Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson (February 8, 1899 – June 16, 1970) was an American blues and jazz singer/guitarist and songwriter who pioneered the role of jazz guitar and is recognized as the first to play single-string guitar solos.
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 on 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.
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" and many of his early recordings showed him playing 12-string guitar solos in a style that influenced such future jazz guitarists as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and gave the instrument new meaning as a jazz voice. He excelled in purely instrumental pieces, some of which he recorded with the white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, whom he teamed up with in 1929. These recordings were among the first in history to feature black and white musicians performing together, but Lang was credited as Blind Willie Dunn to disguise the fact.
Much of Johnson's music featured experimental improvisations that would now be categorised as jazz rather than blues. According to blues historian Gérard Herzhaft, Johnson was "undeniably the creator of the guitar solo played note by note with a pick, which has become the standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock". Johnson's style reached both the Delta bluesmen and urban players who would adapt and develop his one string solos into the modern electric blues style. However, writer Elijah Wald has noted 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. He recorded 34 tracks for Bluebird over the next five years, including the hits "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" and "In Love Again".
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 1965, he landed a series of dates in Toronto, Canada, and decided to stay there, opening his own club, Home of the Blues, in 1966. Throughout the decade he recorded and played local clubs in Canada as well as embarking on several regional tours.
He died in Toronto on June 16, 1970, of complications resulting from a 1969 auto accident.
Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame in 1997.
Lonnie Johnson is featured in the Film "Who Do You Love", starring Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelow, Chi McBride and new comer TJ Hassan as Lonnie Johnson. The film is directed by Jerry Zaks. The film features Lonnie Johnson as one of the first guitarists approached by Leonard Chess to play with Andrew Tibbs in recording sessions. The film is scheduled for release in 2009
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.