The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, Music, and Civil Rights

The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, Music, and Civil Rights

by Dean Alger

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Lonnie Johnson (1894–1970) was a virtuoso guitarist who influenced generations of musicians from Django Reinhardt to Eric Clapton to Bill Wyman and especially B. B. King. Born in New Orleans, he began playing violin and guitar in his father’s band at an early age. When most of his family was wiped out by the 1918 flu epidemic, he and his surviving brother moved to St. Louis, where he won a blues contest that included a recording contract. His career was launched. Johnson can be heard on many Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong records, including the latter’s famous “Savoy Blues” with the Hot Five. He is perhaps best known for his 12-string guitar solos and his ground-breaking recordings with the white guitarist Eddie Lang in the late 1920s. After World War II he began playing rhythm and blues and continued to record and tour until his death. This is the first full-length work on Johnson. Dean Alger answers many biographical mysteries, including how many members of Johnson’s large family were left after the epidemic. It also places Johnson and his musical contemporaries in the context of American race relations and argues for the importance of music in the fight for civil rights. Finally, Alger analyzes Johnson’s major recordings in terms of technique and style. Distribution of an accompanying music CD will be coordinated with the release of this book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574415568
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

Dean Alger's writings and presentations on blues and jazz for the new Grove Dictionary of American Music and others have been widely praised. Also a public affairs consultant, he is the author of five acclaimed books on democracy, elections, and media. He lives in St. Paul where he is a singer, guitarist, and songwriter.

Read an Excerpt

The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music

The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, Music and Civil Rights

By Dean Alger

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2014 Dean Alger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-556-8


The Legendary Lonnie Johnson—One of the Most Important Musicians of the 20th Century


Although he's not well known today, Lonnie Johnson was one of the century's most important musicians. His story is of major musical and cultural significance; and it's a fascinating and inspiring tale in its personal elements.

"When you mention guitar, the first thing I think of is Lonnie Johnson." —B. B. King.

In The Guitar Players, James Sallis put Johnson in proper company: "Lonnie Johnson probably should be as well known as Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong; his artistry is at that level.... 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."

Former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman (a serious student of blues history), in his well-presented book Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey, pointed out Lonnie's pioneering significance: "He was a guitar legend before we knew what they were. You can trace his playing style in a direct line through T-Bone Walker and B. B. King to Eric Clapton." The legendary Lonnie J was the Original Guitar Hero.

A particular element of Lonnie's virtuosity, which Sallis alluded to, is of profound importance in guitar history: Lonnie was the principal early figure in developing the full expressive capacity of the guitar (other than specialty use of a "slide"), which has been of huge significance in the development of blues and Rock music especially, as well as in Country music and the guitar in jazz.

A Note on the Nature of this Book: Since no full biography of this important musician has been published, I present ample biographical information on Lonnie Johnson, a fair amount of it not previously reported. However, I want to emphasize that this book is not just a standard biography. In fact, this book is more about describing and analyzing Lonnie's work, assessing his influence on other musicians, and his general importance for twentieth century music. Second, it is about using Lonnie's musical output as a vehicle for discussing the evolution of the guitar in popular music and how artistry on the guitar developed—and ultimately, how the guitar became the dominant instrument in popular music and a cultural icon.

There is an important further dimension of Lonnie's impact in conjunction with other musicians, over several decades: Because of their public prominence and because of how they presented and conducted themselves, Johnson and other great Black musicians—and some White ones—had a very important effect on the self-image of African-Americans and their image in the broader White-dominated society; and they contributed significantly to the gradual, agonizing progress on Civil Rights. This vital subject is introduced in this chapter and discussed at further points in the book; and my own vision on this is more fully discussed in Appendix II. Another more limited theme is about the nature of blues and jazz in modern society and their relation to modern art, with Lonnie as a strong contributor; this adds perspective on the significance and impact of the music in and for the century. These themes are profoundly interwoven, in our history, in Lonnie's life, and in the book.

I've presented the material in a way that a seriously interested but wider audience than specialists with technical music training will find engaging and very readable. In this chapter, I introduce the extraordinary Lonnie Johnson to a somewhat broader audience who may have heard little about him. Because of Lonnie's importance for the music of the twentieth century and his fascinating story, a wider audience than the core specialists should have readable access to this material. But the book also includes ample material and analysis of value to those specialists.

The Legendary Lonnie J

Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson was born into a musical family in New Orleans in 1894. He was a major early influence on many of the greatest figures in blues history, and he readily spanned blues and jazz. He played on three of the Louis Armstrong "Hot Five" recordings that were landmarks in the history of jazz. Regarding Lonnie's playing with Satchmo on one of those recordings, "Hotter Than That," the distinguished music writer and composer Gunther Schuller said: "Johnson's swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly one of the highlights of classic jazz." He also played on four early Duke Ellington tunes, including one of Duke's most celebrated early works titled, "The Mooche." Ellington said: "Lonnie Johnson helped bring about one of my giant steps, milestones established by men [who were] sound of ear and skilled to thrill through the climate they created with their music magic. I have always felt indebted to him because his guitar added a new luster to my orchestral attempts on the records we made in 1928."

As jazz writer Martin Williams said, "Charlie Christian was not, as some commentators have contended, the first important jazz guitar soloist. Anyone who has heard Lonnie Johnson, with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or on his own, will know that he was not." In fact: "As the inventor of the guitar solo, Lonnie created an approach to that instrument which revolutionized the history of jazz, blues and popular music in general," Gerard Herzhaft said in the Encyclopedia of the Blues.

Indeed, with all that, Lonnie Johnson was a prime precursor to the Rock guitar heroes. For two examples, in his autobiography, Chuck Berry cites Lonnie's influence; and a member of Buddy Holly's band reported Lonnie's influence on Holly. Lonnie had significant influence on key Country guitarists like Chet Atkins, as well.

With all that and more, Lonnie Johnson was the leading original force in moving the guitar to be the dominant instrument of the second half of the twentieth century through today.

Further, Lonnie's singing influenced major figures in twentieth century music, B. B. King being one of the most famous examples. The other most famous example was Elvis, who covered Lonnie's big 1948 R&B ballad hit, "Tomorrow Night," at Sun Records at the beginning of his recording career; listening to the Elvis version of "Tomorrow Night," one can hear a significant effect of Lonnie's vocal work on Elvis's singing style (discussed later in detail). Even most specialists don't fully understand the caliber and influence of Lonnie Johnson's singing.

Lonnie's poorly understood excellence as a singer is potently demonstrated in four of the first six songs on The Ultimate Best of Lonnie Johnson CD, prepared by the author as a companion to this book. (Available by non-traditional means; see the author's website: Grammy-winning record producer Richard Shurman has said of this album, "The CD is wonderful. It's very well compiled and balanced and showcases Lonnie's greatness beyond question."

Still further, Lonnie, in his singing combined with his guitar-playing, was the first musician to present the smoother, more sophisticated "urban blues" (in contrast to the old Country Blues) which were a prime force leading to Rhythm & Blues and then to Rock & Roll.

Another notable impact: Lonnie and Bob Dylan crossed paths in the early '60s in places like Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village, New York. In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan said:

Besides my devotion to a new vocal technique, something else would go along with helping me re-create my songs ... I played guitar in the casual Carter Family flat-picking style ... The style had been practical, but now I was going to ... replace it with something more active with more definition of presence.

This style had been shown to me in the early '60s by Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie was a great jazz and blues artist from the '30s [sic] who was still playing in the '60s.... Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd rather than even numbered system, saying "this might help you." He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it ... It's a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes. I never used the style.... But now all of a sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world. I understood the rules and critical elements because Lonnie had showed them to me so crystal clear.

Elsewhere Dylan said of Lonnie, "I must say he greatly influenced me."

The multiple dimensions of Lonnie Johnson's work are how effective he was at performing as a lead player and singer, and fitting in well with a big jazz band like Ellington's and smaller blues and jazz groups, and being an outstanding accompanist who was able to adapt to a wide range of singers' styles. His fine accompanist work ranged from backing the relatively crude country blues singer "Texas" Alexander, who didn't "keep time" accurately, to backing powerful blues singer Bessie Smith, who didn't tolerate other musicians "stealing" her spotlight, to doing masterful duets with other guitarists and with a piano master and singer like Otis Spann. Only T-Bone Walker even approached such versatile virtuosity. As B. B. King said:

Lonnie Johnson was one of the greatest influences in my life.... because he recorded with Duke Ellington ... , Louis Armstrong, he recorded with many people of various styles of music and he fit in. He was that link in the chain between whatever musical style there might be.... God almighty I loved him. So, I wanted to be like him. I still do.

But stunningly, Lonnie Johnson has not been inducted into the "Early Influences" section of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That is a big hole in the Hall's presentation of the history and origins of the music that dominated the music scene—and the broader culture—over the second half of the twentieth century through today. This book and coordinated projects will, hopefully, lead to rectifying that great gap in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

This then, is a man whose story must be fully told as a vital part of the development of American musical art. But, as was lamented by B. B. King, "it hurt me ... that Lonnie never got the critical acknowledgement he deserved." Interviews I did with blues guitar stars Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin (lead guitarist for the Howlin' Wolf band) yielded the same thought.

Further, Lonnie Johnson's fascinating, dramatic life ranged from losing most of his family in the influenza pandemic of 1918 to fame and musical prominence in blues and jazz in the later 1920s to working in steel mills and as a janitor at various times to a musical comeback in the blues and folk revival of the 1960s. And that considerably shortens the story and lessens the twists and turns of his life. Aspects of Lonnie's life also represent significant elements in the broader American experience and the mosaic of the American character.

A Glimpse of the Person

Lonnie Johnson's life was an extraordinary saga of superb musical work, recording with many of the giants of jazz and blues, and developing relative fame in the later 1920s. But there were also times when he had to work at "blue collar" jobs. In chapter 2 we explore Lonnie's beginnings in the "Original Music City," New Orleans, and his personal origins in a family of musicians. Additionally, among many other stories, there is the compelling tale of his final years, spent primarily in Toronto. Those years were highlighted by his determination to overcome the effects of a horrible auto accident and three strokes and his dramatic appearance in a final concert at age 76, with up-and-coming blues guitarist Buddy Guy accompanying him.

A glimpse of the kind of person Lonnie Johnson was and how his music could affect people is provided by a story related by his friend Bernie Strassberg, with whom Lonnie stayed when he was in New York City in the '60s. This tale illustrates the personal dimension of the Power of Music; an introduction to the broader societal dimension of The Power of Music follows.

For me, one of the most memorable occasions when you can say music could soothe the soul and affect a person involved my youngest son, Mitch, around '62 or '63. Mitch had a friend who he said was kind of strange. He said, "Dad, this kid never smiles. He has a real hard life at home. I know his father is very old, and he beats him up; and this guy, he's stoic, he never shows any emotion at all." Then my son brought this kid over to our house. Lonnie was sleeping, then he came downstairs to the living room. Seeing the kid [and sensing the situation] he got out his acoustic guitar and sat on the sofa and started passionately singing this song, "Red River Blues." And this kid, who had shown no emotion to my son Mitch all the time he had known him, the tears just started pouring down. (I'm crying just thinking about it.) I looked at my wife and she looked at me, I looked at my son, Lonnie hugged my son ... I mean, this kid from New York City encountering that music from this old blues guy singing ... That's just the power of what his music could do.

Through the rest of this book I explore Lonnie's musical work and significance, including a musical tendency and some developments that were not so musically effective that also explain part of why this giant of twentieth century music did not achieve the fame his artistic importance merits. I also relate as much of his life story as is obtainable at this late date.

Here, let me relate two anecdotes that lend interesting perspective—and a little humor—to the story of this extraordinary musician. Firstly, while Lonnie was aware of his musical significance, he had a decent dose of modesty. In Paul Oliver's Conversation with the Blues, from interviews Oliver did in 1960 with major blues musicians, Lonnie says: "My brother [James 'Steady Roll' Johnson], he played piano and violin and guitar. He was better than me" —this from the remarkable instrumentalist so highly praised by the musicians and writers noted earlier, who also played all three instruments and more. (It reminds me of those passages when Sherlock Holmes talks of his smarter brother.)

On early records he also played banjo and even kazoo and the now largely forgotten harmonium. Amusingly, British blues writer Chris Smith sent me this observation: "On the evidence of his two recordings with it, Lonnie was an awful kazoo player. Somehow it's good to know he was human—he wasn't brilliant on every instrument!"

An article in Billboard magazine on home recordings released on CD in 2000 began by saying: "Was there ever a blues performer who got a rawer deal from history than Lonnie Johnson?" No, there wasn't. Hopefully, this book and related projects will finally give this musical master his due.

Next I build a foundation for understanding the broader societal impact of Lonnie and other musicians, along with the nature of the music itself. Lonnie Johnson's life and music did not take place in a vacuum, as with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other top Black musicians; they were unavoidably involved in the struggle of African-Americans and developments leading to progress on Civil Rights. A more complete discussion of this vital subject is presented in Appendix II; I urge the reader to take in that striking, inspirational material on developments that were so significant for American history and further demonstrate the broader Power of Music.

Blues, Jazz, and the Power of Music

Regarding the nature of the blues and jazz and their broader human and societal significance, jazz writer Martin Williams wrote of a couple of prominent White musicians and posed a vital question. He noted how famous jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman wanted to learn to play like New Orleans "colored Creole" Jimmie Noone and "staked his career on" playing music primarily from African-American sources. And Williams asked why Mick Jagger from London would want to sing like some old Black bluesman from Mississippi or Chicago. He wondered: "What drew Benny and Mick to make such music?" And: "Both men obviously express something deeply, abidingly important for their followers. What is it? Why do we all ... find such meaning in the musical culture of Afro-Americans? ... I can't answer my question." As noted jazz writer and performer Ted Gioia put it: "Why has this music resonated so profoundly in the American consciousness?" The following two sections, plus later material, answer the questions of Williams and Gioia, for African-Americans and for the wider society.

Blues and jazz have been of seminal importance in the music of the last century, and in the broader American culture and society. The United States Congress proclaimed 2003 "The Year of the Blues" and there were related events, culminating in films shown on U. S. public television that commemorated the blues and their significance. In 2001, to much media attention, public TV ran a ten-part documentary film by Ken Burns on the history of jazz.


Excerpted from The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music by Dean Alger. Copyright © 2014 Dean Alger. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Legendary Lonnie Johnson—One of the Most Important Musicians of the 20th Century; Musicians and Progress on Civil Rights,
2. New Orleans Music,
3. St. Louis Blues,
4. Playing with the Strings, Part 1,
5. Playing with the Strings, Part 2,
6. Workin' Man; Chicago Blues,
7. Rhythm & Blues,
8. Blues Revival in the '60s: Comeback Again,
9. The Legacy of Lonnie J: The Guitar in 20th Century Music,
Appendix I: Lyrics to Alger tribute song: "The Legendary Lonnie J",
Appendix II: Blues, Jazz, and Their Significance; Musicians and Civil Rights and Alger's review of Sidney Bechet's instrumental recording of "Strange Fruit",
Appendix III: Guide to Recordings by Lonnie Johnson and Relevant Others,
Subject Index,
Song Index,

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