It was a lucky break that The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Dan DeLuca did a column about a new CD in tribute to the pioneering guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Here is some of the piece:
“I honestly do not think there was anyone else who crossed the line between being an idiomatic blues musician who was able to master the vocabulary of jazz like Lonnie Johnson did,” says Aaron Luis Levinson, the Grammy-winning Philadelphia producer who helmed Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson (Range Records). “He was a unique figure in that he was able to live in two different worlds. Here’s a guy who was playing rural blues music in the 1920s, who also played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.”
….But that’s getting ahead of our story. Before Johnson could be rediscovered in time for the 1960s blues revival, he had been famous – and forgotten – more than once in a career that, as Levinson puts it, qualifies him as a sort of “musical Zelig.”
To read all of DeLuca’s column about Johnson’s several comebacks and rediscoveries, go here.
Why did I call finding the column a lucky break? Because it is a reason to give you links to complete performances by Johnson, beginning with “Hotter Than That”, from 1927. In Johnson’s exchanges with Louis Armstrong’s horn and voice, you’ll hear some of the first single-string guitar improvisation in recorded jazz.
Johnson made several records with Eddie Lang, another guitar hero; a black man and a white man blazing trails in music and in interracial recording. Listen to them play “Deep Rhythm Minor Stomp.” This is 1929.
For a third sample of Johson’s riveting acoustic guitar playing, this time with one of the blues vocals that made him a hit with the record-buying public, click here and listen to “Cat You Been Messin’ Around” from 1932. His guitar solos are as gripping as the song’s story. You can hear more of Lonnie Johnson’s recordings if you visit his page at the Red Hot Jazz Archive. You will find several CD collections of his recordings at this site.
There was linear jazz improvisation on the guitar before Charlie Christian, and Johnson was its early master.