Jazz Birthday: Lonnie Johnson

Jazz88 celebrates the birthday of Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson, an acclaimed vocalist and a pioneer or jazz and blues guitar. Johnson was born in New Orleans and raised in a family of musicians where he learned to play guitar, violin and other instruments. Tragedy struck Johnson’s household while he was on tour in England, and every member of his family except for his brother James died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The brothers settled in St . Louis in the early twenties, and, in 1925, Johnson won a blues contest and was awarded a recording contract with Okeh records. He made more than ten dozen recordings for Okeh over the next seven years. During that time, accompanied top blues artists like Victoria SpiveyBessie Smith.

Johnson was technically very gifted on the guitar and was innovative in his instrumental performances, one of the first jazz  musicians to play  single-note horn-like improvised solos (listen to 6-88 Glide)

For jazz connoisseurs, he is especially significant for a series of duets with fellow guitar innovator Eddie Lang (check out Playing with the Strings and Handful of Riffs. Eddie Lang was disguised on several of these recordings as “Blind Willie Dunn” since he was white, and recordings were not usually integrated). Significantly, Johnson also recorded with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1927, (I’m Not RoughSavoy Blues, and Hotter Than That,) with Duke Ellington the following year  (Hot and BotheredMove Over, and The Mooche).

Johnson’s recording of the ballad “Tomorrow Night” was a hit in 1948.  A few other hits followed but by the mid-fifties his career lagged, and he had to take work outside of music. Blues enthusiast and music journalist  Chris Albertson discovered Johnson working as a custodian in a steel foundry and subsequently Johnson was recording and touring once again. He died in 1970, living out his last years in Toronto.

Johnson is acknowledged as a major influence on the playing  of B.B. King and T-Bone Walker and jazz artists including Charlie ChristianGeorge Barnes and Django Reinhardt.

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