Who knows or has even heard of Lonnie Johnson? “I was old enough to have felt first-hand the old country blues … And I got to see how those blues were modified and modernized by artists like Lonnie Johnson.” Thus BB King.
Alonzo Johnson (1899 – 1970) played guitar and violin, and sang too. He’s known as a blues player, but his experience ranges wider, from touring blues shows with Victoria Spivey and Bessie Smith, through work with jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, stride pianist James P Johnson –
– and UK skiffle artist Tony Donegan – who changed his name to Lonnie in 1952.
His influence on others extends to Elvis Presley (on 1954’s “Tomorrow Night” he imitates Lonnie’s 1948 hit vocals) and early Bob Dylan (listen to “Corrina Corrina”). You can hear why “in the 1920s and 1930s, Johnson was best known as a sophisticated and urbane singer rather than an instrumentalist.”
“Of the forty ads for his records that appeared in the ‘Chicago Defender’ between 1926 and 1931, not one even mentioned that he played guitar.” (Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta : Robert Johnson and the invention of the blues, 2004) So why a guitar hero? Johnson was responsible for bringing the instrument out of the rhythm section – where it had superseded the banjo in the jazz line-up – to the front as a solo instrument, with single-string picking, bending the notes and ‘voicing’ it like the violin he had played before. You can draw a straight line from there to rock ‘n’ roll and the modern guitar ‘hero’.
Coinciding with electrification of the instrument – around the same time as the violin – was of course influential, as was the style of other players like white guitarist Eddie Lang. But to hear how well he plays, and how fresh he still sounds, try this 1928 recording with Don Redman – Fletcher Henderson’s arranger – the Dorsey brothers and Jack Teagarden.
Paducah (Redman) New York October 10th 1928. Johnson 1:28 – 2:15
This was the band which became the Chocolate Dandies.
Compare with guitarist Eddie Lang, alias Blind Willie Dunn and the Gin Bottle Four, Hoagy Carmichael scatting. An all-star group that also included King Oliver, the Gin Bottle Four was one of the first interracial jazz bands to record, cutting classic tunes “Blue Guitars,” “A Handful of Riffs,” “Midnight Call Blues,” and “Hot Fingers.” And this one, “Jet Black Blues”, which you may know from the game MAFIA …