Lonnie Johnson: The Unsung Blues Legend


By Barbara Flaska

For all the major influence he had in jazz and blues, little is known about Lonnie Johnson. What is known of his personal history might fill a page. His early life was staggered by monumental personal loss; his years following were a long life filled with hard work and wandering.

Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson was one of 13 children born into a large musical family in New Orleans. He happened to come into the world at just the right time in history to be part of “the birth of the blues” himself. As a boy, Lonnie played alongside his brothers and father in a family band. As he grew, young Lonnie also performed solo and would play wherever he could get a job, including the houses of ill repute. In 1917, he took off for Europe as part of a musical touring revue hired to entertain American soldiers abroad. While he was overseas, his father and most of the family died in the Spanish Flu Epidemic. At the war’s end, Lonnie returned home to find only his mother and one brother remaining. Lonnie was just 19 years old.

Within two years, he moved with his brother to St. Louis where Lonnie worked in the Mississippi riverboat bands for Fate Marable. From there, he soon soared with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith before he topped out as the best selling blues recording artist of the early ‘40s. Lonnie developed his own blues style and he never changed it a bit. Lonnie’s guitar style is the soaring, lyrical single-string runs that blues guitarists are still building on to this day.

When he couldn’t make a living from his music, Lonnie was obliged to make ends meet by working day jobs. When rediscovered by a blues scholar, Lonnie was employed as a janitor at the Ben Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia. Johnson soon was back on record and stage in the early ‘60s. About that time, Bernie Strassberg became acquainted with Lonnie when seeing him perform at Gerdes Folk Music City. By then, Lonnie Johnson had been working as a musician for over five decades.

While known best for his guitar work, he is a singer on this record. His phrasings are complex, sometimes shaded, other times crooning and confessional. His voice surges with vibrato as he wrings meaning from the lyrics. Most of the songs that Lonnie performs here were popular tunes in the 1920s when he first learned them. By the time he sat down to play these songs in Bernie’s living room, they’d become time-worn standards. Which means these songs are close to 80 years old today. Some of the songs that Lonnie sings here are enduring expressions of tenderness and yearning. These are the songs that my grandmother knew by heart. They are the songs my own parents danced to when they were young and courting, becoming some of their favorites. As a result, the songs are familiar faces to me and made me think of my own family, allowing me to be a little lonely for them all, missing them as I remembered them each in the fondest way.

In My Solitude
I’m Confessing (That I Love You)
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

When the last song ended, I wondered how many songs have been written this year that people will remember, much less want to sing 50, not to say 80 years from now.

Here is home music at its finest, recorded on crude equipment in a friend’s living room. Lonnie comes across as a rather shy man, who obviously relished the warmth of family life. A child rushes into the room excited by the goings on and shouts out for Daddy’s attention while the song keeps rolling. Reel to reel tapes that are momentarily chewed going through the rollers of the tape head, half a bar is garbled and distorted. Other precious moments, someone listening in the room can’t contain himself, snaps his teeth and mutters approvingly, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.” A burst of laughter at a good verse. When Lonnie sings a line in his own “New Orleans Blues,” somebody responds, “Yeah. You ain’t there any more.”

The cover picture says it all, Lonnie holding his guitar while sitting at the edge of a chair, tapping his foot and wearing cozy leather house slippers. Inside the cd jacket, once you slip out the disc is a photograph of Lonnie playing onstage. He inscribed the photo with a loving message to the family who finally found him and made him their own, “God Bless Mr. and Mrs. Strassberg from your Lonely Little Boy, Lonnie Johnson.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/johnsonlonnie-unsung/