Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson – February 8, 1899 – June 16, 1970 – famously pictured here with a twelve string, at which (along with the six string) he was brilliantly gifted.
One of the biggest and most significant on my list of Blues Heroes, Lonnie Johnson was born in Orleans Parish, New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in a family of musicians. By his late teens, he played guitar and violin in his father’s family band performing at functions alongside his brother James “Steady Roll” Johnson. He also worked with jazz trumpeter Punch Miller in the city’s Storyville district.
In 1917, Johnson joined a revue that toured England, returning home in 1919 to find that all of his family, except his brother James, had died in the 1918 ‘flu epidemic.
He and his brother settled in St.Louis in 1921. The two brothers performed as a duo, and Lonnie also worked on riverboats, working in the orchestras of Charlie Creath and Fate Marable. In 1925 Lonnie married, he and his wife Mary had six children before their divorce in 1932.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Lonnie Johnson as far as the Blues genre is concerned. As turned out to be almost the norm in my lifetime many of the recording companies knew little of the talents they were signing. Many of Johnson’s record advertisements placed by the record companies in the press made no mention at all of the fact that he was a guitarist. Of the forty ads for his records that appeared in the ‘Chicago Defender’ between 1926 and 1931 for instance, not one even mentioned that he played guitar.
As far as most guitarists go Lonnie Johnson is as significant with regard to the way modern guitarists play as any recorded guitarist ever.
He was the first to perform (and record) guitar breaks using a single note attack. He may not have been the first in terms of performance but was certainly the first to record playing in this way using single notes along with string bending and vibrato. While it cannot be proven that this contains the influence of earlier players who did not make any records, it is without doubt the recorded origin of Blues and Rock solo guitar.
It is of course quite possible that guitar solos would have evolved anyway as we play them today, but someone would have had to have been the first to record one, that honour was inarguably and of course brilliantly Lonnie Johnson’s. Johnson’s influence can be clearly heard in Django Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker and virtually all electric blues guitar players.
In 1925, Johnson entered and won a blues contest at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis, the prize being a recording contract with Okeh Records . Between 1925 and 1932 he made about 130 recordings for the OKeh label (many of which were big sellers).
He excelled in purely instrumental pieces, some of which he recorded with the white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, whom he teamed up with in 1929. These recordings were among the first in history to feature black and white musicians performing together, but Lang was credited as ‘Blind Willie Dunn’ (which must surely have disappointed him) to disguise the fact.
Johnson’s compositions captured the nuances of male-female relationships in a way that went beyond Tin Pan Alley sentimentalism. His songs displayed an ability to understand the heartaches of others that Lonnie saw as the essence of his blues.
With the temporary demise of the recording industry in the Great Depression, Johnson was compelled to make a living outside music, working at one point in a steel mill in Peoria, Illinois. In 1932 he moved again, this time to Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived for the rest of the decade. There, he played intermittently with the band of vocalist and singer Putney Dandridge and performed on radio.
In 1939, during a session for the Bluebird label with pianist Joshua Altheimer, Lonnie used an electric guitar for the first time. He recorded 34 tracks for Bluebird over the next five years, including the hits “He’s a Jelly Roll Baker” and “In Love Again”.
After World War II, Johnson made the transition to Rhythm & Blues, recording for King Records in Cincinnati, and having a major hit in 1948 with “Tomorrow Night”, written by Sam Coslow and Will Grosz. This topped the Billboard ‘Race Records’ chart for seven weeks, also making it to number nineteen in the mainstream charts, and had reported sales of three million copies. The follow-ups “Pleasing You” and “So Tired” were also major R&B hits.
In 1952 Johnson toured England. Tony Donegan, who played on the same bill, paid tribute to Johnson by changing his own name to ‘Lonnie’ Donegan.
In March 1969, he was hit by a car while walking along the pavement in Toronto. Johnson was seriously injured, suffering a broken hip and kidney injuries. He was able to return to the stage for one performance at Massey Hall on February 23, 1970, walking with the aid of a cane to sing a couple of songs with Buddy Guy and receiving a standing ovation.
Lonnie passed away on June 16, 1970 and was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Toronto. At the time, like so many Blues heroes before him, Lonnie Johnson was reported to have been “virtually broke.”