The three acts of Lonnie Johnson' blues
Lonnie Johnson (1889—1970) was a prolific American musician, singer, and songwriter, and one of the first major blues guitarists.
He was among the first performers to play single-string solos, and his energy and melodic ingenuity were important elements implemented by him on the recordings of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Johnson's career spanned several decades before he died of injuries sustained in a traffic accident.
A child of a large family of musicians, Johnson began as a violinist in his father’s string band in New Orleans, moving on to gradually mastering the banjo, mandolin, and piano.
"My whole family was musicians: six sisters, five brothers, mother and father, so you might as well say I was a born musician."
In 1917, Johnson joined a musical review that toured England to showcase American folk music. When he returned two years later, he found his parents and all but one of his many siblings had perished in the flu epidemic that devastated the world in that year.
"I worked with my family for quite some years until they all died and I went to the other fields looking for other things in the line of music, and whatever I could get."
After leaving New Orleans with his only remaining brother, Lonnie settled in St. Louis where the two of them worked in jazz bands on steamboats until the elder Johnson began his recording career which lasted some 40 years and yielded about 500 recordings.
In 1925, Okeh records organized a talent contest in St. Louis with the main prize being a recording deal which Lonnie won. Over the next seven years, he appeared on more than 130 tracks and was one of the most recorded artists of his time. Entire generations of blues and jazz guitarists took inspiration from these recordings and their influence is still alive today.
Listen to his instrumental piece Got the Blues for the West End:
Throughout his roller-coaster career of great accomplishments and periods of inactivity, Johnson often had to take menial jobs to make ends meet.
"I am a carpenter by trade and an electrician, also I'm a cook by trade—that's right. I've been a cook for thirty years. So with that, I can always make a living. I'm not froze out. If I can't make it in music I can always get something else. But I love music and I can't get away from it."
His first recording contract ran out in the early 1930s, and he spent much of the Great Depression as a steel mill worker.
"I didn't know the nightclub work, and I didn't take any chance. So went back to the steel mill in East St. Louis, and working five years. Started as a sander, and end up as a molder. Molding big box car wheels, that's what I was molding."
When he went to Chicago in 1937, he began recording for Decca, and two years later joined Bluebird Records. In time his blues often became repetitive, so he balanced it out with the addition of sentimental ballads to his repertoire. The ballad Tomorrow Night topped the R&B charts for seven weeks. Later, he switched to electric guitar and enjoyed another period of chart success.
In the late 1950s, his musical style had fallen out of favor, so he took a job as a hotel janitor in Philadelphia.
Listen to Devil's Got The Blues:
He was "rediscovered" in 1959 by disk jockey Chris Albertson, who produced a comeback album for Lonnie. A performance at Chicago's Playboy Club and successive gigs brought him out of obscurity at a fortuitous time, when young audiences were embracing jazz and folk music.
In 1965, after a brief period of obscurity, he traveled to Toronto and played a few small nightclub gigs. Word spread quickly and he played more, eventually taking up residence in Toronto and playing at several local clubs in Canada for the rest of the decade.
In 1969, Johnson was hit by a car in Toronto and suffered serious injuries, from which he never fully recovered. He passed away next year.
"The way I feel about music, I want it to last, I never want it to die. It makes so many people happy—the sick, the blind, the crippled, and it's an awful lot of help. Anything that I can do in my way I try my best to do it. So that's what I get out of music—helping other people."
Johnson was acknowledged as a major influence by the fathers of electric blues guitar. Robert Johnson idolized Lonnie so much that not only did he re-record some of Lonnie’s musical themes, he even told people that he was Lonnie’s brother.