Guitar maestro Lonnie Johnson didn’t thrash his axe like a Delta field-hand or finger delicate chord patterns like a Piedmont rag-picker, but the early guitar stylists like Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker and the Three Kings, BB, Freddie and Albert would all recognise the trail that Lonnie blazed. His single-string style was precise and thoughtful, giving a swinging variation to the tune that defined what ‘lead-guitar’ would become. He was one of the very first Bluesmen to make a record and travelled as a session player with the Okeh field recording crew when they made their early ventures into the South. Lonnie had a fine solo career, but is best remembered for the hundreds of great guitar lines he contributed to other Blues stars’ work. Later he toured Europe with the American Blues Festivals, and he was still playing in 1969.
Lonnie Johnson was born into a music-filled house in New Orleans and as a child he played violin in his father’s string band. He also learned banjo, mandolin and piano and, in 1917, he went to London as part of a musical revue. When he returned two years later, he found his parents and all but one of his many siblings had perished in the flu epidemic that devastated the world in that year. He left New Orleans with his remaining brother and they settled in St. Louis, working in jazz bands on the steamboats. In 1925, Okeh records organised a talent contest in St. Louis and Lonnie’s prize for winning was a recording deal.
This may be the first guitar solo ever recorded;
Over the next seven years, Lonnie appeared on over 130 tracks and was one of the most recorded artists of his time. His bright, clear tenor voice and clever playing gave him several hits, but his best work came in guitar duets with Eddie Lang that showed off Lonnie’s effortless extemporising. He recorded with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, contributing a stunning solo to ‘The Mooche’, and in 1927 with Louis Armstrong‘s Hot Five, he traded licks with Satchmo’s cornet on ‘Savoy Blues’ and ‘Hotter Than That’ where the guitar was a featured solo instrument rather than part of the rhythm section. Entire generations of Blues and jazz guitarists took inspiration from these recordings and their influence is still with us today. Okeh records used Lonnie’s talents in the studio as their ‘go-to’ guitarist and Divas like Victoria Spivey and Bluesmen like Texas Alexander were among the many whose work was embellished by his backing.
As ‘Sonny Boy II’ said, “Lonnie put the ‘soul’ into solo”;
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[stextbox id=”custom” caption=”Lonnie Johnson Discography” float=”true” align=”left” width=”300″]Lonnie had a long career, from the earliest Okeh recordings to the classic Chicago years with Bluebird and rocking out on the King label.
A LIFE IN MUSIC
[/stextbox]When record sales plunged in the Depression, Lonnie’s output dwindled, and he worked for a while at a Cleveland radio station, among other jobs, to make ends meet. When he went to Chicago in 1937, he began recording for Decca and two years later he joined Lester Melrose‘s roster at Bluebird Records. A solo hit, ‘He’s a Jelly Roll Baker’ and a lot of session work followed. Working in a Chicago club, he was one of the first on the scene when his friend John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson was murdered. Joining Syd Nathan‘s King label in 1948, Lonnie’s ballad ‘Tomorrow Night’ topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. On his follow-up ‘I Know It’s Love’ he switched to electric guitar, and Lonnie enjoyed another period of chart success. This second career disappeared under an avalanche of Rock’n’Roll records in the early 50s, but ten years later when the Folk/Blues revival came along, Lonnie was a ready-made legend. He was never awarded the status of some of the other ‘re-discoveries’ of this time, not because his prowess as an instrumentalist had faded with the years (it certainly had not) but because his post-war material was considered too ‘pop’ compared to the figures emerging from the Delta farms and the Chicago clubs. It might well be the case that Lonnie’s highly original and innovative guitar work was so influential and so universal, it had begun to sound like cliché.
Lonnie has a great voice too;
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Lonnie made a living from playing the Blues well past the usual retirement age, touring Europe and playing the Festival circuit to great acclaim. In 1969 he was in Toronto when he was hit by a car and he never really recovered, dying from complications the following year.