Lonnie Johnson: Blues & Ballads

The string-bending and vibrato of guitarist Johnson, heard here mostly in the early 60s, was a significant influence on modern guitar style


Lonnie Johnson was a technically accomplished guitarist who straddled the ground between blues and jazz with an immediately recognisable style. However, his adaptability led some to question his authenticity as a blues musician. Julia Simon highlighted that charge and refuted it (as did blues writer Paul Oliver some years earlier) in her book The Inconvenient Lonnie Johnson (reviewed by Ian Lomax in 2022).

As a bluesman, Johnson accompanied Chippie Hill, Victoria Spivey, Bessie Smith and others, whilst he made outstanding jazz recordings with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang; his proficiency and his technique of bending strings and using single-note runs and vibrato influenced subsequent guitarists.

This album, recorded later in his life, is a relaxed session which shows his engaging vocal delivery – often heartfelt, although in the ballads veering towards the sentimental. I Found A Dream, I’ll Get Along and Memories Of You show an inclination for the popular style typified by the Ink Spots amongst others, but it’s the blues numbers which have more presence and command the attention.

Jelly Roll Baker (his original version was issued on Bluebird in 1942) is full of innuendo, and he provides alternative lyrics to St. Louis Blues, which has a flamenco introduction and Spanish-tinged changes. There’s effective interweaving of guitars with Elmer Snowden on Savoy Blues, which Johnson had recorded with Armstrong’s Hot Five in 1927. This was Snowden’s first recording session since 1934 but there’s no hint of cobwebs, his acoustic guitar the perfect foil for Johnson’s direct delivery. Snowden leads on Elmer’s Blues, basically a boogie-woogie, and on Blues For Chris, Johnson interjecting vocal comments and contributing electric embellishments towards the end.

Two extra tracks are included: Another Night To Cry gives a taste of Johnson playing solo, his enunciation and diction clear, forthright in both singing and playing; Some Day Baby shows how strong he sounded with a pianist, Blind John Davis fuelling the engine.

(1) Haunted House; Memories Of You; Blues For Chris; I Found A Dream; St. Louis Blues; (2) Another Night To Cry; (1) I’ll Get Along Somehow; Savoy Blues; Back Water Blues; Jelly Roll Baker; (3) Some Day Baby (50.01)
(1) Johnson (elg, v); Elmer Snowden (g); Wendell Marshall (b). New Jersey, 5 April 1960.
(2) Johnson (g, v). NY, 6 April 1962.
(3) Johnson (g, v); Blind John Davis (p); Ransom Knowling (b). Chicago, 14 Dec 1944.
Blues Joint 8016