LONNIE JOHNSON, February 8, 1889-June 16, 1970

Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson’s accomplishments are legion. He was the creator of the guitar solo played note for note with a pick, now a standard device in blues, country, jazz, rock and other popular music styles. He inspired many twentieth century innovators—including jazz guitar creators Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, modern blues pioneers T-Bone Walker and B.B. King—as well as many other musicians who copied his style (e.g., the St. Louis school exemplified by Henry Townsend and Clifford Gibson) and repertoire (most notably, Skip James’ rendition of "I’m So Glad").

Born and raised in New Orleans (he worked the Storyville district from 1910-1917), Johnson also spent a considerable amount of time in St. Louis, Texas, New York, and Chicago while performing in theaters and on riverboats, strongly influencing the musicians based in each of these areas. He was very active recording during the first wave of blues recording, producing 130 sides between 1925-1932 as a session player for Okeh, including collaborations with Louis Armstrong ("Hotter Than That"; Okeh 8535; 1928) and Duke Ellington. A conflict with powerful Chicago producer Lester Melrose temporarily halted his studio work, but he became active again between 1937-1942 for Columbia, Decca, Bluebird, Disc, and various other labels. Following World War II, he revived his career with a series of hits featuring his electric guitar playing, including "Tomorrow Night" (King 4201; 1948; #1 R&B, #19 pop), "Pleasing You" (King 4245; 1948; #2 R&B), "So Tired" (King 4263; 1949; #9 R&B), and "Confused" (King 4336; 1950; #11 R&B).

Dropping out of sight in the early 1950s, he was rediscovered at the beginning of the blues-folk revival in 1959, working as a porter in a Philadelphia hotel. Although consistently touring during the 1960s, his artistic and commercial impact did not approach that of many of his peers, primarily because his sophisticated, urban-based style—rooted in 1930s popular music—did not translated well with an audience most interested in the ethnic roots of the blues. Nevertheless, compact disc reissues of his work are widely available, including Blues By Lonnie Johnson Prestige Bluesville 502-2; 1991), Blues & Ballads (Prestige Bluesville 531-2; 1990; Another Night to Cry (Prestige Bluesville 550-2; 1992), Stompin’ at the Penny (Columbia Legacy CK 57829; 1994), The Complete Folkways Recordings (Smithsonian Folkways 40067; 1993), and Steppin’ on the Blues (CBS/Sony 467252-2). [Herzhaft. 1997]

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