This is a brief tribute to Lonnie Johnson, godfather of the blues, pioneer of the guitar solo & one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
“I sing city blues. My blues is built on human beings on land, see how they live, see their heartaches and the shifts they go through with love affairs and things like that— that's what I write about and that's the way I make my living. It's understanding others, and that's the best way I can tell it to you.” - Lonnie Johnson (1963)
Lonnie Johnson was a pioneer of blues and jazz guitar, widely regarded as one of the first guitarists to use the single note solo approach which become the standard in western music of the last century. He was also a moving lyricist, intensely aware of the ever flowing tides of human existence.
Born sometime in the 1890's in New Orleans, Lonnie Johnson was raised in a family of musicians. As a young boy, he would study guitar, violin, piano and mandolin, and by his late teenage years he was playing in his father’s family band at weddings and parties. In 1917 he joined a musical theatre that toured England and would not return home for two years.
Upon arriving back in New Orleans, Johnson found that his whole family, except older brother James ‘Steady Roll’ Johnson, had died during the Influenza epidemic of 1918. Together, the two surviving Johnson brothers headed north, playing riverboats and small venues until they wound up in St Louis. Lonnie would also play in the early jazz orchestras of Charlie Creath and Faith Marable. Speaking of these earlier years and his outlook:
“My father taught me everything I know. He give me my schooling, he give me everything I got. I don't even know how the inside of a school looks and I can read anything that's on paper. I can talk to anybody on any subject they like talking about and any spare time I get, sit down and read and read and read…”
In 1925, Johnson entered and won a blues contest in St Louis. The prize was a recording contract with Okeh records, who had released some of the first known American blues recordings: Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues,' (1920)...
...Sylvester Weaver's 'Guitar Blues,' (1923)...
...and Papa Freddie's 'Milk Cow Blues' (1926).
Two years later Lonnie released his first hit ‘Falling Rain Blues,’ (1927), a searing blues ballad, wholly expressive of Lonnie’s empathetic observations and subjective experience of the human condition.
Around the same time in '27 he would release '6/88 Glide' which is now widely regarded as one of the first guitar recordings to include single note solo style playing. A clear example of his enduring influence on music.
Equally worthy of note is his work with blues singer Victoria Spivey which included 'Dope Head Blues'.
The recording contract with Okeh records had jumpstarted the most productive years of Lonnie’s musical career and by 1927, he was playing with Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, with whom he would record, amongst others, 'Savoy Blues.'...
Around the same time, Lonnie married his first wife Mary, a blues musician. ‘What Makes You Act Like That,’ is one of the few recordings featuring them together. It is a bubbling argumentative blues tune showcasing the pairs relationship, they would divorce in 1932 after having six children.
28' would see him working with Duke Ellington, releasing ‘Hot and bothered,’ and ‘Move Over,’ - both vibrant big band tunes which captured something of the essence of the roaring twenties.
These years saw him excel more in purely instrumental pieces, often in this big jazz band setting due to pressures from Okeh. However he would also record solo pieces like 'Blues in G.'
In 29' Lonnie played alongside fellow guitarist Eddie Lang, releasing some of his most commercially successful records in their duets like ‘Guitar Blues’ and ‘A handful of riffs,’ which are pioneering fusions of blues and jazz guitar.
The pair shared a close musical relationship, and because Lang was white, he recorded in the USA as Blind Willie Dunn, such was the controversy black and white artists making records together would have caused. Lonnie recalls: "He [Eddie] was an Italian kid, a very wonderful guitar player. We just decided to make some records together so that was it. We rehearsed them in the morning, recorded in the evening. Only one rehearsal, that's all. I think we made about six sides.”
The Great Depression of the 1930’s forced a huge number of musicians to search for other work in order to survive. Lonnie found employment at a steel mill. In a rare interview, he described his life outside of music:
I worked with my family for quite some years until they all died and I went to the other fields looking for other things in the line of music, and whatever I could get. I am a carpenter by trade and an electrician, also I'm a cook by trade—that's right. I've been a cook for thirty years. So with that, I can always make a living. I'm not froze out. If I can't make it in music I can always get something else. But I love music and I can't get away from it." Jazz Weekly, December 1963 - Lonnie Johnson
As America began to precariously rebuild itself from economic collapse, Lonnie slipped away to Ohio and would work there for the rest of the decade. In 1939 in a session for Bluebird Records he would record with an electric guitar for the first time. Over the next 5 years he would release over 34 recordings, check Lonnie's jazz electric playing below...
The latter half of the forties saw Lonnie explore an increasingly pop and rhythm and blues influenced sound, often with gentle piano accompaniment, songs such as ‘Tomorrow Night’ and ‘Pleasing you’ showcase this turn away from previous avenues and instead hints of Sinatra style crooning...
The next decade would see Lonnie all but fade away from the music scene...Until, in 1959, a jazz radio DJ in Philadelphia played a Lonnie Johnson cut, and then mused on what had happened to the guitarist.
"And then I got a call from somebody at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, someone who worked there," says Chris Albertson, now a music journalist in New York. "Who said, I work with somebody named Lonnie Johnson. He's a janitor, he never talks about music. But he's very careful with his hands. So maybe he is the Lonnie Johnson!"
Albertson had Johnson on his show many times in the early '60s, and helped engineer his comeback on the folk revival scene in New York, releasing a handful of records including 'Blues After Hours' which is a perfect blues for those small twilight hours.
He also expressed a more cheerful, sunny blues sound in recordings like 'On the sunny Side of the street'.
This allowed Lonnie to quit his job as a janitor and the timing brought Lonnie’s legacy and work to the attention of the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Dylan spoke of Lonnie’s influence in the liner notes of his album Biography:
"I was lucky to meet Lonnie Johnson at the same club I was working and I must say he greatly influenced me. You can hear it in that first record. I mean Corrina, Corrina...that's pretty much Lonnie Johnson. I used to watch him every chance I got and sometimes he'd let me play with him. I think he and Tampa Red and of course Scrapper Blackwell, that's my favorite style of guitar playing." - Bob Dylan
The sixties also saw Lonnie meet his second partner, Susie Smalls, and they had a daughter together in Philadelphia. Smalls recalls Lonnie as "just plain… He never did brag. At all. He just kept his guitar, played his guitar,"' which seems to reflect the simple honesty his music expressed so poignantly.
Despite his recent releases, Lonnie himself struggled to gain a following in the New York folk scene, despite his influence on some of its most successful artists. In 63’ Lonnie ventured:
“..When 65 comes around, that's it. I'm going to open up a private nightclub, just a supper club, put me a nice little combo in there and sit down and rest myself. Cause I think I have given the world all I have, I have no more to give. I want a little rest out of life..."
This Lonnie would do, opening club Home of the Blues in 1966. Sadly it was a business failure and Lonnie was fired by the financier who would later become the owner. This sent Lonnie back onto the music circuit one last time…In 1967, Lonnie ventured to Chicago and made some of his final recordings; half were romantic ballads and the other half were his distinctive brand of urban blues. Unreleased until 1982, Lonnie Johnson: The Complete Folkways Recordings is well worth your time…
In March 1969 Lonnie was hit by a car while walking on a sidewalk in Toronto, he would never fully recover from these injuries.
He was able to return to the stage for one final performance at Massey Hall on February 23, 1970, walking with the aid of a cane, to sing a couple songs with Buddy Guy; Johnson received a standing ovation. He would pass away in 1970, virtually broke. The Killer Blues Headstone project, a nonprofit organization that places headstones on unmarked graves of blues musicians, purchased a headstone for Johnson around 2014.
Robert Johnson, supposedly worshipped his namesake so much, he would tell people that he was related to Lonnie Johnson. Another blues great, Brownie McGhee, once said Lonnie's work "should be the first book of the blues bible.” His influence has also been hailed by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name a mere few...
His clarity of human perception and simplistic approach to thematics pioneered some of the most influential, truthful, modest and soulful early blues, jazz and folk recordings of all time.
“I have lived a beautiful life… It’s been kind of rough in spots; like everybody, I’ve had ups and downs in life. I’ve seen it very sweet, and I’ve seen it very hard, when you couldn’t get a job, no kind of a job, doing nothing. But somehow or other, I managed it, I managed to make it.”
- PSYCHIC GARDEN