Lonnie Johnson Biography

Guitarist, Songwriter, Singer (c. 1899–1970)
Lonnie Johnson was a musician, singer and songwriter, and one of the first major blues and jazz guitarists. His innovative style has influenced many blues, jazz and rock musicians.


Lonnie Johnson did much of his major work from 1925 to 1932. He was among the first guitarists to play single-string solos, and his energy, swing, melodic ingenuity and good taste were important elements in recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Johnson's roller-coaster career spanned several decades before he died of injuries sustained after being hit by a car.

Early Years

Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson was born on February 8, 1899 in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a musical family. By his late teens, he displayed exceptional musical versatility, playing violin and, later, guitar in a family band. In 1917, Johnson joined a musical review that toured England. He returned in 1919 to find his entire family had succumbed to the flu epidemic of 1918. Only his brother, James "Steady Roll" Johnson, had survived.

In 1921, Johnson traveled to St. Louis with his brother, and over the next two years, performed on riverboat steamers with trumpeter Charlie Creath and pianist Fate Marable. During that time, he performed on the Vaudeville circuit with a wide range of musical acts. Johnson developed an innovative musical style that was both fluid and melodic, complimenting the backup instrumentation, but clearly setting him apart from other musicians.

In 1925, Johnson won a blues contest that was sponsored by Okeh Records and included a record deal. That same year, he met and married Mary Williams, who became a blues singer in her own right. The couple had six children and divorced in 1932.

Musical Success and Recognition

Between 1925 and 1932, Johnson wrote, arranged and recorded songs at an astonishing pace, many with major stars of the time, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang. In addition to being a musical success, the Johnson-Lang collaboration was one of the first instances where an African American and a white musician performed together—a fact that Lang disguised on the record by using the pseudonym "Blind Willie Dunn."

In the 1930s and '40s, Johnson's music matured and transitioned from blues to jazz, reflecting influences from Delta bluesmen and urban musicians. His improvisations featured one-string solos that would become a staple for electric blues, rock and jazz performers in later years. Johnson's compositions often depicted social conditions affecting urban African Americans at the time, capturing the nuances of male-female romances and displaying an insightful understanding of emotional pain.

Throughout his roller-coaster career of great accomplishments and periods of inactivity, Johnson often had to take menial jobs to make ends meet. In the late 1950s, his musical style had fallen out of favor, so he took a job as a hotel janitor in Philadelphia. He was "rediscovered" in 1959 by disk jockey Chris Albertson, who produced a comeback album. A performance at Chicago's Playboy Club and successive gigs brought him out of obscurity at a fortuitous time, when young audiences were embracing jazz and folk music.

In 1963, Johnson toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival with an all-star cast, including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams. In 1965, after a brief period of obscurity, he traveled to Toronto, Canada and played a few small nightclub gigs. Word spread quickly and he played more, eventually taking up residence in Toronto and playing at several local clubs in Canada for the rest of the decade.

In March of 1969, Johnson was hit by a car in Toronto and suffered serious injuries, from which he never fully recovered. He died on June 16, 1970. Johnson's music was an inspiration to both blues and jazzmen. In the span of forty years, he made nearly 500 recordings, and left an indelible mark on modern American music.

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