Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Genius of Lonnie Johnson - Hot Fingers

Lonnie Johnson a native a New Orleans, who first recorded in 1925, was a guitar legend long before we knew what they were. He was a man with Hot Fingers, which was also the title of one of his great recordings. This was no country boy, found on a scouting trip by some record company employee, but a man who oozed urban sophistication. Lonnie Johnson first recorded as a member of Charles Creath’s Jazz O-Maniacs on November 2nd 1925. Two days later he recorded two solo sides with John Arnold on piano, one of which was Mr Johnson’s Blues. This was not only a great piece of self-promotion, but also demonstrated Lonnie’s superb guitar playing. You can trace his playing style in a direct line through T-Bone Walker and B.B King to Eric Clapton. While the British skiffle pioneer, Lonnie Donegan, even borrowed Johnson’s name. Lonnie Johnson was both sensitive and sophisticated, but most of all he could swing.

Lonnie was a prodigious solo artist recording around 130 blues sides between 1925 and 1932. He was also in-demand as a session player, effectively acting as OKeh’s in-house guitarist. Amongst the many people he worked with were, Clara Smith), Texas Alexander and Victoria Spivey. Lonnie’s jazz recordings are equally brilliant: he worked with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as Eddie Lang, the white guitarist from Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. Their duets, like 1929’s Guitar Blues are defining moments in the history of the jazz guitar. As Duke Ellington proclaimed, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing” – Guitar Blues certainly does. As well as his guitar duets with Eddie Lang, Johnson cut some exquisite solo guitar sides like Away Down In The Alley.

Lonnie was one of the few Blues artists to record after the attack on Pearl Harbour and before the war ended. He’s A Jellyroll Baker was cut in Chicago with Blind John Davis on 13th February 1942. In 1917 Lonnie had travelled to London and Europe as part of a musical group and he returned 46 years later as part of the 1963 Second American Folk Blues Festival. He had lost none of his touch; his playing was as elegant as ever. I have a recording from that tour where he sings and plays Careless Love, it’s one of my favourite blues recordings – rippling guitar and his lovely voice. Nearly 40 years after his recorded debut he was still able to inspire awe amongst both audiences and other performers, as he delicately let his guitar do the talking. Others on the tour, like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams, must have been as impressed as Robert Johnson had been back in the 1930s. For Lonnie was one of the younger Johnson’s heroes. In 1969 he was hit by a car in Toronto and died a year later of complications arising from the accident.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Mister Havers. Must get my son to record from the vinyl (he inherited from me) onto a CD so that I can listen to his music again.