Lonnie Johnson

A hugely influential and original blues musician in the early 1900s, often crossing over into jazz.

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.

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By Bill Dahl
Blues guitar simply would not have developed in the manner that it did if not for the prolific brilliance of Lonnie Johnson. He was there to help define the instrument's future within the genre and the genre's future itself at the very beginning, his melodic conception so far advanced from most of his prewar peers as to inhabit a plane all his own. For more than 40 years, Johnson played blues, jazz, and ballads his way; he was a true blues originator whose influence hung heavy on a host of subsequent blues immortals.

Johnson's extreme versatility doubtless stemmed in great part from growing up in the musically diverse Crescent City. Violin caught his ear initially, but he eventually made the guitar his passion, developing a style so fluid and inexorably melodic that instrumental backing seemed superfluous. He signed up with OKeh Records in 1925 and commenced to recording at an astonishing pace -- between 1925 and 1932, he cut an estimated 130 waxings. The red-hot duets he recorded with white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang (masquerading as Blind Willie Dunn) in 1928-1929 were utterly groundbreaking in their ceaseless invention. Johnson also recorded pioneering jazz efforts in 1927 with no less than Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Duke Ellington's orchestra.

After enduring the Depression and moving to Chicago, Johnson came back to recording life with Bluebird for a five-year stint beginning in 1939. Under the ubiquitous Lester Melrose's supervision, Johnson picked up right where he left off, selling quite a few copies of "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" for old Nipper. Johnson went with Cincinnati-based King Records in 1947 and promptly enjoyed one of the biggest hits of his uncommonly long career with the mellow ballad "Tomorrow Night," which topped the R&B charts for seven weeks in 1948. More hits followed posthaste: "Pleasing You (As Long as I Live)," "So Tired," and "Confused."

Time seemed to have passed Johnson by during the late '50s. He was toiling as a hotel janitor in Philadelphia when banjo player Elmer Snowden alerted Chris Albertson to his whereabouts. That rekindled a major comeback, Johnson cutting a series of albums for Prestige's Bluesville subsidiary during the early '60s and venturing to Europe under the auspices of Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau's American Folk Blues Festival banner in 1963. Finally, in 1969, Johnson was hit by a car in Toronto and died a year later from the effects of the accident.

Johnson's influence was massive, touching everyone from Robert Johnson, whose seminal approach bore strong resemblance to that of his older namesake, to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who each paid heartfelt tribute with versions of "Tomorrow Night" while at Sun.