Lonnie Johnson: One String Solo Pioneer

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Lonnie Johnson is notable for being the only guitarist representing the “classic blues” era and style to benefit from the major blues revival of the 1960s (most of the others were exponents of the country style that later fed into post-war Chicago blues. This is why you see his profile here. The classic blues artists like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, etc etc etc, all worked the black vaudeville circuits — it was a slicker, more polished, jazz-like sound, whereas the country blues artists mostly played in obscure roadhouses and the like). Many credit Johnson with originating the one string solo playing we now associate with blues, jazz, rock and country music.

Johnson (born Alonzo this day in 1899) was just as comfortable playing jazz as blues, belying his origin in New Orleans. He started out playing in saloons there at the age of ten, was a violinist in a band of his father’s, toured with various black revues and vaudeville, and even played on Mississippi Riverboats. For many years, he took part in the Whitman Sisters’ large scale extravaganzas. In the 20s, he was a recording artist for Okeh Records, playing with the likes of Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. His career was a series of peaks and valleys. By the 1950s he was a full time janitor. Luckily the blues boom of the 60s reawakened interest in his work. He passed away in 1970.

Today, we share his 1939 recording of the tune, “She’s Only a Woman”

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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