AKA born: Alonzo Johnson
BORN Feb 8, 1899 in New Orleans, LA
DIED Jun 16, 1970 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
YEARS ACTIVE 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s
STYLES United States of America, Piedmont Blues, Prewar Country Blues, Country Blues, Jazz Blues, Classic Jazz, Acoustic Blues, Blues
INSTRUMENTS Vocals, Violin, Guitar, Guitar (Acoustic)
TONES Freewheeling, Joyous, Refined/Mannered, Happy, Cheerful, Stylish, Sophisticated, Elegant, Carefree
LABELS Document (12), Bluesville (7), Storyville (3), Smithsonian/Folkways (3), King(2), Columbia/Legacy (2)


Blues guitar simply would not have developed in the manner that it did if not for the prolific brilliance of Lonnie Johnson. He was there to help define the instrument's future within the genre and the genre's future itself at the very beginning, his melodic conception so far advanced from most of his pre-ware peers as to inhabit a plane all his own. For more than 40 years, Johnson played blues, jazz, and ballads his way; he was a true blues originator whose influence hung heavy on a host of subsequent blues immortals.


Lonnie Johnson (on right)

Johnson's extreme versatility doubtless stemmed in great part from growing up in the musically diverse Crescent City. Violin caught his ear initially, but he eventually made the guitar his passion, developing a style so fluid and inexorably melodic that instrumental backing seemed superfluous. He signed up with OKeh Records in 1925 and commenced to recording at an astonishing pace-- between 1925 and 1932, he cut an estimated 130 waxings. The red-hot duets he recorded with White jazz guitarist Eddie Lang (masquerading as Blind Willie Dunn) in 1928-29 were utterly groundbreaking in their ceaseless invention. Johnson also recorded pioneering jazz efforts in 1927 with no less than Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Duke Ellington's orchestra.

After enduring the Depression and moving to Chicago, Johnson came back to recording life with Bluebird for a five-year stint beginning in 1939. Under the ubiquitous Lester Melrose's supervision, Johnson picked up right where he left off, selling quite a few copies of "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" for old Nipper. Johnson went with Cincinnati-based King Records in 1947 and promptly enjoyed one of the biggest hits of his uncommonly long career with the mellow ballad "Tomorrow Night," which topped the R&B charts for seven weeks in 1948. More hits followed posthaste: "Pleasing You (As Long as I Live)," "So Tired," and "Confused."

Time seemed to have passed Johnson by during the late '50s. He was toiling as a hotel janitor in Philadelphia when banjo player Elmer Snowden altered Chris Albertson to his whereabouts. That rekindled a major comeback, Johnson cutting a series of albums for Prestige's Bluesville subsidiary during the early '60s and venturing to Europe under the auspices of Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau's American Folk Blues Festival banner in 1963. Finally, in 1969, Johnson was hit by a car in Toronto and died a year later from the effects of the accident.

Johnson's influence was massive, touching everyone from Robert Johnson, whose seminal approach bore strong resemblance to that of his older namesake, to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who each paid heartfelt tribute with versions of "Tomorrow Night" while at Sun.

--Bill Dahl


1939 He's a Jelly Roll Baker Bluebird
1958 Lonesome Road King
1960 Blues by Lonnie Johnson Bluesville
1960 Blues & Ballads Bluesville
1960 Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 Bluesville
1960 Losing Game Bluesville
1961 Idle Hours Bluesville
1962 Another Night to Cry Bluesville
1965 Stompin' at the Penny Columbia/Legac
1965 Woman Blues Bluesville
1965 Sings 24 Twelve Bar Blues King
1974 Lonnie Johnson Storyville
1976 Tomorrow Night Gusto
1977 Bluebird No. 13 RCA
1977 Mr. Johnson's Blues Mamush
1980 The Originator of Modern Guitar Blues Blues Boy
1981 It Feels Good Queendisc
1983 Blues Roots, Vol. 8 (Swingin' with Lonnie) Storyville
1990 Steppin' on the Blues Columbia/Legac
1991 Blues Masters Storyville
1991 Me & My Crazy Self Charly
1995 Blues in My Fingers Indigo
The Blues of Lonnie Johnson Swaggie
Playing with the strings JSP



Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days is a radio series aired on KGNU 88.5 FM at 8:00 pm MST on the third Monday of every month. It is a powerful series creating awareness of the role Blacks played in creating social changes. In addition the series will be live on 89.1 FM in Ft. Collins, 93.7 FM Ward and KGNU.org. The series is a 2 time winner of the "Scribes In Excellence Award" presented by the Colorado Association of Black Journalist judged by a national panel. Destination Freedom/Black Radio Days profiles the lives of African American Heroes and Sheroes and is sponsored by BlackRadioDays.com, Black and Read Books and Tapes (303) 467-3236, and The Urban Spectrum.

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