New Orleans native Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson was a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and songwriter whose professional career spanned six decades.
New Orleans native Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson excelled as a guitar soloist, instrumental accompanist, vocalist, songwriter, and recording artist in the genres of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues (R&B) over the course of a six-decade career from the 1910s through 1970. His style influenced such diverse musicians as Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, B. B. King, Chet Atkins, Bob Dylan, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Although he often struggled during his lifetime—fading in and out of the music business due to financial and physical troubles—Johnson is recognized today as a multi-instrumental song stylist with far-reaching impact on popular music.
The year of Johnson’s birth is uncertain, but most scholars favor February 8, 1894, as the likeliest date. One of twelve children, Johnson grew up in a family of musicians, learning violin, piano, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. He played backup violin in his father’s band at social functions and performed on street corners. He worked his way up the musical ranks in pre–World War I New Orleans, eventually landing a steady job with jazz trumpeter Ernest “Punch” Miller’s band in Storyville, New Orleans’s legalized prostitution district where many musicians worked. When federal authorities ordered Storyville closed in 1917, Johnson left the city and joined musical revues that toured Europe.
Returning to New Orleans in 1919, Johnson learned that nearly all of his family had fallen prey to the 1918 influenza epidemic. Now essentially on his own, he purchased a guitar and relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1921, never to return to New Orleans. In St. Louis, Johnson played on excursion riverboats with two renowned bands, Fate Marable’s Society Syncopaters and Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs, and he established himself in the local blues scene. Neither the riverboats nor the blues clubs provided steady income, so Johnson took up factory work in Peoria and East St. Louis, Illinois.
Jazz, Blues, and Rhythm and Blues Pioneer
In 1925, Johnson won a blues contest in St. Louis that offered a contract with Okeh Records as first prize. For the occasion, Johnson not only played guitar but also sang; as he told musicologist and producer Chris Albertson, “I guess I would have done anything to get recorded—it just happened to be a blues contest, so I sang the blues.” The award initiated an innovative, prolific period of Johnson’s career, but his personal life suffered. His wife, blues vocalist Mary Johnson, bore him six children over seven years, but they divorced in 1932.
During those same seven years with Okeh, Johnson recorded a total of 130 tracks in Chicago and New York City, many under his own name; on other now-classic early jazz recordings he played as a session guitarist. He contributed outstanding guitar solos to recordings by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He recorded a series of highly prized duets in the early 1930s with pioneer jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, who was billed as Blind Willie Dunn to hide the fact that they were a mixed-race duo. Johnson accompanied blues queens Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey as well as the rustic country blues singer Alger “Texas” Alexander. Johnson also made at least forty Okeh records as a vocalist, which make no mention of his playing guitar.
After the Great Depression caused the recording industry to collapse, Johnson worked at tire and steel factories in Cleveland, Ohio, while moonlighting in a local jazz band. A jazz revival brought Johnson back to Chicago in 1937 for sessions at Decca Records with clarinetist Johnny Dodds and drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, both New Orleanians. In the late 1930s, as rhythm and blues was emerging as a new musical genre, Johnson began playing electric guitar and had major hits for Bluebird Records with “Jelly Roll Baker” and “In Love Again.” Johnson’s career resurgence in the 1940s resulted in recordings with the Disc and Aladdin labels in Chicago, followed by a stint in Cincinnati with King Records.
Johnson in the 1950s and 1960s
Johnson’s first King recording, “Tomorrow Night,” rode the top of the charts for seven weeks in 1948, selling millions of records and influencing musicians across genres. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others subsequently recorded versions of Johnson’s hit. Bob Dylan remembers idolizing Johnson in Greenwich Village during the early 1960s: “He greatly influenced me … ‘Corrina, Corrina’ [which Dylan covered on his 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan], that’s pretty much Lonnie Johnson. I used to watch him every chance I got and sometimes he’d let me play with him.”
Johnson’s R&B period was relatively short-lived, however, as younger stars eventually eclipsed 1930s-era pioneers. He was soon recast as a classic jazzman during a series of tours in England, where the traditional New Orleans jazz revival absorbed elements of American blues and folk, evolving into “skiffle,” a sound that inspired many of the leaders of the 1960s “British invasion” of American pop music.
Rediscovered as a Folk–Blues Star
After his tours of England in the early 1950s, Johnson again disappeared from mainstream music, only to be rediscovered late in the decade. Chris Albertson, a popular disc jockey at Philadelphia radio station WHAT-AM, put out a call for anyone with knowledge of Johnson. To his surprise, bandleader Elmer Snowden, then working as a parking-lot attendant, informed him that Johnson was a night-shift maintenance man in a Philadelphia hotel. Albertson arranged for a set of recordings on Prestige Records, one solo titled Blues by Lonnie Johnson and two others featuring Snowden on Blues and Ballads and Johnson’s old friend, the blues diva Victoria Spivey, on Idle Hours.
Although Johnson was promoted as a “rediscovered bluesman” during the urban folk and blues revival, he did not fit the profile of a rustic blues legend, and his music defied easy categorization. Albertson recounted pleading with Johnson to sing an old blues number for a 1960 all-star folk revival concert in New York City. Johnson agreed, but when he stepped to the microphone he instead performed a moving version of a recent Frank Sinatra ballad. “Lonnie’s rendering of ‘This Love of Mine’ was as gripping as any blues I’d heard him sing,” Albertson later recalled, “and when he was through the audience’s disappointment had turned to enthusiasm.”
His increasing recognition as a quintessential guitar player may yet obscure his equally impressive contributions as a vocalist, ranging from solo recordings during the era of so-called race records to hits from the late 1940s that suggest an elegantly soulful treatment in the manner of Nat “King” Cole. Best known among these R&B tunes is “Tomorrow Night.”
Johnson ultimately found it hard to establish a distinct profile or devoted fan base in the burgeoning New York folk scene, so he relocated to Toronto in 1965 and opened his own nightclub, Home of the Blues. In 1967, during his stint in Toronto, Johnson ventured to Chicago and made his final recordings; half were romantic ballads and the other half were his distinctive brand of urban blues. Unreleased until 1982, Lonnie Johnson: The Complete Folkways Recordings contain the only known instance of Johnson speaking about his experiences. “I’ve lived a beautiful life,” he told producer Moses Asch. “It’s been kind of rough in spots; like everybody, I have ups and downs in life. I’ve seen it very sweet, and I’ve seen it very hard, when you couldn’t get a job, no kind of a job, doing nothing. But somehow or other, I managed it, I managed to make it.”
In 1968, a careening automobile jumped a curb and ran into the aging bluesman. He made his final live appearance at a 1970 benefit concert in his honor in Toronto, accompanied by fellow Louisiana bluesman Buddy Guy. Johnson died several months later, unable to recover from his injuries sustained in the car accident.
Twelve years after Johnson’s death, biographer James Sallis concluded that Johnson “remains to this day one of the originals, uniquely both a first-generation bluesman and jazzman—an innovator and model musician whose authorship of modern blues guitar alone would guarantee his position in the history of American music.” In Louisiana Rocks! The True Genesis of Rock & Roll, an encyclopedic overview of Louisiana musicians’ contributions to modern rock music, author Tom Aswell groups Johnson with four other groundbreakers: jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong, folk singer and twelve-string guitar master Lead Belly, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Compared to these iconic figures, however, Lonnie Johnson’s importance in popular American music thus far has remained mostly hidden. Indeed, in his 2004 revisionist history of the blues, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Elijah Wald laments that Johnson has been largely disregarded by the rock-historian view of blues history that dominated the late twentieth century.