|Louis Armstrong||I'm Not Rough||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Lonnie Johnson||Steppin' On The Blues||Steppin' On The Blues|
|Lonnie Johnson /Clara Smith||You're Getting Old on Your Job||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Lonnie Johnson||I Just Can’t Stand These Blues||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Lonnie Johnson||Blue Ghost Blues||Lonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940|
|Lonnie Johnson||Mr. Johnson’s Swing||Lonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940|
|Lonnie Johnson||Get Yourself Together||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Lonnie Johnson||Crowing Rooster Blues||The Original Guitar Wizard|
|Lonnie Johnson||Friendless Blues||Me And My Crazy Self|
|Lonnie Johnson||Falling Rain Blues||Me And My Crazy Self|
|Lonnie Johnson||Can't Sleep Any More||Me And My Crazy Self|
|Lonnie Johnson||Lonnie's Traveling Light||Spivey's Blues Parade|
|--=Dean Alger Interview=--|
|Lonnie Johnson||Mr. Johnson's Blues||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson||Away Down In The Alley Blues||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson/Eddie Lang||Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson/Eddie Lang||Midnight Call Blues||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson||Uncle Ned||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson||No More Woman Blues||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson||Backwater Blues||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson||Tomorrow Night||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Elvis||Tomorrow Night||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson||Mr. Blues Walks||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Otis Spann||Trouble In Mind||The Ultimate Best Of|
|Lonnie Johnson, Circa 1935|
In Urban Blues author Charle Keil notes that when he first approached Lonnie Johnson for an interview the singers response was “Are you another one of those guys who want to put crutches under my ass?” This was in the 1960’s and as writer Billy Altman notes “…the versatile musician, at this point well past 70, was still performing regularly at colleges, clubs, coffeehouses and folk festivals throughout Northeastern United States and Canada. Other elderly artists re-discovered through the sixties blues revival may not have minded that they were being more displayed than booked by promoters, and more scrutinized than enjoyed by listeners. Not Lonnie Johnson, though. His music could never perceived as encrusted archeological artifact. It was vibrant, toe-tapping history that carried with it a lifetime of service to those twin peaks of African-American summitry, jazz and blues.”
Writer Dean Alger goes even further in his work-in-progress book, The Second Most Important Musician of the Twentieth Century, “Louis Armstrong was widely known and highly praised in America and through much of world. But the man who was arguably the second most important musician of the century is largely unknown today. … Lonnie has the extraordinary distinction of being the greatest virtuoso guitarist in the founding generation in both blues and jazz and was a significant influence in the development of both those musical genres into great art forms and powerful means of human expression. Beyond his unparalleled technical virtuosity, he was the prime early figure in developing the full expressive capacity of the guitar. With those qualities he was the most important original force in making the guitar the dominant instrument of the second half of the Twentieth and into the Twenty-first Century. And as prime Founding Father of the powerful, virtuoso guitar solo, he was the principal musical grandfather of the Rock guitar heroes. Thus, there is a strong case for saying Lonnie Johnson was the second most important musician of the 20th Century.” On today’s program we spotlight the remarkable music of Johnson and talk with Alger about his provocative claim.
On today’s program cover a wide swath of Johnson’s career, spinning tracks spanning from 1925 to 1965. The first dozen tracks were selected by myself, with the remaining sides selected by Dean. Those tracks come from a CD he calls the Ultimate “Best Of” Lonnie Johnson, a 23 track selection that hopes will be a companion to the book when it’s published. While there’s no firm time-frame for publication, I can say that Dean’s book is well written, scrupulously researched and provides much new information and I’m grateful to have been allowed to take an advanced look. Below I’ve included a previous piece I wrote on Johnson.
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. In an interview with valerie Wilmer he described his approach this way: "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. …My style …comes from my soul within. The heart-aches and the things that have happened to me in my life—that's what makes a good blues singer. …I have my own original style, all my life I sang this way. I have also made quite a progress in singing ballads 'cause I sing blues, ballads, swing—anything." Despite his amazing versatility and the longevity of his career, he remains a somewhat under appreciated figure particularly among blues scholars and collectors.
He was born Alonzo Johnson in New Orleans and his year of birth has been variously listed as 1889, 1894 and 1900. He was one of thirteen children, all of whom were groomed to play in their father's string ensemble. "When I was fourteen years old I was playing with my family. They had a band that played for weddings—it was schottisches and waltzes and things, there wasn't no blues in those days, people didn't think about the blues." Johnson began his career in earnest and bought his first guitar. In 1917 Lonnie sailed to London with a musical revue but few details have surfaced regarding this event. When he returned to New Orleans he was greeted with the news that virtually his entire family had been wiped out by the widespread influenza epidemic of 1918. Johnson moved north to St. Louis around this period with his surviving brothers. By this time he already had a successful career as a blues violinist, working steadily not only in New Orleans, but in a jazz band led by coronet player Charlie Creath. After a falling-out with Creath, Johnson discarded the violin and formed a trio with his brother James (Steady Roll), who played violin, and pianist DeLoise Searcy. Big Bill Broonzy, who played in St. Louis (but not with Johnson) recalled that "Lonnie was playing the violin, guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, and all the things you could make music on. . ."
In 1925 Johnson won a Blues contest held at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis (for 18 weeks in a row, he said), sponsored by the Okeh record company. Part of the prize was a recording deal with the company. "I had done some singing by then", he recalled, "but I still didn't take it as seriously my guitar playing, and I guess I would have done anything to get recorded – it just happened to be a blues contest, so I sang the blues." His first session in 1925 found him as the featured vocalist with Creath's band and they cut "Won't Do Blues" in November of 1925. By January 1926 Johnson's first 78, "Mr. Johnson's Blues"/"Falling Rain Blues" was on he market. Johnson proved an immediate success and he commenced to recording at an astonishing pace, cutting over 130 sides between 1925 and 1932, more than any make blues singer of the period. In addition to his own records he he appeared prominently on the records of other Okeh artist such as Clara Smith, Victoria Spivey, Texas Alexander and others. He became a respected name to jazz collectors because of his solos on records by Louis Armstrong such as "I'm Not Rough," "Mahogany Hall" and and on Duke Ellington records like "Hot And Bothered" and "The Mooche." He was also celebrated for a series of remarkable duets with white guitarist Eddie Lang (masquerading as Blind Willie Dunn) in 1928-29 that were utterly groundbreaking in their ceaseless invention.
Although Johnson's earlier works continued to be issued until 1935, his live recording prospects in the mid-thirties were largely foreclosed by a dispute with Lester Melrose, the music publisher who largely ruled local recording. Apparently Melrose refused to record him unless he changed his too-familiar guitar style. Johnson refused to do so. The result was he enjoyed no sessions between 1932 and 1937. In person, he appeared in Chicago with the drummer Baby Dodds, and with such popular musicians as Roosevelt Sykes and John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson. Eventually he was forced to work outside of music when the Depression was in full swing. Johnson recalled: "I worked for a firm makin' railroad ties in Galesburg, Illinois …I went to Peoria Illinois …and I work' in a steel foundry there. Play the blues at nights…"
Johnson came back to recording life with a contract from Decca in 1937 with the first session recorded on 8th November of that year. During 1938 another session was done for a total of 16 titles. In 1939 he signed a contract with Bluebird. Johnson picked up right where he left off, selling quite a few copies of "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" and cutting wealth of fine material that helped Johnson regain his former popularity. He recorded for Bluebird until 1944. Johnson next cut a half dozen records for the New York based Disc label in 1946 and then made his first amplified performances on record in June 1947 for Aladdin Records. Later that year he started a fruitful association with an emerging independent company in Cincinnati, King Records.
On December 11, 1947 Johnson entered the King Records studio at 1540 Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio and recorded what was probably the most successful record of his long career, King 4201 – "Tomorrow Night" – often subtitled on the King label as "Lonnie Johnson’s Theme Song." By 1950 "Tomorrow Night" had sold a million copies. The December 1947 King session marked the beginning of Johnson's six-year stay in Cincinnati spent recording for King Records, playing local clubs and touring occasionally. Johnson recorded prolifically scoring chart sucess with "Pleasing You", "So Tired" and "Confused." In 1952 Johnson made an 11 month tour of England. When he returned to the States his career took a downward turn when he contract with King Records ended in 1952.
The rest of the 50's were a down time for Johnson who spent much of the decade outside of music working construction or toiling as a janitor. In 1959 Samuel Charters' groundbreaking book "The Country Blues" was published which described Johnson's situation in rather morbid terms: "He is not a young man, and the opportunities for an older singer to break into the teenage rock and roll craze that dominates the industry are very slight. For Lonnie it has been a long road, without much of an end." In actuality things took an upswing when a year prior Johnson was rediscovered by jazz enthusiast Chris Albertson which rekindled a major comeback. As Albertson wrote in the liner notes to Johnson's Bluesville debut: "I was interviewing Elmer Snowden on my radio show when I played an old record by Lonnie which I followed up with the remark: 'I wonder whatever happened to Lonnie Johnson?' Elmer replied: 'I saw him in the Supermarket the other day'. A listener then called up and said that he worked with Lonnie at the hotel so I finally contacted him, brought him to my apartment and had him play for me. Having recorded his playing and singing and realizing that he was as good as ever I took the tapes to Prestige and Lonnie was on his way again." Between 1960 and 1962 he cut five albums for the label, three of which were produced by Albertson, and showed that Johnson had lost little despite several years outside of music. He spent the early 1960's working a busy schedule that eventually took him back to Europe for the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival. He also made records in England, Denmark and Germany. As he said to Valerie Wilmer in 1963: "I have enough work now back in the States to do me for the next fifteen years."
As the 1960's rolled on it seemed that the blues revival was passing Johnson by. As singer Barbara Dane noted: "This was largely true, because he was a very sophisticated player in a moment when the world was looking for the rough and earthy Delta players. …Lonnie had a strong attraction for the romantic pop songs like "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" etc. which he played when the audiences were looking for the gritty blues. People during the early '60s searching for blues roots wanted to hear 'funky and back-alley' and Lonnie played clean and uptown. Lonnie craved respect for what he created, like any other musician. The (white) public at that time was mostly looking for someone who could personally introduce them to their fantasy of black culture. In other words, he was out of tune with the times." In 1964 Johnson went to Toronto for a club appearance, found an ardent group of admirers and remained there until his passing. In 1969 he was hit by a car in Toronto where he was hospitalized for several months. He died the following year on June 16, 1970 from the effects of the accident.