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Lonnie Johnson Sings the Blues

Lonnie Johnson singing in his confident tenor the sweet and low down blues of a long spent afternoon on the banks of the Mississippi. His birth in New Orleans in 1899 enough to acquaint him with the steam boats and the creoles and the jazz that burst forth from the city during the years of his youth.

I see my baby coming down the street . . . what a good feeling.

Something in his voice triggers sympathy and respect in a different way than the likes of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. Maybe it's the polish, the smooth rush of his vibrato as he works through each verse, the simple accompaniment of a guitar, bass, and piano the extent of his backup. A different feel than the work of others in the genre.

A feeling that somehow Tin Pan Alley got a hold of a true southern bluesman and worked him over with its impression of the blues. Not quite the gritty realism or cut back stylings of other men from Mississippi and Louisiana, their voices worn rough by years on the cotton rows or working the bales up and down the gangplanks of the boats that steamed up and down the mightiest of rivers.

He almost feels like he's a presentiment of rock and roll, not quite jump blues but more than a jazzified country blues. A hard tempo driving through a hard luck woman and then a fiddle and he's nowhere so much as on the bayou, waiting for his baby to come back to treat him right.

I'm listening on Apple Music to a playlist of Johnson's essentials. I don't know when or where or with which label each song was recorded but by the variable hiss, pop, scratch that sometimes overlays the recording like it was made that way and at other times like it's nothing more than the needle wiggling a little in its groove, I know the music jumps around his career like a Mexican jumping bean let loose from its tortilla.

Despite early efforts to launch himself through touring independently, it wasn't until he won a blues contest in St. Louis in 1925 that he made his first recording with Okeh Records. A virtuoso with a wide range of repertoire, his first record pigeonholed him as a blues singer.

I guess I would have done anything to get recorded - it just happened to be a blues contest, so I sang the blues.

The recording launched a furious seven years in which he made 130 sides for Okeh and became one of the label's more popular artists. He recorded with Victoria Spivey, Louis Armstrong, and Alger "Texas" Alexander. He toured with Bessie Smith on the Theater Owners Booking Association routes throughout the south as headliners to raving audiences.

According to Gérard Herzhaft in his Encyclopedia of the Blues, Johnson was "undeniably the creator of the guitar solo played note by note with a pick, which has become the standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock."

A black man with a medium complexion, Johnson had an inverted face that seemed like a triangle balanced on a point. Slicked hair and deep smile lines, sleep eyes and an indistinct nose paired with long arms and fingers that wrapped the neck of his guitar effortlessly.

By the end of the 1930s he was in Chicago, where he recorded and performed for Decca Records and worked with other blues luminaries like Roosevelt Sykes and Blind John Davis. In 1939 he used an electric guitar for the first time and this helped him transition after the war into rhythm and blues.

In 1948 he charted at number 19 on the pop chart with "Tomorrow Night," a number written by Sam Coslow and Will Grosz, that was later covered by Elvis Presley. A tour of England in 1952 saw Tony Donegan change his name to Lonnie to pay tribute to Johnson.

After the relative failure of that tour, he left music to make ends meet as best he could and settled in Philadelphia. In 1959, he was rediscovered by local disc jockey Chris Albertson and enjoyed a brief revival that reunited him with Victoria Spivey. With new funds he moved to racially tolerant Toronto, Canada, where he opened an unsuccessful blues club. In March 1960 he was hit by a car that jumped the sidewalk and gave him injuries that would lead to his death over a year later on June 16, 1970.

Johnson lasted nearly half a century in the industry and managed to leave behind a vast catalogue of his innovative guitar stylings and urbane performances. It is interesting to note that during the heyday of his work for Okeh he was not noted for his guitar work, but in the end, his contribution to the genre of picking melodies proved a lasting and important innovation for which he is justly remembered.

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