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The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, Music and Civil Rights

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Lonnie Johnson (1894_1970) was a virtuoso guitarist who influenced generations of musicians from Django Reinhardt to Eric Clapton to Bill Wyman and especially B. B. King. Born in New Orleans, he began playing violin and guitar in his fatherØ­s band at an early age. When most of his family was wiped out by the 1918 flu epidemic, he and his surviving brother moved to St. Louis, where he won a blues contest that included a recording contract. His career was launched. Johnson can be heard on many Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong records, including the latter'­s famous Savoy Blues with the Hot Five

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12 Chapters

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1. The Legendary Lonnie Johnson—One of the Most Important Musicians of the 20th Century; Musicians and Progress on Civil Rights



The Legendary Lonnie Johnson—One of the Most Important Musicians of the 20th Century


Although he’s not well known today, Lonnie Johnson was one of the century’s most important musicians. His story is of major musical and cultural significance; and it’s a fascinating and inspiring tale in its personal elements.

When you mention guitar, the first thing I think of is Lonnie Johnson.”

—B. B. King.1

In The Guitar Players, James Sallis put Johnson in proper company: “Lonnie Johnson probably should be as well known as Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong; his artistry is at that level. . . . His touch, the expressiveness he achieved on the instrument, was a revelation in his time and still affords a rich and rare harvest to guitarists.”2

Former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman (a serious student of blues history), in his well-presented book Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey, pointed out Lonnie’s pioneering significance: “He was a guitar legend before we knew what they were. You can trace his playing style in a direct line through T-Bone Walker and B. B. King to Eric Clapton.”3 The legendary Lonnie J was the Original Guitar Hero.4


2. New Orleans Music



New Orleans Music

The Original Music City

Seemingly from every direction in the city, the clarion call of cornets and siren song of clarinets, the sliding, punchy blare of trombones and pounding beat of drums, the strum of guitars and thrum and ricky-tick of banjos poured forth.

In New Orleans from the 1890s through the teens of the twentieth century, music wasn’t just appreciated and plentiful in entertainment venues, it was a pervasive presence; it colored and gave verve and rhythm to daily activities and was woven into the very fabric of life. Danny Barker, jazz guitarist born there in 1909, reported that “the city was full of the sounds of music” in those years.1

As jazz historian James Lincoln Collier points out, “By 1890, New Orleans was a city filled with a rich diversity of musical forms”—from multiple opera houses to symphonies and chamber music groups to a sizable number of “orchestras,” bands, duos and trios playing a wide variety of popular music. An interesting illustration of this is found in volume one of the historic Jelly Roll Morton recordings made with Alan Lomax in 1938 for the Library of Congress. One of the prime “Founding Fathers of Jazz,” Jelly demonstrates how, in New Orleans, an old French quadrille was transformed into the early ragtime, then jazz piece, “Tiger Rag.” He also plays his version of Verdi’s “Miserere.” Research has found that the city had actually “been drenched in music and dancing for nearly two centuries,” with its French and some Spanish history and unique mix of people and races. It’s also worth noting that early on the city’s culture produced the first American to become internationally recognized as both a pianist and composer in the realm of classical music: Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was born in New Orleans in May 1829. Gottschalk’s compositions also “represent one of the first attempts to introduce native popular and folk music into art music,” most notably in “Bamboula,” “Ballade Creole” and “Chanson Negre.”2


3. St. Louis Blues



St. Louis Blues


As New Orleans is located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, at a key juncture for travel, St. Louis is the major river city midway up the Mississippi, and in the period of rapid American expansion in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the Gateway City to the West. By 1910, it was the fourth largest city in the nation.

New Orleans, with its unique cultural heritage, provided the genesis of the startling new music, jazz, as well as being an early source and site of the development of the blues. Chicago, Memphis, and New York have been the other American cities most celebrated for being central to the development of blues (Chicago and Memphis) and jazz (Chicago and New York). All too forgotten or ignored is the very significant role St. Louis played in the history of blues and jazz—and, with Chuck Berry, in the genesis of Rock & Roll. Those developments and other evidence offer strong reasons to conclude that the main early corridor of the blues was the Mississippi River, from New Orleans along the Mississippi Delta area up to Memphis and St. Louis. Kevin Belford has given us a book beautifully illustrated by himself on the St. Louis musical heritage, Devil at the Confluence, which focuses on the blues, but does a fine job of setting the general historic music scene for the Gateway City. As he points out: “St. Louis’ advantage was its unique location for the merging of the old and new, the urban and the rural, the north and the south.”1


4. Playing with the Strings, Part 1



Playing with the Strings, Part 1

Lonnie Johnson was one of the transcendent people who influenced everybody.”1

—Ry Cooder

1926 and the Launch of Lonnie Johnson, Recording Artist

In early January 1926 the OKeh label released the 78 record of the new recording artist Lonnie Johnson, playing guitar and singing “Mr. Johnson’s Blues” on the “A” side, and on the “B” side playing violin and singing “Falling Rain Blues,” both accompanied by John Arnold on piano. The record was a hit. OKeh Records had Lonnie make 26 more record “sides” that year. The final side Lonnie made in 1926, in August 14, was his first solo guitar instrumental, “To Do This, You Got to Know How.” It was such an appropriate title; Lonnie was already showing that he “knew how” to play the guitar better than anyone else in popular music, and was putting that extraordinary technical skill in the service of a rich and creative musical sensibility.

After some historical perspective, I begin by discussing the guitar in music. Chapters 4 and 5 are especially focused on the recordings. It was Lonnie Johnson’s records during this time that had a huge impact on 20th century music.


5. Playing with the Strings, Part 2



Playing with the Strings, Part 2

Me, hearing what I heard Lonnie play, I know even today, a lot of it I can’t play. And I don’t hear anybody else playin’ some of the things he played. The man was way ahead of his time.”1

—B. B. King

In a special 2003 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, the editors compiled their “100 Greatest Guitarists” list. (There is much that is debatable in that list, including the lack of any specified criteria or parameters for who was considered; but the following comments are appropriate.) In ranking B. B. King as the third greatest guitarist, they said, “[he] has become such a beloved figure, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary his guitar work was. From the opening notes of his 1951 breakthrough hit ‘Three O’Clock Blues,’ you can hear his original and passionate style, juicing the country blues with electric fire and jazz polish.”2 That was well stated. Indeed, B. B. King is universally considered one of the great guitarists of the century in all of popular music. Thus, the observation by him in the epigraph above is a remarkable testament to the level of guitar virtuosity Lonnie Johnson had attained by the late 1920s.


6. Workin’ Man; Chicago Blues



Workin’ Man; Chicago Blues


Resuming the Personal Story

Almost certainly Lonnie moved to the East Coast from Texas in fall 1929. The 1930 U.S. Census lists a “Lony Johnson” (I’ve seen that misspelling of his name elsewhere) residing in Philadelphia. He’s listed as born in New Orleans, both of his parents as born in New Orleans (a significant find itself, if the census worker got that right), and his occupation is listed as “performer” in “Vaudeville-Stage”; this is surely our man. The age listing is wrong—39—but not far off; Lonnie would have been 36 at the time.

Actually, this location makes sense, since Lonnie was first introduced to Philadelphia at the beginning of his work in the TOBA vaudeville theater circuit back around 1922. It would appear that he found the city to his liking and/or hooked up with some special people, since he came back in fall 1929 and took up residence there (as he did again in the 1950s). My best guess is that he actually went to Philadelphia before he went to New York; in Lonnie’s one statement about this in interviews, he simply said, “I left Beaumont, Texas, and come East.”1 He probably also decided to use the familiar Philly as his home base in fall 1929 through the first two or three months of 1930 because he was mostly touring with Bessie Smith’s show during that specific period.


7. Rhythm & Blues



Rhythm & Blues

Rhythm & Blues—And the First Rock & Roll Record?

The Blues Collection reissue label put out two CDs of Lonnie’s recordings from 1937 to 1952. They were titled, Lonnie Johnson: The Rhythm & Blues Years. This was appropriate because Lonnie moved with the times, amped up many recordings, intensified the rhythm in his music in the 1940s, and contributed to the Rhythm & Blues era—though his most famous recording in this period was a ballad. (The term “Rhythm & Blues” was actually initiated in Billboard magazine in 1949 to move beyond the old “race records” label, but the musical genre that the new term denoted and better characterized was underway by the early 1940s.)

As Mark Humphrey pointed out: “Johnson updated fluidly without compromising his musical personality, and this, even more than his virtuosity and influence as a guitarist, may be the quality that makes him one of the truly heroic figures of the blues.”1


8. Blues Revival in the ’60s: Comeback Again



Blues Revival in the ’60s: Comeback Again


Lonnie Johnson’s situation in the later 1950s was well described in liner notes to his first comeback album in 1960: “Lonnie’s slip into obscurity was so complete this time that many persons thought he was dead.” Alternatively, one writer claimed he had seen Lonnie down and out in Chicago in 1958. Indeed, Lonnie commented, “I’ve been dead four or five times. But I always came back. . . . I always knew that someday, somehow, somebody would find me.”1

In late 1959 Lonnie was working as a janitor in the Ben Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia. Chris Albertson (who had come to the U.S. from Denmark not too long before) “rediscovered” him, which led to what amounted to his third comeback. Albertson subsequently became a respected jazz record producer and author of the definitive biography of Bessie Smith. At the time, however, he was a DJ at jazz radio station WHAT in Philadelphia. (In an interview, Chris said, “The woman who owned the station was rather strange. The FM station was all White [music] and the AM station was all Black. And she had a white dog named FM and a black dog named AM.”2) In my interview with Albertson, I asked him how the rediscovery happened:


9. The Legacy of Lonnie J: The Guitar in 20th Century Music



The Legacy of Lonnie J: The Guitar in Twentieth-Century Music

The Metro Stompers and the Old Man

In June 1965, Jim McHarg, the leader of a fine Dixieland jazz band in Toronto, had a good idea. He was aware of Lonnie Johnson’s past accomplishments in blues and jazz, as well as his origins in New Orleans, and he thought he’d bring Lonnie in to play with them; so, McHarg made arrangements for him to come up for a gig. On June 21 he and John McHugh, owner of the well-known Penny Farthing coffeehouse in the Yorkville area of Toronto where they would play, went to the bus station “to meet a 65-year old guitar-playing blues singer. I had sold John on the idea of booking this old timer for a two-week engagement.” But McHarg wondered, “How would this . . . old man, a star from another era, compete with blaring Rock ‘n’ Roll, the good-looking young folk singers,” and so on in that hip area of Toronto in the mid-1960s?

Well, Lonnie Johnson, who was actually 71 years old, not 65, came in and dazzled the audience and led that traditional jazz band to heights they had probably never before reached in making music; it was the young Canadian musicians who had to strive to keep up with that “old man” in vigor and musical creation—as can be heard on the fine album they made later, Lonnie Johnson: Stompin’ at the Penny, with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers, as the Columbia release was titled. (The LP was recorded in Toronto and was originally released by Columbia’s Canadian subsidiary essentially as a Toronto regional record, titled: Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers featuring Lonnie Johnson. Lawrence Cohn recognized the significance of this album and arranged for its release in the main Columbia Roots & Blues series. Cohn and Columbia were sued by McHarg for changing the original title, which was settled out of court; but the album would have been long forgotten without the presence of Lonnie Johnson.)


Appendix I: Lyrics to Alger tribute song: “The Legendary Lonnie J”


Appendix I


Song in tribute to Lonnie Johnson by Dean Alger

ToE music he was born

Greatest Aguitar in those days

In B7both blues & jazz

The Elegendary Lonnie J

He came from New Orleans

Went up St. Louis way

Then on to Chicago

The legendary Lonnie J

With Satch and the Duke

Hot guitar he played

With Bessie and others too

The legendary Lonnie J


Django to Charlie Christian

Robert Johnson to BB King

Learned great jazz & blues

When Lonnie would play & sing

Yes and then Rock & Roll

Rocked on night and day

And they all drew on

The legendary Lonnie J

He influenced them so

One and all just the same

Indeed he did, and

Lonnie Johnson was his name.



Appendix II: Blues, Jazz, and Their Significance; Musicians and Civil Rights and Alger’s review of Sidney Bechet’s instrumental recording of “Strange Fruit”


Appendix II


As was introduced in chapter 1, the powerful, evocative nature and sociological significance of blues and jazz were profound factors in the evolution of the self-image of African-Americans and had, through major Black musicians and some White ones, an increasing impact on their standing in the broader society and progress on Civil Rights. This appendix more fully presents my own vision on the subject, and it casts the net more broadly than the material in chapter 1, looking beyond the primary focus on Lonnie Johnson to wider developments in music and Civil Rights.

The winding road to fully realizing democratic citizenship for all Americans was manifest in such significant detours as the 1896 Supreme Court decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional; but the ruling effectively affirmed African-Americans as unequal and further legitimized segregation. Jazz writer Charles Edward Smith connected blues music with the decision: “Blues had emerged from the welter of Negro folk music most forcefully by the 1890s, providing another Minority Opinion than that of Justice Harlan in Plessy v. Ferguson . . . For it was the cry of a people, as well as a song or a way of singing it.”1


Appendix III: Guide to Recordings by Lonnie Johnson and Relevant Others


Appendix III


Lonnie Johnson on CD

Special companion CD to this book, compiled by Dean Alger:

The Ultimate Best of Lonnie Johnson (2012, record company arrangements pending). The first 7 tracks are accessible masterpieces spanning Lonnie’s career, then the rest are important recordings arranged in chronological order; all are specifically cited and reviewed in the book.

Other principal Lonnie Johnson CDs:

Lonnie Johnson: Steppin’ on the Blues, Columbia. Columbia-selected best of Lonnie Johnson’s recordings from 1925 to 1932 on OKeh Records.

Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson: Blue Guitars, Volumes I & II, BGO Records double CD (see; doesn’t seem to be available on, with all 10 of the Lang-Johnson guitar duets and other recordings with Louis Armstrong, Texas Alexander, etc. A wonderful CD!



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