Sun 11 May 2014
|Lonnie Johnson||Blue Ghost Blues||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Mr. Johnson's Swing||Lonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940|
|Lonnie Johnson||Roamin' Rambler Blues||Lonnie Johnson Vol. 2 1926-1927|
|--=Dean Alger Interview=--|
|Lonnie Johnson||Away Down in the Alley Blues||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Uncle Ned, Don't Use Your Head||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Midnight Call Blues||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Backwater Blues||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Tomorrow Night||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Elvis||Tomorrow Night||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Red Nelson w/ Lonnie Johnson||Home Last Night||Red Nelson 1935-1947|
|Lonnie Johnson||New Orleans Blues||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Otis Spann w/ Lonnie Johnson||Trouble In Mind||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Don’t Ever Love||Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson|
|Lonnie Johnson||Falling Rain Blues||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Lonnie Johnson||Can't Sleep Anymore||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Louis Armstrong||I'm Not Rough||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Lonnie Johnson & Clara Smith||You're Getting Old on Your Job||You're Getting Old on Your Job|
|Lonnie Johnson||Lines In My Face||Losing Game|
|Lonnie Johnson||Lonnie's Traveling Light||Spivey's Blues Parade|
|Lonnie Johnson (left) in 1941. Photo by Russell Lee (Library of Congress).|
Dear old New Orleans, they call it the land of dreams
Yes, dear old New Orleans, it’s known for the land of dreams
It’s my old hometown, it’s dear old New Orleans
I first spoke with Dean Alger back in 2009 when his biography of Lonnie Johnson was very much a work in progress. Back then the book was tentatively titled The Second Most Important Musician of the Twentieth Century. Dean sent me some rough chapters back then and I was impressed with what I saw but I was bit skeptical as I knew that writing a biography on someone like Lonnie, who was always reticent to give details of his life plus the sheer length of his career, would make this a daunting job. I'm happy to say that Dean has done a fine job tackling the task and the now published and retitled The Original Guitar Hero and The Power of Music, is not only well researched look at Lonnie's life and music but also goes to great lengths to place Lonnie's music in a cultural context.
Lonnie has always been one of my favorites and I've probably devoted more shows to him than anyone else. Despite his huge influence and impressive output I don't think Lonnie ever gets the respect he deserves. It's an odd thing among blues collectors that many worship the obscure and rare, the rough and unpolished, and dismiss those artists who were more polished and those that had a high degree of popularity like Lonnie. Dean clearly understands Lonnie's influence as he writes "…Lonnie Johnson was the leading original force in moving the guitar to be the dominant instrument of the second half of the twentieth century to today. …Further Lonnie's singing influenced major singers in twentieth century music…" This combination, Dean notes, made Lonnie "the first musician to present the smoother, more sophisticated 'urban blues' (in contrast to the old Country Blues) which were a prime force leading to Rhythm & Blues and then Rock & Roll."
Lonnie Johnson was a true musical innovator who's remarkable recording career spanned from the 1920's through the 1960's. During that time his musical diversity was amazing: he played piano, guitar, violin, he recorded solo, he accompanied down home country blues singers like Texas Alexander, he played with Louis Armtrong's Hot Fives, recorded with Duke Ellington, duetted with Victoria Spivey and cut a series of instrumental duets with the white jazzman Eddie Lang that set a standard of musicianship that remains unsurpassed by blues guitarists. In Johnson's single-string style lie the basic precedents of such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, while being a prime influence on bluesman as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tampa Red and B.B. King. Thus Johnson enjoys the rare distinction of having influenced musicians in both the jazz and blues fields. While his guitar skills have been justly celebrated less has been said about his bittersweet vocals, tinged with a world weary sadness and capable of a rare subtly and nuance. It was a perfect match for his well crafted and imaginative songs filled with dark imagery, longing and an unflinchingly misogynist view of woman and love.
On today’s program we cover a wide swath of Johnson’s career, spinning tracks spanning from 1927 to 1963. The bulk of the tracks from were selected by Dean. Most of those tracks come from a CD he calls the Ultimate "Best Of" Lonnie Johnson, a 23 track selection that is a companion to he book and available through Dean's website. Below is background on some of the songs played today.
Either the 1927 version "Roamin’ Rambler Blues" or the 1942 was a favorite recording of B.B. King. As Dean notes: "Lonnie's singing on his 1927 recording is particularly resonant, with a mellow feel. My ears tell me that Lonnie was the influenced one here, since he seems to have drawn on the resonant, mellow, soulful Texas Alexander offered on sides on which Lonnie accompanied him that same day. The song had quintessential Lonnie J guitar work; and he embellished each vocal line at the end with elegantly finger-picked descending lines, with a harmonic jump up the scale at the end, employing his exquisite touch and tone."
On February 21, 1928 Lonnie cut four remarkable instrumentals: "Away Down in the Alley Blues", "Playing With The Strings", "Stompin' 'em Along Slow" and "Blues in G." As Dean writes: "Playing With The Strings" received more attention, but "Away Down in the Alley Blues" was an even better composition and display of unequaled guitar virtuosity. …Of special importance is the masterful thematic coherence. In the midst of all that, he also keeps an underlying propulsive beat going, and regularly adds exquisite harmonic touches. He guitar work on these recordings exemplifies how Lonnie enlarged the language of the guitar for jazz and blues."
"The Lonnie Johnson-Eddie Lang duets have been celebrated ever since as among the great guitar achievements of the century in popular music. But amazingly, in December 1931, Lonnie may have exceeded even those duets in what is one of the most stunning virtuoso guitar performances on record. The recording in question is "Uncle Ned" (full title: "Uncle Ned, Don't Lose Your Head"). …Lonnie takes this old Negro folk song and turns it into a vehicle for the most dazzling, blaze-fingered, virtuoso guitar work."
"The ten guitar duets Lonnie and Eddie Lang recorded were landmarks in guitar history. As British blues and popular music writer Tony Russell has written: "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this handful of discs." They were also sociological landmarks as the first full partner interracial recordings." From these sessions we play "Midnight Call Blues" and "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues."
"Backwater Blues" was recorded by Bessie Smith February 17, 1927 and covered by Lonnie a month later and again in 1948. Today we feature the later version. Dean comments that "…many have missed the artistic value of this "Backwater Blues" because they have too narrow a notion of great guitar playing as being only about fast finger-work and razzle-dazzle. Musical art is much more than that, which Lonnie demonstrated with this recording. He tops it off with truly masterful singing. From the first notes, Lonnie employs rich, resonant vocal tone, among his best ever, great dynamics and nuance, and with his vocal lines and inflections he compellingly conveys the meaning of the lyrics and the feeling of people experiencing this natural disaster. In short with this recording, Lonnie Johnson refuter demonstrated he'd reached the level of greatness as a singer."
Lonnie recorded the biggest hit of his career, “Tomorrow Night,” for King Records in Cincinnati, released in 1948.That song resonated with musicians who became legendary: B.B. King, Buddy Guy & Robert Lockwood, Jr., all told me they were moved by it. BB covered it on his 2008 CD, One Kind Favor. Bob Dylan covered it, using Lonnie’s phrasing, on his 1992 CD, Good As I Been To You. (Dylan and Lonnie connected at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961, and Lonnie gave Bob some tips on guitar.) The other most notable musician influenced by “Tomorrow Night” was Elvis Presley. As Peter Gurlanick reported in his major Elvis biography: "In 1953 to 1954, 'Tomorrow Night" was a song Elvis sang all the time.”
"Home Last Night" finds Lonnie playing lead electric guitar on a son sung by Red Nelson. "This recordings has a driving Rhythm & Blues feel, rockin' rhythm and style on the guitar by Lonnie, and what, seven to ten years later, became the essence of the early electric guitar and overall sound of the recordings that established the new musical genre of Rock & Roll."
"Don't Ever Love" comes from Lonnie's 1960 comeback for Prestige/Bluesville titled Blues By Lonnie Johnson. "Most striking on "Don't Ever Love" is Lonnie's vocal artistry. The man who was an ultimate virtuoso guitarist in popular music sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing, and meaningful phrasing on this recording that shows, even more compellingly, how he had achieved the level of greatness in his singing, as well."
In 1963 Lonnie toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. During that tour he recorded a wonderful session with pianist Otis Spann in Copenhagen for the Storyville label. From that session we feature "Trouble In Mind."
"New Orleans Blues" is one of my favorite Lonnie songs issued on the album Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 which also features Elmer Snowden. Elmer asks Lonnie to sing one from his old hometown and Lonnie responded with this beautifully, dreamy nostalgic number. As Dean writes: "He sings the lyrics with an extraordinary depth of feeling, with excellent timing and phrasing,with knowing strategic use of syncopation , and with verve, yet in a smooth lyrical manner." Along with "Backwater Blues" and "Don't Ever Love", Dean lists this as one of Lonnie's finest vocal performances.
Like "Backwater Blues", "Broken Levee Blues", recorded the same year is another response to the great flood of 1927. In addition to the fine singing and playing, Dean notes that the song has a "deeper dimension. …The song's lyrics express striking protest about the means by which the levees along Mississippi were maintained, a system which a few years later was called a new from of 'Mississippi Slavery' by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP." As David Evanes notes: "In many places Black men who tried to leave the area, even those who were simply passing through, were arrested by White police and National Guard troops and forced to work on the levees"
Related Listening: -Dean Alger Interview/Feature (95 min., MP3)
-Dean Alger Interview/Feature (95 min., MP3)