Alonzo Johnson, b. February 8, 1899 in New Orleans, LA, d. June 16, 1970 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A hugely influential and original blues musicians, in the early 1900s Johnson played guitar and violin in saloons in his home town, performing mainly around the red-light district of Storyville. Shortly before the outbreak of war he visited Europe, returning to New Orleans in 1919. During his absence most of his closest relatives died in an influenza epidemic and upon his return, Johnson soon took to the road. He played guitar and banjo in bands in St. Louis and then Chicago, where he established his reputation as one of the USA’s most popular blues singers. For two years the OKeh Record Company issued one of his records every six weeks. During this period he became a member of the house band at OKeh, recording with many leading jazz and blues artists, sometimes as accompanist, and at other times as duettist. Among the blues singers with whom he recorded were Texas Alexander and Victoria Spivey. The jazz musicians with whom he played on 20s sessions included Duke Ellington, Eddie Lang, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, King Oliver and, most notably, Louis Armstrong.
During the 30s Johnson divided his time between record sessions, club dates and radio shows. This was not all; like many of his New Orleans compatriots, he seems to have had a deep suspicion that the bubble would one day burst, and consequently he worked regularly outside music, usually at menial and physically demanding jobs. In the 40s Johnson began to gain popularity, adopting the amplified guitar and singing programmes of blues intermingled with many of his own compositions, one of which, ‘Tomorrow Night’, was a successful record. In the 50s he played in the UK but performed mostly in the USA, living and playing in Chicago and, later, Cincinnati, before settling in Philadelphia. In the 60s he again visited Europe and also appeared in New York and in Canada, where he became resident, eventually owning his own club in Toronto in the last few years before his death in 1970. Johnson’s ability to cross over from blues to jazz and back again was unusual among bluesmen of his generation. He brought to his blues guitar playing a level of sophistication that contrasted vividly with the often bitter directness of the lyrics he sang. His mellow singing voice, allied to his excellent diction, helped to make him one of the first rhythm balladeers. He strongly influenced numerous blues and jazz guitarists, among them T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, B.B. King, Teddy Bunn, Eddie Durham and Charlie Christian.