Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Johnson, Lonnie (Alonzo)

Lonnie Johnson invented, in essence, the modern guitar solo. He brought the instrument out of its supportive role in the ensemble into the spotlight, where it became the lyrical protagonist of twentieth-century popular music - starting with jazz and blues, up into rock and roll.

Johnson's career was punctuated by periods of hardship spent out of the public eye, from which he returned sounding better than ever. He made key contributions in the 1920s to recordings by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who like Lonnie was from New Orleans. Guitarist B.B. King has frequently cited Johnson as an influence, and when this author told him Lonnie had grown up in the Crescent City, said, “Ah, that explains that great combination of jazz and blues he had!"

Blues by Lonnie Johnson

No documentary evidence has been found on his birth, but this author’s research makes him confident that Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson was born in New Orleans on February 8, 1894, which places him close to the origins of blues and jazz in both time and geography.

“The whole entire family was musicians,” Johnson said in one of his rare interviews. Bassist Pops Foster remembered seeing Lonnie as a young boy, playing violin on New Orleans street corners with his father and brother. The violin was designed by the instrument makers of the Italian Renaissance to emulate the human voice, and in masterful hands, its vibrato, variable pitch and bowed notes can evoke cries and other vivid emotions. This vocal quality became a hallmark of Johnson's instrumental work.

Lonnie and his brother James “Steady Roll” Johnson moved to St Louis around 1920, after most of their family died in the influenza epidemic of 1917. He got his first opportunity to record by repeatedly winning a blues singing contest in that city, in the Fall of 1925 – while also playing his violin. His first hit recording, Falling Rain Blues, was released by OKeh Records in January 1926, on which once again he sang and played violin.

By December of 1927, Johnson had taken up the guitar and moved to Chicago, where he joined Louis Armstrong on three of the Hot Five sessions, including "Hotter Than That" and "I'm Not Rough." Musicologist Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, highlights the importance of Johnson's contributions to these recordings, calling him “a strong ally" to Armstrong. "Johnson’s swinging, rhythmic backing," he said, "and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly one of the highlights of classic jazz.” In October of 1928, Johnson recorded with Duke Ellington's band, on four sides including the early masterpiece, "The Mooche."

The guitar began to eclipse the banjo as a rhythm instrument in jazz bands around this time, in no small part thanks to the popularity of Johnson's recordings. He took the expressive capacity of the violin and transferred it to the guitar, which brought out its potential as a lead instrument. This expressiveness, coupled with his virtuosity, were prime factors in the guitar's rise to prominence.

In November of 1928, Johnson formed a partnership with white guitarist Eddie Lang, who took the moniker “Blind Willie Dunn,” and the pair recorded ten masterful guitar duets. Especially striking from this series are "A Handful of Riffs,""Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues" and "Midnight Call Blues." While some jazz enthusiasts suggest Lang was the greatest virtuoso in the first generation of jazz guitarists, in their duets, Lang always deferred to Johnson to take the leads.

James Sallis, in The Guitar Players, said, “Lonnie Johnson probably should be as well known as Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong; his artistry is at that level…. His touch, the expressiveness he achieved on the instrument, was a revelation in his time and still affords a rich and rare harvest to guitarists.” This expressiveness and groundbreaking vibrato technique, both of which profoundly influenced B.B. King, are heard in his early guitar instrumentals like his Away Down in the Alley Blues from 1928.

The culmination of Johnson's early fame came in 1931, when he recorded an old African-American folk song, "Uncle Ned," in New York. This recording demonstrates that the blazing-fast fingerings of contemporary rock and jazz guitarists have nothing on what Lonnie Johnson could play. “I listened to Lonnie play guitar and sing his song "Uncle Ned," and I said, ‘This can’t be just one guitar!’" said jazz guitarist Jack Wilkins, who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. "That track just blew my mind. To this day, I play it for my students and they can’t believe it – especially when I tell them it was done in 1931!”

The sophisticated nature of Johnson's playing is why B.B. King told this author, “Me, hearing what I heard Lonnie play, I know even today a lot of it I can’t play – and I don’t hear anybody else playin’ some of the things he played back then. The man was way ahead of his time!”

After this success, the Great Depression and conflict with Chicago recording czar Lester Melrose forced Johnson into blue-collar work. He worked for a while in a railroad tie factory, carrying heavy and hot treated wood ties. Fortunately, his hands escaped damage from this hard labor, based on the evidence of his subsequent recordings.

In 1937, Johnson he returned to the stage alongside the likes of pianist Lil Armstrong and drummer Baby Dodds. In 1947, he moved to Cincinnati, where he recorded the biggest hit of his career, "Tomorrow Night," for King Records in 1948. Elvis Presley recorded the song at the beginning of his career and imitated Johnson’s vocal techniques.

That song and his 1948 recording of Bessie Smith’s classic "Backwater Blues" demonstrated that Johnson had developed into a great singer as well as guitarist. On this track, Johnson’s sublime electric guitar playing uses lyrical flowing lines, vibratos, tone effects and a thematic coherence to convey a sense of rising water and its threats, to create a kind of aural impressionistic painting about the great Mississippi flood of 1927. Johnson also wrote and recorded his own excellent Mississippi flood song, "Broken Levee Blues," in 1928.

By the mid-1950s, Johnson was back doing blue collar work. In late 1959 he was “rediscovered” by disk jockey Chris Albertson while he was working at the Ben Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia, and began his third major period of recording and performing. In March of 1960, Albertson produced the first of a series of albums for Prestige/Bluesville which featured Johnson, Blues with Lonnie Johnson, with jazz standouts Hal Singer on sax, Claude Hopkins on piano and two others.

The first song from this album, "Don’t Ever Love," further demonstrates the heights Johnson achieved in his singing, with a powerful, nuanced performance, along with his fine electric guitar work. In late 1960, Johnson recorded Losing Game, on which he sings and plays guitar on tracks such as his inventive recasting of George Gershwin's "Summertime," and even piano on the track "Evil Woman." Of course, in the 1920s Johnson had already played banjo, harmonium, piano and even kazoo on recordings.

Through the first half of the 1960s, Johnson performed in clubs from San Francisco to New York. In 1965 he played in a club in Toronto and made a recording for Columbia, Lonnie Johnson – Stompin’ at the Penny, with a Toronto area traditional jazz band. Now 71, Johnson showed continued vigor with sparkling performances on "Mr. Blues Walks" and other songs, including an excellent, unique rendition of "West End Blues." These songs and other Johnson performances from this period perfectly illustrate how the blues is such a foundation of jazz. Johnson’s final major recordings were made for Folkways in 1967; the Smithsonian-Folkways CD reissue of these sessions includes a four-and-a-half minute interview with him by Folkways founder Moe Asch. After being hit in a freak auto accident in Toronto, Johnson died in 1970.

While there is no direct evidence to prove it, many hear a link between Johnson's style and the work of guitarist and bebop pioneer Charlie Christian. Guitarist T-Bone Walker, who played frequently in Oklahoma City with the younger Christian, was explicit in saying that Johnson strongly influenced him, especially in his more sophisticated guitar work. Jack Wilkins also hears such an influence.

In his autobiography, B.B. King spoke eloquently about Johnson's musical legacy: “I was old enough to have felt firsthand the old country blues. Singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson formed the backbone of the music. And I got to see how those blues were modified and modernized by artists like Lonnie Johnson.”

Contributor: Dean Alger