Lonnie Johnson - Biography
By J Poet
Lonnie Johnson was one of the most influential blues guitarists of the music’s early years. He was also a fine jazz player and recorded with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as well as on his own. His single note leads laid the foundation for generations of blues and rock guitarists and his flat-picking technique was unsurpassed. He recorded prolifically in the 20s and again after being rediscovered by the blues revival in the 60s. He remained an active musician until his death in 1970.
Johnson was born in New Orleans in 1899, His father played fiddle and he gave his 11 children music lessons as soon as they could hold instruments. Johnson soon learned violin, piano and mandolin, but he was partial to the guitar. His father had a family band that played picnics and weddings, and by the time he was 15 he was playing guitar and fiddle in the band with his brother guitarist, pianist, fiddler and banjo picker James "Steady Roll" Johnson. During his teen years, Johnson played blues and jazz with various bands and also did solo gigs playing both guitar and fiddle. He was hired to play guitar in Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopated Orchestra and toured Europe with the band in 1917 and early 1918. He returned to New Orleans to discover everyone in his family, except James, had died in the influenza epidemic of 1917. The surviving Johnson brothers moved to St. Louis where they worked as a duo on riverboats and in Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs and the Fate Marable Band. At that time he was playing violin, guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo.
In 1924 he won a talent contest sponsored by Okeh Records; part of the prize was a recording contract. His first session for Okeh, in 1925, produced "Mr. Johnson's Blues" and the "Falling Rain Blues," which was a hit. He became a member of Okeh’s house band and recorded prolifically from 1925 to 1929, with other artists and on his own. One of those records, unreleased at the time, was "6/88 Glide," an amazing guitar workout that showed Johnson’s innovative fusion of blues, jazz, and New Orleans fonk. In 1927, Johnson sat in with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five on Kid Ory's "Savoy Blues" and Lil Hardin's "Hotter Than That.” The improvisations he traded with Armstrong on the song’s coda are one of the highlights of early jazz recording. In 1928, he recorded “The Mooche” with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and a series of bawdy blues numbers with Victoria Spivey.
In 1929 Johnson teamed-up with Italian American guitarist Eddie Lang and made some of the best guitar duets of the twenties. The recordings proved there was no color bar in music, although skittish American labels listed Lang as Blind Willie Dunn to disguise his race. In Europe the records were listed with the correct names of both artists. He also recorded with Lang's Gin Bottle Four. Their hits included "Hot Fingers," "Two Tone Stomp," "Handful of Riffs," “Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues” and "Bullfrog Moan," songs that helped create a foundation for the electric blues players of the 50s. Later that year he toured with Bessie Smith and her Midnight Steppers and moved to Chicago where he made some records with stride pianist James P. Johnson and Roosevelt Sykes. He started the Lonnie Johnson Trio with Dan Dixon on second guitar and Andrew Harris on bass. They recorded for Decca and Bluebird before Johnson moved to Cleveland. His Bluebird records included the hits "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" and "In Love Again" and he made several records using a 12-string guitar.
By 1940 he’d taken up electric guitar and was making records for King in Cincinnati, later released on the LP Lonesome Road (1958 King.) In 1948, Johnson had his biggest commercial success with the million selling "Tomorrow Night," but the market for blues was fading and he had to take part time work as a janitor. In 1952, after a successful tour of England, he moved to Philadelphia and dropped out of music for a few years. In 1959, he was rediscovered by the new generation of blues and folk enthusiasts and signed with Prestige’s Bluesville division. Blues by Lonnie Johnson (1960 Prestige Bluesville, 1999 Fantasy OJC) featured a small jazz combo backing Johnson on 11 smooth originals that perfectly showcase his sophisticated bluesy, jazzy style.
He made five more albums for the label including Blues & Ballads (1960 Prestige Bluesville, 1999 Fantasy OJC), with guitarist Elmer Snowden, another rediscovered blues great, the mostly instrumental jams of Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 (1960 Prestige Bluesville, 1999 Fantasy OJC), featuring Johnson on electric guitar, Snowden on acoustic and Weddell Marshall on bass, Losing Game (1960 Prestige Bluesville, 1999 Fantasy OJC), a solo guitar and voice offering, Idle Hours (1961 Prestige Bluesville, 1999 Fantasy OJC) with guest Victoria Spivey, and the jazzy Another Night to Cry (1962 Prestige Bluesville, 1999 Fantasy OJC.) In 1963, Johnson toured Europe again as part of the American Folk Blues Festival with Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, and Victoria Spivey. He also made an eponymous blues album for Folkways later released as Lonnie Johnson Complete Folkways Recordings Folkways (1993 Smithsonian/Folkways.)
By 1965 Johnson was living in Toronto, Canada and running his own nightclub, The Home of the Blues. He continued to tour and record on a limited basis. In 1969, a car jumped the curb and hit Johnson and during his recovery he suffered a series of strokes. He died in 1970 at the age of 81.
There are several good overviews of Johnson’s career available including Ramblers Blues (2002 Our World), The Originator of Modern Guitar Blues (1995 Blues Boy), Woke Up This Morning, Blues in My Fingers: Vocals and Instrumentals, 1927-1932 (1980 Original Jazz) and The Very Best of Lonnie Johnson (2005 Collectables.) The Original Guitar Wizard (2005 Proper) is more comprehensive with 95 tracks on four CDs spanning session recorded between 1929 and 1952. Britain’s Document label gives you all his early sides on seven discs: Lonnie Johnson Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1925-1926) (1996 Document UK), Lonnie Johnson Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1926-1927) (1996 Document UK), Lonnie Johnson Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 3 (1927-1928) (1996 Document UK), Lonnie Johnson Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4 (1928-1929) (1996 Document UK), Lonnie Johnson Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 5 (1929-1930) (1996 Document UK), Lonnie Johnson Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 6 (1931-1932) (1996 Document UK), and Lonnie Johnson Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 7 (1931-1932) (1996 Document UK.)