Friday, May 15, 2009

Lonnie Johnson: An American Treasure

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson’s creativity on American music. Johnson is a transcendent figure from the inception of the recording industry whose proficiency in jazz and blues idioms and unique guitar style make him a transitional bridge artist between rural traditions and urban recordings. Johnson’s early recording association with legendary jazz figures such as Duke Ellington, Eddie Lang and Louis Armstrong along with his activity in the 1920’s St. Louis blues scene alongside Roosevelt Sykes, Henry Townsend and Walter Davis established his early reputation that seems to grow in stature with time. Together with his contemporaries Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, Johnson embodies the epitome of blues guiatar before the onset of the post- war amplified sound. His prolific recording career with Bluebird and Okeh records in the 1920's and 1930's are a priceless component of American roots music history.

Johnson earliest recordings demonstrate his preference for duets with piano players. His Blackbird Blues from the mid 1920's popularizes the duet format later heard in the recordings of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. Johnson's 1930 recording of "Long Black Train" foregrounds his prowess as a soloist, his execution is flawless, combining traditional blues phrasing with jazz like chords in between. The improved sound quality of his later recording "The Loveless Blues" allows fuller appreciation of his guitar prowess and vocals that were popular among white and black audiences alike as the popularity of radio programs increased through the 1930's and 40's. Johnson's remarkable rendition of "Tomorrow Night" assumes a ballad like quality which undoubtedly had crossover appeal. Elvis was deeply moved by Johnson's "Tomorrow Night" and sang it long before his rise to fame according to Peter Guralnick in his magnificent biography of Presley "Last Train to Memphis."

The eclecticism of Johnson’s guitar style is evident in the way he incorporates wonderfully clean jazz based single note runs into a blues composition. "Another Night to Cry" is a perfect example of this precise fluidity which was to influence later guitarists like T- Bone Walker, Magic Sam and Otis Rush.

Like many of the innovative blues players, Lonnie Johnson's legacy still resonates today in the contemporary guitarists who tribute his unique techniques. Roots guitar ace Stefan Grossman offers an excellent tribute to Johnson here. Another excellent contemporary tribute to Lonnie's style by "Daddystovepipe" can be heard here. Both players really capture the dynamics of Johnson's style in remarkable fashion.


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  2. My version of Untitled by Lonnie Johnson: