Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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JOHNSON, Lonnie

(b Alonzo Johnson, 8 February 1899(?), New Orleans; d 16 June 1970, Toronto) Guitarist, vocalist; also played violin and piano. Gigged locally with his brother, James 'Steady Roll' Johnson; went to Europe c'1917, thought to have toured with Will Marion Cook; returned to USA to find that flu epidemic '18-19 had killed most of his family. He worked outside music early '20s, but still gigging; c'1925 he won a talent contest organized by OKeh Records, joined staff until '32: in this capacity recorded with Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven '27, several records with Duke Ellington '28, the Chocolate Dandies '28 (led by Don Redman; Johnson plays a lovely solo on one of the first recordings of 'Stardust' when it was still called 'Star Dust'); Armstrong with Luis Russell band '29; also recorded duets with Eddie Lang '28-9 (Lang sometimes called 'Blind Willie Dunn').

Johnson's own records on OKeh (also Gennett '27, Columbia '31-2) began '25 with Charles Creath's Jazz-O-Maniacs, continued with nearly 100 sides, including blues and hokum, many accompanied by just his guitar, others with accompaniment or vocal duet by Spencer Williams, Clarence Williams, James P. Johnson, J. C. Johnson (b 14 September 1896, Chicago; d 27 February 1981, NYC; later a civic leader in Harlem); Lonnie also used pseudonyms Jimmy Jordan, Bud Wilson, George Jefferson, also recorded duets with Clara Smith and Victoria Spivey. He moved to Cleveland '32, worked in factories by day; to Chicago and recorded on Decca '37-8 (16 sides, some with Roosevelt Sykes; also with Jimmie Noone, Johnny and Baby Dodds '40), on Bluebird '39-42 with piano and bass; etc. He worked club dates, released many singles late '40s, finally made the R&B chart '50 with 'Confused' on King. (But he apparently resisted being typecast as a bluesman; he complained in later years about fans 'trying to shove a crutch under my ass.')

He played a concert in London '52, worked as a chef in Philadelphia c'1960, made albums Blues By Lonnie Johnson, Blues And Ballads with Elmer Snowden, Idle Hours with Spivey, Losing Game (all on Prestige/Bluesway, later on Fantasy CDs); he appeared in NYC with Ellington, toured Europe with a blues package, LP Tomorrow Night In Copenhagen on Storyville, all '63. He was working in Toronto in the late '60s. Compilations It Feels So Good on Queen Disc (OKeh sides '27-30), He's A Jelly Roll Baker on Bluebird, Steppin' On The Blues on Columbia Legacy, Complete Folkways Recordings from '67.