Lonnie Johnson biography



Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson (February 8, 1899 Johnson was the only one of the classic 1920's blues artists to have a revived high charting career after WWII. Early careerJohnson was born in Orleans Parish, New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in a family of musicians. He studied violin, piano and guitar as a child, and learned to play various other instruments including the mandolin, but concentrated on the guitar throughout his professional career. "There was music all around us," he recalled, "and in my family you'd better play something, even if you just banged on a tin can." By his late teens, he played guitar and violin in his father's family band at banquets and weddings, alongside his brother James "Steady Roll" Johnson. He also worked with jazz trumpeter Punch Miller in the city's Storyville district. In 1917, Johnson joined a revue that toured England, returning home in 1919 to find that all of his family, except his brother James, had died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. He and his brother settled in St. Louis in 1921. The two brothers performed as a duo, and Lonnie also worked on riverboats, working in the orchestras of Charlie Creath and Fate Marable. In 1925 Lonnie married Mary Smith (i.e. Mary Johnson, a blues singer in her own right, who recorded from 1929 until 1936 - curiously enough never with Lonnie Johnson), with whom he had six children before their divorce in 1932. Success in the 1920s and 1930s In 1925, Johnson entered and won a blues contest at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis, the prize being a recording contract with Okeh Records. In 1927, Johnson recorded in Chicago as a guest artist with Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, paired with banjoist Johnny St. Cyr. In 1928 he recorded with Duke Ellington, as well as with a group, The Chocolate Dandies. He pioneered the guitar solo on the 1927 track "6/88 Glide" Much of Johnson's music featured experimental improvisations that would now be categorised as jazz rather than blues. According to blues historian GĂ©rard Herzhaft, has written that, in the 1920s and 1930s, Johnson was best known as a sophisticated and urbane singer rather than an instrumentalist - "Of the forty ads for his records that appeared in the 'Chicago Defender' between 1926 and 1931, not one even mentioned that he played guitar." Johnson's compositions often depicted the social conditions confronting urban African Americans ("Racketeers' Blues", "Hard Times Ain't Gone Nowhere", "Fine Booze and Heavy Dues"). In his lyrics he captured the nuances of male-female love relationships in a way that went beyond Tin Pan Alley sentimentalism. His songs displayed an ability to understand the heartaches of others that Johnson saw as the essence of his blues. After touring with Bessie Smith in 1929, Johnson moved to Chicago, and recorded for Okeh with stride pianist James P. Johnson. However, with the temporary demise of the recording industry in the Great Depression, Johnson was compelled to make a living outside music, working at one point in a steel mill in Peoria, Illinois. In 1932 he moved again to Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived for the rest of the decade. There, he played intermittently with the band of vocalist and singer Putney Dandridge, and performed on radio programs. By the late 1930s, however, he was recording and performing in Chicago for Decca Records, working with Roosevelt Sykes and Blind John Davis among others. In 1939, during a session for the Bluebird label with pianist Joshua Altheimer, Johnson used an electric guitar for the first time. Later career Lonnie Johnson in 1960 After World War II, Johnson made the transition to rhythm and blues, recording for King Records in Cincinnati, and having a major hit in 1948 with "Tomorrow Night", written by Sam Coslow and Will Grosz. This topped the Billboard "Race Records" chart for 7 weeks, also made # 19 on the pop charts, and had reported sales of three million copies. In 1952 Johnson toured England. Tony Donegan, a British musician who played on the same bill, paid tribute to Johnson by changing his name to Lonnie Donegan. After returning to the U.S., Johnson moved to Philadelphia. His career had been a roller coaster ride that sometimes took him away from music. In between great musical accomplishments, he had found it necessary to take menial jobs that ranged from working in a steel foundry to mopping floors as a janitor. He gradually dropped out of music again in the 1950s, and took menial janitorial jobs; he was working at Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Hotel in 1959 when WHAT-FM disc jockey Chris Albertson happened upon him and produced a comeback album, for the Prestige Bluesville Records label, Blues by Lonnie Johnson. This was followed by other Prestige albums, including one with former Ellington boss, Elmer Snowden, who had helped Albertson locate Johnson. There followed a Chicago engagement for Johnson at the Playboy Club and this succession of events placed him back on the music scene at a fortuitous time: young audiences were embracing folk music and many veteran performers were stepping out of obscurity. In short order, Lonnie Johnson found himself reunited with Duke Ellington and his orchestra and appearing as special guest at an all-star folk concert, both at Town Hall, New York City. In 1961, Johnson was reunited with his old Okeh recording partner, Victoria Spivey, for another Prestige album, Idle Hours, and the two singers performed at Gerdes Folk City. In 1963 he toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival show, with Muddy Waters and others, and recorded an album with Otis Spann in Denmark. In May 1965, he performed at a club in Toronto before an audience of four people. In March 1969, he was hit by a car while walking on a sidewalk in Toronto. In 1993, Smithsonian Folkways released The Complete Folkways Recordings, Johnson's anthology of music on Folkways Records. He had been featured on several compilation blues albums, on Folkways, beginning in the 1960s, but had never released a solo album on the label in his lifetime. Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame in 1997. Biopic depiction Lonnie Johnson is featured as a character in the Film Who Do You Love? (2008 film), starring Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelow, Chi McBride and TJ Hassan as Johnson. The film was directed by Jerry Zaks. Influence One of Elvis Presley's earliest recordings was Johnson's blues ballad, "Tomorrow Night" written by Sam Coslow and Will Grosz, which was also recorded by LaVern Baker. In 1957, it was also recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis. In the liner notes for Biograph, Dylan describes his encounters with Johnson in New York City. "I was lucky to meet Lonnie Johnson at the same club I was working and I must say he greatly influenced me. You can hear it in that first record. I mean Corrina, Corrina...that's pretty much Lonnie Johnson. I used to watch him every chance I got and sometimes he'd let me play with him. I think he and Tampa Red and of course Scrapper Blackwell, that's my favorite style of guitar playing." Also, Bob Dylan wrote about the performing method he learned from Robert Johnson in Chronicles, Vol. 1. Dylan thinks Robert Johnson had learned a lot from Lonnie. Also some of Robert's songs are seen as new versions of songs recorded by Lonnie.