Lonnie Johnson is coming back once again.
“Who’s that?” a casual blues fan might ask. “You mean Robert Johnson?” Nope. I mean Lonnie Johnson.
Robert Johnson is the iconic blues man who died in 1938 and is justifiably known as the King of the Delta Blues Singers. Lonnie Johnson is the guitarist and singer who was born in New Orleans and lived out the third act of his staggeringly long and stylistically varied career after moving to Philadelphia in the 1950s.
Lonnie Johnson is the guy “Robert Johnson had learned a lot from,” Bob Dylan wrote in “Chronicles, Vol. 1.” B.B. King has called him “one of my idols ... one of the people who made me want to play.” His 1946 hit “Tomorrow Night” was covered tenderly by Elvis Presley.
And he’s the guy who is the subject of “Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson,” the tribute album released last week by Ardmore, Pa.‘s Range Records.
“I honestly do not think there was anyone else who crossed the line between being an idiomatic blues musician who was able to master the vocabulary of jazz like Lonnie Johnson did,” says Aaron Luis Levinson, the Grammy-winning Philadelphia producer who helmed “Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson” (3 stars). “He was a unique figure in that he was able to live in two different worlds. Here’s a guy who was playing rural blues music in the 1920s, who also played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.”
Born in the Crescent City in 1899, Johnson was a sophisticated musician who learned violin before picking up a guitar. He had reason, though, to sing the blues: In 1917, his parents and 10 of his 11 siblings - one piano-playing brother survived - died in the influenza epidemic.
“With no one at home, I came north with Louis Armstrong to make my living as a musician,” Johnson told David B. Bitten in the liner notes to the 1960 Prestige Records LP “Blues by Lonnie Johnson.” It was recorded shortly after Johnson was discovered by WHAT-FM DJ Chris Albertson to be living in North Philadelphia and working as a janitor at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel at Ninth and Chestnut streets.
But that’s getting ahead of our story. Before Johnson could be rediscovered in time for the 1960s blues revival, he had been famous - and forgotten - more than once in a career that, as Levinson puts it, qualifies him as a sort of “musical Zelig.”
Behind Blind Lemon Jefferson, Johnson was the second biggest-selling male blues singer of the 1920s, with such down-and-out laments on the Okeh label as “Stay Out of Walnut Street Alley.” His precisely picked, constricted guitar lines and piercing vocals prefigure Robert Johnson’s recordings a decade later. His innovations were abundant: He was “the first guitarist to phrase like a horn,” jazz critic Francis Davis writes in the “Rediscovering” liner notes, “a full decade before Charlie Christian.”
Aaron Levinson shows some early Lonnie Johnson discs at the Range Recording Studio in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, March 24, 2008. Levinson produced “Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson.” (Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
The Philadelphia aspect of the Lonnie Johnson story begins in the 1929, when he recorded a series of stunning duets with guitarist Eddie Lang, a Philadelphia native who would go on to play with Bing Crosby. Their duets were notable for breaking the color line in popular music. Lang, who was white, recorded as “Blind Willie Dunn” so as to not fire up segregationists who might object to the idea of such taboo musical miscegenation. Two of the Lang-Johnson duets are recast on “Rediscovering.”
Johnson disappeared when the music industry collapsed during the Great Depression. But in the late 1930s he started to have hits again, scoring with the sexual innuendo of “He’s a Jelly Roll Baker,” sung on “Rediscovering” by guest vocalist Geoff Muldaur. All the other vocals are sung with admirable restraint by the Bala Cynwyd, Pa., ensemble Blues Anatomy’s Eddie Davis, who says his approach was to “try to feel what this guy was living. To be true to his songs, but with my style.”
After World War II, Johnson reinvented himself once again, this time as a smooth rhythm-and-blues crooner, with “Tomorrow Night,” which sold three million copies. But by 1952, he had settled into obscurity in Philadelphia, and “set my instrument in a corner and let it rest.”
Seven years later, Albertson found out Johnson was working at the Ben Franklin and brought him on his show. Joe Boyd, a Princeton teenager who would go on to produce albums with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and R.E.M., among others, was listening to Albertson’s show.
In his 2006 memoir, “White Bicycles,” Boyd tells of how he, his brother, Warwick, and their fellow-blues-loving buddy, the aforementioned Geoff Muldaur, looked up Johnson in a Philadelphia phone book and hired him to play a house concert in New Jersey.
In an e-mail from London, where he lives, Boyd called Johnson “a real one-off: a New Orleans virtuoso who `could play anything,’ as he told us that night.” Johnson told Boyd and his friends that “white people always think Negroes just play the blues,” and proved otherwise by singing pop songs like “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.”
Boyd said Johnson, “an urban and urbane professional” who was nearly 60, was “both bemused and happy” to be playing for suburban teenagers. “He was a chameleon who thought it quite natural for people to like his music.”
Levinson read Boyd’s memoir, and got the Lonnie Johnson bug. “Maybe it’s more romantic in my own mind,” says the Philadelphia producer, who won a 2004 Grammy for best salsa/merengue album with Reuben Blades & the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s “Across 110th Street.”
“But the image of it, of the neighbors crossing the lawn to see this concert by this great musician who had been effectively forgotten, is just an incredible idea to me,” Levinson says.
When he got to talking to Range Records founders Dan Leider and Rich Myers about starting “a record label that deals with the unique history of Philadelphia,” a project built around Johnson came to mind.
Levinson’s first choice to “play” Johnson on the record was guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, who has played with a variety of performers from George Duke to Stanley Clarke to Mariah Carey.
Levinson made Jef Lee Johnson a CD that sampled the guitar great’s oeuvre. “There was some fiery music on there,” Jef Lee Johnson says. “There was jazz, there was blues. He was playing everything at once. I guess he was dying to get it out.”
For “Rediscovering,” Levinson counseled his players to not be too true to Johnson’s originals. “Aaron told me to put a little piece of myself in it,” Jef Lee Johnson says, “so that’s what I tried to do.” Levinson wanted to avoid merely replicating the music. “I was hoping nothing slavish would take place,” he says.
He got his wish.
“Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson” pays tribute to one of the great underappreciated figures in American music - who, after returning to recording and touring in the `60s, died in Toronto in 1970, after being hit by a car.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but “Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson” does its subject proud by using his music as a starting point and capturing its jaunty, stylistically mixed spirit without stooping to note-for-note copying. And 38 years after his death, it brings Lonnie Johnson back, one more time.