guitar solo, Johnson is further proof that New Orleans is the birthplace of all American pop music.
Along with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson (1889-1970) is one of the most important musicians to come out of New Orleans. He virtually invented the style of single string guitar soloing that became the nomenclature for generations of 20th-century guitar stars.
Johnson’s virtuoso guitar playing is well documented. His recordings with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1927 and Duke Ellington in 1928, as well as his extraordinary duets with fellow guitar virtuoso Eddie Lang, have long been a key inspiration and influence for musicians. Although Johnson was one of the most brilliant and influential guitarists in the blues-and-jazz genre, his deeply emotive voice was just as important in establishing him as the quintessential blues star of the 1920s. He was also an important composer with more than 150 songs to his credit.
Born at the end of the 19th-century, Johnson literally witnessed the birth of the blues. From a family of musicians with 13 children, Lonnie played violin, piano and guitar and was performing in a New Orleans band with his father and pianist brother James “Steady Roll” Johnson in the first decade of the 20th-century. Over the course of a career that stretched over more than 50 years his story reads like a movie script. Drafted in 1917 to perform for troops in Europe, Johnson escaped the deadly Spanish flu epidemic but returned to find most of his family had died in the plague, including his father, which spelled the death of the family band.
Johnson’s subsequent wanderings took him everywhere from street corners, riverboats, and Storyville’s red-light district to international folk, blues and jazz festivals. He left New Orleans for Dallas, where he quickly established his reputation as a hot guitarist on a scene which included such luminaries as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Texas Alexander and Eddie Durham. Riverboat work, including a stint with the legendary Fate Marable, brought Johnson to St. Louis, where he settled in the early 1920s. After winning a local talent contest in St. Louis in 1925 he began recording for the OKeh label, cutting the watershed soloing on “Mr. Johnson’s Blues.”
Johnson’s technique was so imposing that in addition to making his own sides he was called on to accompany some of the biggest names in the business, playing with Louis Armstrong, Helen Humes, Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Victoria Spivey. In 1927 OKeh brought him to New York, where he made the historic “Levee Camp Moan” with Texas Alexander. The following year he recorded with Duke Ellington and cut a series of duets with another guitarist, Eddie Lang, that changed the face of jazz, inspiring the young guitarists Charlie Christian and Robert Johnson among others. Lonnie Johnson went on to tour with Bessie Smith and host his own radio program.
Johnson was well aware of his talent and refused to sign the kind of cutthroat contracts that were being offered to blues players, leaving him without a recording contract through the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He lived in Cleveland for several years before resettling in Chicago, where he played frequently at night clubs, including the historic Three Deuces. In 1938 he returned to recording, this time for Decca, then Bluebird, working on his own and as a sideman with Peetie Wheatstraw, Alice Moore and others. Johnson was at the height of his career when the recording ban of the early 1940s silenced his voice once again.
In 1948 Johnson enjoyed one of his biggest hits, “Tomorrow Night,” for the blues and R&B oriented King Records. Ironically, this recording overshadowed the rest of his career for many years and created a false impression of Johnson’s historical importance.
Johnson’s career languished again in the 1950s even as his style was setting the foundation for the stardom of such younger blues players as B.B. King. When times were tough he worked at various day jobs as a laborer, cook or janitor. He was “rediscovered” once again in 1960 as part of the folk boom, and recorded a series of excellent recordings for the Bluesville label, reprising a number of his early triumphs and playing up a storm. In 1961 he was reunited with Duke Ellington at Town Hall in New York City. In the mid-Sixties he settled in Toronto where he found an appreciative audience.
One evening in 1965, at the Forest Hills, New York, home of the painter Bernie Strassberg, Johnson privately recorded 17 songs that have recently been released for the first time as The Unsung Blues Legend.
Mr. Strassberg, a blues-and-jazz aficionado, had first befriended Johnson in the early 1960s when the musician was performing at the famous Gerdes Folk City, where the likes of Victoria Spivey, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Williams and the young Bob Dylan were in residence. Their close friendship lasted until Lonnie’s death, in 1970, in Toronto, Canada, following a serious auto accident and stroke.
The Unsung Blues Legend is documented with unpublished personal letters and photos that reveal the poignant private life and thoughts of one of America’s most seminal and neglected blues and jazz artists.
The Unsung Blues Legend (Music Magnet)
Steppin’ On the Blues (Columbia)
He’s A Jelly Roll Baker (RCA Bluebird)
Blues By Lonnie Johnson (Original Blues Classics)
Blues & Ballads (with Elmer Snowden) (Original Blues Classics)
Idle Hours (with Victoria Spivey) (Original Blues Classics)
Losing Game (Original Blues Classics)
Another Night to Cry (Original Blues Classics)
Blues, Ballads and Jumpin’ Jazz Vol. 2 (Original Blues Classics)
Nothing But The Blues by Lawrence Cohn (Abbeville Press)
The Rolling Stone Jazz &Blues Album Guide edited by John Swenson (Random House)