Lonnie Johnson Profile:
Born: February 8, 1899 in New Orleans LA
Died: June 16, 1969 in Toronto, Ontario Canada
In an early blues era that boasts of a number of innovative guitarists, Lonnie Johnson was, quite simply, without peer. With a sense of melody unmatched by pre-war players, Johnson was equally capable of knocking out both dirty blues and fluid jazz phrasings, and he invented the practice of combining rhythmic passages and solo leads within a single song. His influence can still be heard today in the music of B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, as well as many jazz guitarists.
A Passion For The Guitar
Born Alonzo Johnson in New Orleans, Johnson’s talent was seeped in the city’s rich musical heritage, but after the flu epidemic of 1919, he moved to St. Louis. The violin was his first instrument, but Johnson found the guitar to be his true passion. Playing with local jazz bands, Johnson won a blues contest in 1925 and was offered a contract with Okeh Records.
With Okeh, Johnson recorded an estimated 130 songs over the next seven years, including several groundbreaking duets with Blind Willie Dunn (actually white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang). During this period, Johnson also recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. Like many musicians, Johnson found his career derailed by the Depression, and he didn't begin recording again until 1939.
Surviving The Depression
Johnson landed in Chicago after the Depression, signing with Lester Melrose's Bluebird Records. Recording during the late-1930s and into the '40s, Johnson enjoyed a major hit with the song "He's A Jelly Roll Baker." Moving to King Records in 1947, Johnson recorded the classic "Tomorrow Night," his biggest hit, which would later be covered by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Edged out of performing during the mid-1950s, Johnson was "rediscovered" and recast as a folk-blues singer during the '60s. Enjoying his second comeback, Johnson recorded several albums and toured Europe before being hit by a car in 1969. Over a career that spanned five decades, Johnson’s songs and playing style changed the course of blues and jazz alike, influencing musical icons like Robert Johnson and Charlie Christian.
Recommended Albums: The out-of-print Steppin’ on the Blues includes several of Johnson’s best recordings from the 1920s, but the available Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 features the guitarist's phenomenal work circa 1937-40.