Acknowledged by both BB King and Bob Dylan as a major influence (the former commenting that he was “way ahead of his time”), guitarist Lonnie Johnson made hundreds of recordings and performed countless shows in a career spanning over 60 years. He died today in 1970.
Musician Alonzo Johnson aka Lonnie Johnson died at the age of 80. Learning his musical trade in the notorious Storyville district of his native New Orleans, Lonnie moved from playing guitar in a group with his father and brother to duets with trumpeter Punch Miller.
Joining the Southern Syncopated Orchestra led by Will Marion Cook – also featuring a young clarinetist by the name of Sidney Bechet – Johnson journeyed by liner to Liverpool in 1917 and played concerts in England, featuring on both guitar and violin.
Moving on to St.Louis, Lonnie played on riverboats based in St. Louis with Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs and Fate Marable’s band. Performing regularly on dry land, 1925 saw him win a talent show with a prize of a studio session for the Okeh label.
That came days after his first experience of recording with the Jazz-O-Maniacs and Lonnie soon became an Okeh house musician. Continuing to record in his own name and alongside other artists including Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five’s, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Bessie Smith, he became renowned for both his jazz and blues playing.
Enjoying success with fellow guitarist Eddie Lang, the 1930s saw Lonnie relocate to Cleveland, later forming his own trio and recording for Decca and Bluebird – taking jobs in steel mills and rubber factories when bookings dried up.
His biggest hit came in 1948 with the ballad “Tomorrow Night” (later recorded by Elvis), but Lonnie’s popularity dipped and he was working as a janitor before the folk blues movement saw him make a comeback. Part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour of the UK (although adamant that he was a city blues player, not country), he also visited Denmark and Germany.
A native of Toronto from 1965, Lonnie opened a club and appeared regularly before suffering a succession of strokes in the late 1960s. Accompanied by Buddy Guy, he played what was to be his final show at Toronto’s Massey Hall, shortly before his death.
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And here’s some footage of Lonnie in action: