Personalities | Lonnie Johnson | Twenties | Jazz & Blues
Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Johnson will probably be forever classified as a ‘blues’ guitarist, and – at least in his later years – he seemed to accept the label, albeit somewhat gruffly. But in fact he was a consummate musician, deft enough to move between jazz, pop and blues stylings with ease, and inventive enough to imbue everything he touched with new angles of vision and fresh improvisational ideas.
A Musical Upbringing
Johnson was born into a musical New Orleans family on 8 February, probably in 1894. At a young age he began performing around town (on violin and piano) with his parents and siblings. In 1917, the year he purchased his first guitar, he landed an overseas tour with Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra. When he returned home, he discovered that his entire family, except his brother James, had died in the flu epidemic of 1918. He and James left for St. Louis, where they played in the riverboat bands of Fate Marable and Charlie Creath, with whom Johnson recorded in 1925.
A Prolific Recording Career
Also in 1925, Johnson won a blues contest sponsored by OKeh Records, the first prize for which was a recording contract. He ended up cutting, by his own recollection, 572 sides for the label, many (but not all) of which were 12-bar blues. He also worked, and sometimes recorded, with such jazz stalwarts as Eddie Lang, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
As a bluesman, Johnson sang in a fluttery, somewhat thin voice, which was nonetheless effective in delivering his sometimes violently misogynistic lyrics. His apparent lack of emotion heightened the threat as he drawled out ultimatums like ‘Woman, get out of my face/or I’ll take my fist and knock you down’ (from ‘Cat You Been Messin’ Around’) with dead-eyed, murderous serenity. Even on ballads such as ‘Careless Love’ (‘I’m goin’ to shoot you and shoot you four, five times/And stand over you until you finish dyin’’), he sounded like a man hurt beyond all caring. Meanwhile, his lithe guitar lines and horn-like phrasing amplified (and sometimes mercifully tempered) such lyric themes with improvisational élan and an ever-present sense of swing.
Echoes Of Johnson’s Influence
In 1948 Johnson hit the R&B charts with ‘Tomorrow Night’, a sentimental ballad that he followed up with several other pop-styled hits. He was nonetheless billed as a ‘blues singer’ when he toured overseas in 1952. The vicissitudes of the music industry forced him to take a day job shortly thereafter. In the early 1960s, upon his ‘rediscovery’, he often found himself playing coffeehouses and being booked on ‘folk blues’ packages with the likes of Muddy Waters and Big Joe Williams. He is said to have been rather imperious in such settings, but audiences enjoyed his slicked-up versions of traditional blues and pop themes. He made his last recordings for Folkways in 1967.
Following a 1969 automobile accident, Lonnie Johnson suffered a stroke; he died on 6 June 1970. Although he was inducted...
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