Lonnie Johnson (1899–1970)
Almost unique among twentieth-century musicians, Lonnie Johnson bestrides two of the most popular music forms of the early century — jazz and blues, defying categorization as belonging solely to either.
Johnson helped define the guitar's role in blues playing, and his melodic ideas and jaunty singing were on a par only with jazz's first recorded genius, the trumpeter Louis Armstrong. It's perhaps no coincidence that Johnson recorded in 1927 with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. Armstrong may be considered the first jazz musician to step in front of a band and take an improvised solo, but Lonnie Johnson is the first guitarist to play a single-note improvised jazz chorus on the guitar. The two-guitar duets he recorded in 1928 and 1929 with jazz guitarist Eddie Lang — a musician who recorded several tracks for contractual reasons under the tongue-in-cheek name of Blind Willie Dunn — are groundbreaking in their inventiveness.
Lonnie Johnson was a colossus who bestrode several genres of guitar, particularly blues and jazz. He often recorded using a Stella twelve-string and a regular six-string arch-top.
For more than forty years, Johnson played blues, jazz, and ballads, his versatility stemming in part from growing up in the musically diverse Crescent City, New Orleans. His first instrument was the violin, but he developed an unaccompanied style as a guitar player that was sophisticated, fluid, and melodic. He signed up with Okeh Records, and between 1925 and 1932, he cut an estimated 130 tracks.
Johnson moved to Chicago and returned to recording in 1939. In 1947, he recorded one of his biggest hits, the ballad “Tomorrow Night,” which topped the R&B charts for seven weeks in 1948. More hits followed, but by the late 1950s Johnson was earning a living as a hotel janitor in Philadelphia.
He was “rediscovered” by banjo player Elmer Snowden and enjoyed a major comeback, cutting a series of albums for Prestige's Bluesville subsidiary during the early 1960s. He also toured Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival.
Alas, in 1969, Johnson was hit by a car in Toronto and died a year later from the effects of the accident. His influence was massive, from Robert Johnson, whose approach to guitar playing strongly resembled his older namesake, to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, each of whom at different times paid tribute with versions of “Tomorrow Night.”