Can you imagine all of the Pop, Rock, Blues, Country & Jazz recordings of the past 90 years that have a guitar solo in them not having that guitar solo?
Well, the person who pioneered the single-string, played-with-a-pick, vibrato-and-string-bending-filled guitar solo was born on this day.
Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson was born into a large and very musical family in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 8, 1894. In the Johnson family, Lonnie once recounted, “You’d better play something, even if you just banged on a tin can.” Lonnie started playing music on the violin then took up the piano and guitar. By the time he was a teenager he was playing professionally in the family string ensemble, directed by his father, and in a duo with his brother James “Steady Roll” Johnson, a pianist.
Lonnie and James moved to St. Louis, MO, in 1921. For almost two years, Lonnie worked in a steel foundry during the day and took all of the performing gigs he could get in the evenings and on the weekends.
In 1925, Lonnie entered a weekly Blues contest at the Booker T. Washington Theater in St. Louis. After eight straight weeks of taking first place honors, singer/guitarist Lonnie Johnson was declared the winner and awarded the grand prize: a recording contract with OKeh records.
On November 4, 1925, with OKeh Records’ executive Ralph Peer in charge of the proceedings, Lonnie Johnson recorded the two songs that would be his first record: “Mr. Johnson’s Blues” & “Falling Rain Blues.”
“Mr. Johnson’s Blues” was written by Lonnie and features John Arnold on piano. Lonnie is the vocalist and is playing a 12-string acoustic guitar.
Listen and check out those guitar solos!
Lonnie Johnson recorded for OKeh Records until 1932, cutting nearly 130 tracks. Among them were a series of ground-breaking guitar duets with Eddie Lang. However, since Eddie was a well-known white entertainer and OKeh didn’t think the record buying public was ready for a mixed race recording act, Lang was billed on these releases as “Blind Willie Dunn.”
“Handful Of Riffs” was recorded on May 8, 1929 in New York City. Even though this recording contains only the dizzying and virtuosic talents of Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang, it was released as being by Blind Willie Dunn and his Gin Bottle Four.
Prepare to be amazed.
In 1963, Lonnie Johnson travelled to England as a member of The American Folk Blues Festival. The following live performance features Lonnie playing electric guitar and singing the song “Another Night To Cry.” Accompanying Lonnie are pianist Otis Spann, bassist Willie Dixon and drummer Bill Stepney.
Watch & listen.
Lonnie Johnson made his last public appearance at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada on February 23, 1970. Singing a few songs accompanied by guitarist Buddy Guy, Lonnie’s performance received a standing ovation.
Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson passed away on June 6, 1970.
The roster of singers and guitarists who have been documented as being directly influenced by the music of Lonnie Johnson includes Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
In his 1982 book The Guitar Players: One Instrument & Its Masters In American Music, James Sallis wrote: “It is as a guitarist that Lonnie Johnson is best remembered now. His touch, the expressiveness he achieved on the instrument, was a revelation in his time and still affords a rich and rare harvest to guitarists. And his were the first solos to be actually built – constructed around subtle changes, gathering momentum directly from the music itself, climaxing in a way that also followed from the music and made perfect sense.”