Lonnie Johnson & Spivey Victoria: Four Classic Albums Plus

Two CDs collect a variety of material from seminal blues and studio man Johnson including a 1961 album with singer and pianist Spivey

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Born in 1899 into a musically active family, Johnson developed the expressive vocals and accomplished guitar backing which were to lead to fame over a prolific recording career in the genre of classic country blues.

He studied violin, guitar and piano as a teenager in New Orleans, before touring on banjo with Will Marion Cook in Europe (c. 1917-21). From 1925-32 he worked as a staff musician for the Okeh Record Company and recorded with numerous top names in jazz and blues, including Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang.

His technical command, sure-footed rhythmic drive, creative fluency and interesting harmonic ideas enabled him to extend his mastery of simple country blues into the broader terrain of instrumental jazz. However, he chose to focus mainly on solo performances of his own blues and ballads for the rest of his career. 

This second Johnson album from Avid contains a mixed bag of mainly blues, mostly written by Johnson. The opening six-track “mini album” was taken in fact from a set of three 10-inch 78 rpm discs recorded in 1946. Johnson sings in classic down-to-earth blues style, his phrasing punctuated like a dialogue with ringing, nimble single-string fills, and supported by some robust barrelhouse piano from Blind John Davis. Recording quality, understandably, is not great but is acceptable.

On the 1958 album Lonesome Road which follows, his ballad vocals are mellow and pleasant, but disappointingly bland, lacking the emotional bite of his blues singing. The later tracks, from side two, contain a welcome return to vibrant blues style, with added rhythm. Tomorrow Night, his big hit in 1948, is the best of his popular ballad material.

The nine “bonus tracks” which follow take us back to Okeh days and include his magnificent duets with Eddie Lang, a high spot of this album. The two great stylists complement each other with relaxed rapport and infectious swing, showing remarkable empathy in the fluent interplay of ideas. Playing With The Strings is a Johnson solo showcase for his non-stop flow of creative phrasing, and his impressive technique.

CD2 features him reunited on a 1961 album with an old friend, the veteran blues diva Victoria Spivey. She accompanies her coyly risque vocals with forthright simple barrelhouse piano and jabbing, somewhat unsteady fills. Johnson duets enjoyably on vocal in the entertaining I Got Men All Over This Town.

In the final album from 1962, Johnson sings and plays a selection of his own blues, which reaffirms his talent as a major blues artist without adding anything of special new interest except for the hauntingly beautiful instrumental solo Blues After Hours.

Lonnie Johnson was an exceptional exponent of authentic classic blues, whose formative skills helped to pave the way for the progressive development of the guitar’s role in jazz, from rhythm backing to featured solos. You may need a magnifying lens for the minute printed notes; this apart, highly recommended for all blues lovers.

Discography
CD1: [Lonnie Johnson-Blues] (1) Solid Blues; Rocks In My Bed; Drifting Away Blues; In Love Again; Blues In My Soul; Blues For Everybody. [Lonnie Johnson-Lonesome Road] (2) Lonesome Road; Backwater Blues; Tomorrow; Call Me Darling; So Tired; Careless Love; Drunk Again; Working Man’s Blues; Jelly Roll Baker; Pleasing You (As Long As I Live); It’s Been So Long; Tomorrow Night [bonus singles] (3) Hot Fingers; Deep Minor Rhythm Stomp; (4) Glide; (3) Bullfrog Moan; Blue Room Blues; (5) Playing With The Strings; (3) Two Tone Stomp; (6) Four Hands Are Better Than Two; (3) A Handful of Riffs (81.32)
CD2: [Victoria Spivey with Lonnie Johnson-Woman Blues] (7) Christmas Without Santa Claus; (8) A Big One; (9) Let’s Ride Tonight; (8) What Is This Thing They’reTalking About; (7) I’m A Red Hot Mama; Grow Old Together; (8) Beautiful World; (9) I Got Men All Over This Town; (8) That Man; (7) Thursday Girl; [Another Night To Cry] (10) Another Night To Cry; I Got News For You Baby; Blues After Hours; You Didn’t Mean What You Said; Fine Booze And Heavy Dues; I’ve Got To Get Rid Of You; Bow Legged Baby; Make Love To Me Baby; Lots Of Loving; A Story About Barbara; Goodbye Kitten (68.24)
Johnson (v, g) on all tracks, except three with Spivey, with:
(1) Blind John Davis (p). NY, 15 July 1946. (2) Solo. Unknown location, 1958. (3) Eddie Lang (aka Blind Willie Dunn). Various dates, 1926-30. (4) Porter Grainger (p). Various dates, 1926-30. (5) Johnson solo. Various dates, 1926-30. (6) Unknown (p). Various dates, 1926-30. (7) Victoria Spivey (v, p); Johnson (g). NYC, 21 and 26 September 1961. (8) as (7) but omit Johnson. (9) as (7) add Johnson (g, v); (10) Johnson solo (v, g). 6 April 1962.
Avid AMSC 1444