In the Fall of 1928, Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang were the two best and busiest studio guitarists in New York City.
…was born Alfonzo Johnson in the Storyville section of New Orleans, Louisiana on February 8, 1894. (Some sources list the year as 1899.) The singer/guitarist cut his first release for OKeh Records – “Mr Johnson’s Blues” b/w “Falling Rain Blues” – on November 4, 1925.
Over the next three years, Lonnie Johnson went on to make dozens of solo recordings for OKeh Records. He also contributed his distinctive, Blues-based guitar playing to a long list of records featuring other artists and groups. Among those being so fortunate were Victoria Spivey, Texas Alexander, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five and Duke Ellington & His Orchestra.
…was born Salvatore Massaro in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 25, 1902. He made his recording debut on December 10, 1924 playing guitar with the Mound City Blue Blowers.
Before too long, Eddie became the #1 Jazz guitarist in New York, in and out of the recording studio. He added his masterfully articulated playing to recordings by Red Nichols & His Five Pennies, Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, Victoria Spivey and Bessie Smith. On April 1, 1927, Eddie recorded two original guitar pieces for OKeh Records: the solo “April Kisses” and “Eddie’s Twister” (with Arthur Schutt on piano). These tracks would become the two sides of the first record released under Eddie’s name.
Sometime in November of 1928, Thomas G. “Tommy” Rockwell, the 27 year old Artist Manager of OKeh Records, had the idea to get Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang together in a recording studio and see what musical magic they could create.
The first time this happened was on Thursday, November 15, 1928. The session was held in OKeh Records’ New York City recording studios located at 11 Union Square. Blues singer Texas Alexander was the headliner that day, with Johnson and Lang brought in to provide the accompaniment. The trio successfully recorded two Texas Alexander originals: “Work Ox Blues” and “The Risin’ Sun.”
Two days later – Saturday, November 17, 1928 – Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang returned by themselves to 11 Union Square.
The only inkling we have of just how this historic collaboration actually worked comes from Lonnie Johnson himself. In an interview published in Nat Shapiro & Nat Hentoff’s 1955 book, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It, Lonnie recalled…
“I well remember Eddie Lang. He was the nicest man I ever worked with. Eddie and I got together many a time in the old OKeh record studios in New York, and we even made many sides together with just two guitars. Eddie was a fine man. He never argued. He didn’t tell me what to do. He would ask me. Then, if everything was okay, we’d sit down and get to jiving.”
On November 17, that “jiving” would result in two Johnson-Lang creations: “Two Tone Stomp” and “Have To Change Keys To Play These Blues.”
In “Two Tone Stomp,” the first guitar you hear is Eddie Lang’s. He maintains his role as rhythm guitarist throughout the piece, providing intricate bass lines and an ever-changing variety of extended chord voicings in support of Lonnie’s highly inventive, melodic and very bluesy improvisations.
Listen for yourself!
In “Have To Change Keys To Play These Blues,” Eddie and Lonnie start off in the same roles. But, at 1:46, during the fourth time through the 12-bar progression, Lonnie switches to strumming chords beneath Eddie’s perfectly conceived and executed single-string solo.
Again, listen for yourself.
Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang recorded eight more duos over the course of the next year. (Stay tuned to sixstr stories!) Writing in the All Music Guide To Jazz, Bill Dahl proclaimed: “The red hot duets (they) recorded were utterly groundbreaking in their ceaseless invention.” Blues historian Stephen Calt observed that the Johnson & Lang duets “set a standard of musicianship that remains unsurpassed by Blues guitarists.”
One last thing.
OKeh Records knew that in 1928 the American record buying public would not knowingly accept music made by an interracial group of musicians. Even a duo.
Therefore, “Two Tone Stomp” and “Have To Change Keys To Play These Blues” were released on OKeh record #8637 as being by Lonnie Johnson and Blind Willie Dunn.
Just To Let You Know…
The guitar that Eddie Lang played on those recordings was a brand new Gibson L-5 six-string archtop acoustic. Eddie is holding a Gibson L-5 in the picture above.
The guitar that Lonnie Johnson played on those recordings was a 12-string acoustic. Lonnie is holding a 12-string acoustic guitar in his picture above.
But!!! Is the guitar in the picture the one he recorded with on November 17, 1928?
Lonnie Johnson told British Blues historian Paul Oliver in a 1960 interview that he’d bought his 12-string guitar in San Antonio, Texas.
Lonnie had been in San Antonio in March of 1928 with a field recording unit from OKeh Records.
According to Todd Cambio – guitar maker at Fraulini Guitars in Madison, Wisconsin, and specialist on 6 and 12-string guitars from the early 1900’s – the only luthier in San Antonio who made and sold 12-string guitars at that time was Mexican-born Guadalupe Acosta. Guadalupe’s shop in San Antonio was called The Acosta Music Company.
Lonnie Johnson performed at the Ella B. Moore’s Theatre in Dallas, Texas, for three weeks in April of 1928. According to music journalist Jas Obrecht, the photo of Lonnie above was taken “around this time.” (That photo, by the way, is the only known photo of Lonnie with a 12-string guitar.)
The first recording session during which Lonnie Johnson used a 12-string guitar was with Duke Ellington & His Orchestra on October 1, 1928 in New York.
Seems to me that it is very safe to say that the guitar Lonnie played on “Two Tone Stomp” and “Have To Change Keys To Play These Blues” on November 17, 1928, was his Acosta 12-string acoustic guitar.
The sources for the information used in the writing of this post were:
Early Blues: The First Stars Of Blues Guitar (2015) by Jas Obrecht.
The Guitar Players: One Instrument & Its Masters In American Music (1982) by James Sallis.
Lonnie Johnson’s Mysterious 12 String by Todd Cambio. Posted July 31, 2017 on his Blogspot blog, From The Bench Fraulini Guitars.
The All Music Guide To Jazz (2002), edited by Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra and Stephen Thomas Erlewine.
Pete Welding’s liner notes to the 1990 Columbia Records’ Roots N’ Blues Series CD Lonnie Johnson: Steppin’ On The Blues.
Good music doesn’t get old.