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Music Review: Lonnie Johnson – Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson

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Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson is what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks. I decided I needed to brush up on his music, just a little, before writing this review. Here it is weeks later and I’m still brushing. It’s easy to do, though, with somebody as proficient, diverse and talented as Lonnie Johnson was.

Lonnie Johnson was born in New Orleans of a musical family. His father was a violinist and led a family band which consisted of mother, father, and all eleven children. Lonnie went on to marry another musician, Mary Smith, a blues singer. In his early life, Lonnie’s instruments included jazz violin and guitar. Later he made a name again with blues guitar, and then again in Philadelphia, reverting mainly back to jazz, but also in blues. BB King called Lonnie his idol and once said of him, “…he was one of the people that made me want to play."

Lonnie played with many famous bands during his career, including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, which clearly shows the depth and breadth of his abilities. He toured Europe while still a teenager; he toured with Bessie Smith, and he worked with “Baby” Dodds in Chicago. By the time he was in his early thirties he had recorded 130 sides.

Following the Great Depression, Johnson began recording again in Chicago. From there he went to King Records in Cincinatti. There, in 1948, one of the songs Lonnie recorded was a song called "Tomorrow Night," which stayed on the Rhythm & Blues charts for seven weeks, and which he quickly followed with several more hits.

Philadelphia has always been a hotbed of music, beginning in Colonial days, when it was one of the first ports of call for many European musicians emigrating or touring. It was a musical nurturing ground during the Civil War on up to the turn of the century. In the early 20th century it became a jazz haven along with New York and St Louis and New Orleans, although not as well known as the others. Philadelphia was both cruel and kind to Lonnie Johnson. He wasn’t born there, he didn’t die there, but during his long and accomplished life Johnson lived and worked there, and he made many of the musical connections that helped in his later career.

Like Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson slipped under the radar for a period, reemerging in Philadelphia. But unlike Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson’s story is one of two successes sandwiching a period of relative obscurity. In the late 1950s Lonnie had fallen into a timewarp, moving to Philadelphia and working as a janitor, until his rediscovery around 1960 by banjoist Elmer Snowden, who brought Lonnie to the attention of noted jazz reviewer Chris Albertson. He toured Europe again with the American Folk Blues Festival in 1963; he recorded for several American labels during this second career, and he recorded in Europe with Otis Spann in Denmark; and he cut some sides with the Fontana label in Germany.

Johnson moved to Canada in 1965 and opened a club called The Home of the Blues Club. His demise began in 1969 as a result of being hit by a car while walking on a Toronto street. This was followed by several strokes which caused him to limit but not entirely cease his musical performances. His final stroke came shortly after he appeared with Buddy Guy at Toronto's renowned Massey Hall at the age of 81.

Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson is a good cross-section of Lonnie’s accomplishments, giving you the pleasure of hearing at least a sampling of most of his dossier. I also encourage you to learn about Lonny Johnson’s storied and momentous career, and to seek out his other recordings. Start with Bill Dahl’s biography on the All Music website, which begins, “Blues guitar simply would not have developed in the manner that it did if not for the prolific brilliance of Lonnie Johnson. He was there to help define the instrument's future within the genre and the genre's future itself at the very beginning, his melodic conception so far advanced from most of his pre-war peers as to inhabit a plane all his own.” You can find it on All Music Guide.

This disc was published by Range Records, and you can order it  from the label's website.

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About Lou Novacheck