Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson (February 8, 1899 – June 16, 1970)
When a guitarist nowadays plays a solo in the blues, jazz, or rock genres, he continues the tradition established by Lonnie Johnson, one of the earliest virtuosos of the guitar. B.B. King’s single-string technique inspired the standard for modern blues guitar playing, a continuation of an idea that Lonnie Johnson recorded for the first time in the year B.B. was born (1925). Johnson was the one to elevate the guitar to the status it deserved during an era when it was not.
Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson was likely born in New Orleans, but some sources list Port Allen, close to Baton Rouge, as his place of birth. Although many sources cite February 18, 1899, as Johnson’s birthdate, Dean Alger, who is writing a biography of Johnson, thinks the year 1894 is more likely. Except for Lonnie and James Johnson, the Johnson family perished during the 1918 influenza pandemic (multi-instrumentalist James “Steady Roll” Johnson). The two brothers decided to start over elsewhere, so they both departed the city. St. Louis, a major blues and jazz center, was where they finally settled. The guitar had already been prominent in blues and jazz by that point, but Lonnie had brought it to the forefront. Performing on the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association) tour, commonly known as “Tough On Black Asses,” propelled Lonnie into the vanguard of the blues industry. His work for OKeh also includes duets with the white guitarist Eddie Lang, among the best instrumental performances of all time, and accompaniments for Victoria Spivey, Clara Smith, Texas Alexander, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.
Johnson’s first recording period, from 1925 to 1932, contains the bulk of his important works. In addition to being one of the first guitarists to play single-string solos, his enthusiasm, swing, melodic ingenuity, and refined taste were crucial to the success of recordings by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five (“Hotter Than That”), Duke Ellington and the Jazz Messengers, the Chocolate Dandies, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and King Oliver. On the same album (“A Handful of Riffs”), he and Eddie Lang, the other great early jazz guitarist, produced a series of guitar solos and some very remarkable duets.
Blue Ghost Blues” and “He’s a Jelly Roll Baker” are only two examples of the breadth and depth of Lonnie Johnson’s lyrical talent; his songs’ themes range from the profoundly serious to the hilarious. He may have had an urban sound, but Johnson’s blues influenced Robert Johnson and other country musicians. Time made his blues stale, so he branched out into more emotional songs. A million copies of the ballad “Tomorrow Night” were sold in 1948. In 1990, Johnson was recognized for his contributions to the blues and honored with entry into the Hall of Fame.
He lived out his latter years as a performer in Toronto. On that day in June of 1970, Lonnie Johnson passed away, leaving behind a body of work that the world may never completely appreciate.
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A nice Lonnie Johnson video from YouTube –