Every time a guitarist in blues, jazz, or rock plays a solo today, he carries on the legacy of one of the first virtuosos of the instrument, Lonnie Johnson. The predominant style of modern blues guitar playing, derived from the single-string technique of B.B. King, is a continuation of a concept that Lonnie Johnson first put on wax the year B.B. was born (1925). In an era when guitar was not widely considered a serious instrument, Johnson was the man who brought it respect.
Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson was born into a musical family in Louisiana — probably New Orleans, although some documents cite Port Allen, near Baton Rouge. Various birthdates from 1889 to 1909 have been listed, with Feb. 18, 1899 often considered an accurate date, but Dean Alger, who is working on a Johnson biography, believes 1894 to be correct. In 1918, an influenza epidemic claimed the lives of the entire Johnson family except for brothers Lonnie and James (multi-instrumentalist James "Steady Roll" Johnson). Both brothers left the city to begin anew elsewhere. They ended up in St. Louis, a hotbed of blues and jazz activity. Lonnie rose to the top of the blues world on the strength of his prolific output for OKeh Records and his appearances on the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association, also known to the performers as "Tough On Black Asses") circuit. His OKeh work also included accompaniments with Victoria Spivey, Clara Smith, Texas Alexander, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, along with some outstanding instrumental duets with white guitarist Eddie Lang. By that time Lonnie had elevated the guitar to a role of prominence in the blues and jazz.
Johnson was acknowledged as a major influence by the fathers of electric blues guitar (T-Bone Walker) and electric jazz guitar (Charlie Christian). Robert Johnson idolized Lonnie so much that not only did he re-record some of Lonnie’s musical themes, he even told people that he was Lonnie’s brother. Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, B.B. King, Freddie King and Albert King all greatly admired Lonnie’s guitar. In Texas and Oklahoma, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lil’ Son Jackson and Lowell Fulson took cues from Lonnie’s work; rock ‘n’ roller Buddy Holly apparently also was a Johnson devotee. The list goes on . . . some sources include Django Reinhardt, Teddy Bunn and Eddie Durham among the jazzmen inspired by him. No other guitar player of the seminal era of blues and jazz had such an impact either upon blues guitarists or jazz guitarists.
A gifted singer and songwriter as well, Johnson could craft the kind of sexual double entendre material that appealed to the black record-buying audience, and also composed and sang some of the deepest, most introspective and sensitive blues songs ever recorded — songs that never became hits but which set uncompromising artistic standards. Johnson would have some major hits such as <i>Jelly Roll Baker</i> (for Bluebird in 1942) and <i>Tomorrow Night</i>, a ballad he did for King Records in 1947, and among other musicians he was always a seminal hero, but despite his successes and his reputation, he often found it impossible to make a living playing music.
Lonnie’s career, like his music, was bittersweet: bold and triumphant at times, utterly sad at others. Public tastes in blues shifted from Lonnie’s own aesthetic, especially during the postwar rhythm & blues years and the folk-blues revival period. His graceful, eloquent, melancholy blues, sung and picked with clarity and ingenuity, were undeniably works of art. But to audiences who wanted to rock or to boogie, Johnson’s blues offered none of the upbeat relief that could be found in the repertoires of other blues singers. Lonnie Johnson could swing on the guitar, but swing music became passe and Johnson unfortunately never capitalized on his early stature in the jazz world (exemplified by his recordings as guest soloist with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong) — he did little to further explore such jazz connections in later years. Johnson also loved ballads, which some of his blues and folk audiences disdained. In the ’60s, folk-blues audiences sought out rough-voiced Delta bluesmen with aggressive guitar rhythms or smooth fingerpicking guitarists who sang with pleasant buoyancy. But Lonnie Johnson wasn’t Son House or Mississippi John Hurt or even Brownie McGhee; what Lonnie played and sang just didn’t fit with what the new audiences looked for in the blues. It wasn’t so much a matter of talent as it was taste.
He spent his last few years in Toronto, performing as long as he was able. Lonnie Johnson died there on June 16, 1970, leaving a legacy that the world may never fully appreciate.
But as Brownie McGhee put it: "His musical works may and should be the first book of the blues Bible."
— Jim O’Neal