Born Alonzo Johnson on February 8, 1899, in New Orleans, LA; died in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, June 16, 1970; married Mary Smith, 1925 (divorced, 1932); children: six.
When music lovers talk about the great figures of the blues, their neglect of guitarist and vocalist Lonnie Johnson is puzzling. Johnson's career spanned much of the history of the blues, from the beginnings of the genre to its revival in the 1960s, and he contributed important innovations to many stages of the music along the way. In the minds of blues musicians themselves, there was no doubt about Johnson's importance. "You can see people copying him right and left," slide guitarist Ry Cooder told Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player. The blues guitar giant told Obrecht: "I was crazy about Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie was so versatile."
Musical versatility was the hallmark of Johnson's hometown, New Orleans. His early background is uncertain, but many historians agree that he was born Alonzo Johnson on February 8, 1894. One of 12 children, he grew up in the same general area of central New Orleans that was home to many of the pioneers of jazz. Johnson's father was a musician, and from a very early age Johnson picked up a variety of instruments---not only guitar, but also violin, mandolin, banjo, bass, and piano. He played in his father's band and contributed to the family income by playing whatever style of music might bring in a few dollars, which in New Orleans could mean anything from the classics to banging away on a piano in a house of ill repute.
Became Musical Ambassador
Often working with his brother, James "Steady Roll" Johnson, he became a successful musician in New Orleans. And when the rest of the world became curious about the new music called jazz that was being born in the city, Johnson became one of New Orleans's first musical ambassadors. He joined a group that toured England in 1917, possibly performing for American servicemen during World War I. When he returned home, he found out that almost all of his family members had died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. "I got to ramblin' after that," he was quoted as saying by Obrecht. "I couldn't keep my feet still, so I just started travelin'." His brother had survived the epidemic, and they traveled around performing as a duo. By 1921 they had landed in St. Louis. Like New Orleans jazzman Louis Armstrong, they performed on the riverboats that plied the Mississippi.
By the mid-1920s, the blues were becoming popular on recordings, as the major labels of the day became aware of the purchasing power of African Americans who had come to America's big cities and found work. Johnson won a contest at the Booker Washington Theater in St. Louis, and took home a recording contract with the OKeh label as his prize. Johnson recorded not only on guitar but also on violin, banjo, kazoo, and harmonium, and he and his brother backed several of the era's flamboyant female vocalists. Johnson claimed that the Queen of the Blues herself, Bessie Smith, had flirted with him. During the 1920s Johnson was married to the former Mary Smith; the two had six children, but were divorced in 1932. If there was a style that taxed Johnson, it was the rhythmically irregular country blues, which was at odds with his own urban background. Johnson often accompanied rural bluesman Texas Alexander but complained (according to Obrecht) that "When you been out there with him, you done nine days' work in one."
Word of Johnson's talents got back to OKeh executives, and his career moved to a higher level. He was called to Chicago, where he recorded with his New Orleans compatriot Louis Armstrong, and then to New York. Johnson's OKeh recordings of the late 1920s rank among his best known. He often recorded funny, slyly sexual duets with the leading New York City blues singers of the day. A good example was the two-part "Toothache Blues" (it took up both sides of a 78 rpm record), featuring Victoria Spivey as a woman who sang of an ache that only Johnson's expert hands could cure.
Johnson also excelled in purely instrumental pieces, some of which he recorded with the white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro). Much of Johnson's music featured experimental improvisations that would fall under the category of jazz rather than blues today, but the 1920s were less concerned with strict genre boundaries. Johnson and Lang inspired each other on such complex pieces as "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues" (1928). These recordings were among the first in history to feature black and white musicians performing together, but Lang was billed as Blind Willie Dunn to disguise the fact. European releases credited the artists accurately.
Created the Guitar Solo
Beyond the harmonic innovations of the duets he recorded with Lang, it is possible that the entire idea of a song with a featured guitar solo is traceable to Johnson's immense influence. According to blues historian Gérard Herzhaft in the book Encyclopedia of the Blues, Johnson was "undeniably the creator of the guitar solo (played note by note with a pick) which has become the standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock." Johnson was certainly in a position to be heard widely; by the end of the Roaring Twenties he was touring widely in vaudeville houses owned by the RKO and T.O.B.A. (Theater Owners' Booking Association, colloquially known as Tough on Black Asses) chains, and a new Johnson recording appeared in stores every six weeks. His guitar, more often than not, was the difficult 12-stringed instrument. Between 1925 and 1932 he made about 130 recordings.
The Great Depression stopped Johnson cold, as it did many other artists. For five years he made a living outside music, working at one point in a steel mill in Peoria, Illinois. By the late 1930s, however, he was performing in Chicago and recording for Decca. The city was in the early stages of becoming the urban blues capital of the world, and Johnson was paired with the influential blues pianists Roosevelt Sykes and Blind John Davis, among others. Blues guitar king Muddy Waters remembered him as a performer who could easily fill a club in the early days of Chicago blues. In 1939, during a session made for the Bluebird label with pianist Josh Altheimer, Johnson used an electric guitar for the first time. During World War II, Johnson worked his way west with a series of one-nighters beginning in Detroit and ending on the West Coast.
Transitioned to Electric Sound
Johnson successfully made the transition to the new electric rhythm-and-blues sound after the war. He recorded for several small labels and then for the highly successful Cincinnati independent King, notching a major hit with "Tomorrow Night" in 1948. With reported sales of three million copies, the song was probably Johnson's single biggest hit. Basically, though, the big sounds of electric blues were unsuited to Johnson's precise and subtly sophisticated style, and he gradually dropped out of music once again in the 1950s. When the young blues enthusiast Chris Albertson found him in 1959, he was working as an elevator attendant at Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Hotel.
The folk revival of the 1960s, which encompassed the blues, brought Johnson's career the last of its nine lives. He appeared with Victoria Spivey at the popular folk club Gerdes Folk City in New York in 1961, and recorded a new album with her. Johnson toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival group show and recorded an album with Otis Spann in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1963. In 1965, the 71-year-old Johnson landed a series of dates in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and decided to stay on there. He opened a club of his own, Home of the Blues, in 1966. In 1969 he was hit by a car; though he couldn't play the guitar after that accident, he continued to perform on vocals. His health declined, and he died in Toronto on June 16, 1970. Coming at the height of the rock era, with young guitarists interested mostly in the Mississippi Delta country bluesmen and their Chicago descendants, his death drew little comment. By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, with interest growing in the many varieties of the blues that flourished in different sectors of African-American society, his historical reputation was sharply on the rise.
by James M. Manheim
Lonnie Johnson's Career
Performed with father's band in New Orleans; performed in New Orleans Storyville district as young man; toured England with revue, 1917; moved to St. Louis, MO; performed on riverboats; began recording, 1925; recorded with Louis Armstrong; moved to New York; accompanied top blues vocalists, late 1920s; recorded with jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, 1928; worked in steel mill during Depression; moved to Chicago; recorded for Decca and Bluebird labels, late 1930s and early 1940s; recorded for King label and notched hit "Tomorrow Night," 1948; worked as elevator operator, late 1950s; performed and recorded with Victoria Spivey, early 1960s; performed at Gerdes Folk City, New York, 1961; toured and recorded with American Folk Blues Festival, 1963; moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1966; opened House of Blues club.
- Selected discography
- Complete Folkways Recordings Folkways, 1967.
- The Originator of Modern Guitar Blues Blues Boy, 1980.
- Woke Up This Morning, Blues in My Fingers: Vocals and Instrumentals, 1927-1932 Original Jazz, 1980.
- Steppin' on the Blues Columbia Legacy, 1990.
- Complete Recorded Works (1925-1932) 7 vols., Document, 1991.
- Complete 1937 to June 1947 Recordings 3 vols., Document.
- Blues in My Fingers, The Essential Recordings of Lonnie Johnson Indigo, 1995.
- The Essential Lonnie Johnson Classic Blues, 2001.
- Playing with the Strings Snapper, 2004.
- The Original Guitar Wizard Proper, 2005.
- The Very Best of Lonnie Johnson Collectables, 2005.
- Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, Da Capo, 1981.
- Herzhaft, Gérard, Encyclopedia of the Blues, trans. Brigitte Debord, University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
- Guitar Player, September 1993, pp. 48, 62; November 2000, p. 114.
- National Review, July 19, 1993, p. 63.
- "Alfonzo 'Lonnie' Johnson," Red Hot Jazz, http://www.redhotjazz.com/ljohnson.html (June 30, 2005).
- "Lonnie Johnson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2005).