Lonnie Johnson is back, sort of. It’s only fitting: He’s been coming back every decade or so since the 1920s, casting big shadows and then receding into them, as though he were nothing more than a footnote to his own text. Had he died in 1930, he would be remembered as a legend twice over: in blues, as one of the two men—the other being Scrapper Blackwell (whom he preceded on records by three years)—responsible for the single-line guitar style that supplanted the denser, scruffier Delta attack; in jazz, as one of the two men—the other being Eddie Lang (who preceded him on records by one year)—present at the birth of jazz guitar, consigning the banjo to riverboat oblivion. He is the only player claimed by T-Bone Walker and B.B. King as well as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.
But he died in 1970, filling in time between rediscoveries by working in steel mills and at other nonmusical jobs, all the while learning and writing more songs, so that by the time of his last corporeal go-round, he baffled as many listeners as he pleased. The blues and folk audience looked away in embarrassment when he sang “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “My Mother’s Eyes,” or “Red Sails in the Sunset.” The jazz crowd dismissed him as a relic. According to notes for the just-released The Unsung Blues Legend, Duke Ellington, with whom Johnson recorded so memorably in 1928, declined to appear with this “old blues guy” when he guest-starred with Ellington’s band at Town Hall in 1961. No evidence is given, but it could be true; the New York Daily News caught the flavor of the moment with the headline “The Janitor Meets the Duke.”
Johnson, New Orleans-born and city-bred, once complained about folklorists who tried “to stick a crutch under my ass.” Given his druthers, he was perfectly capable of modulating from a guitar arrangement of “Danny Boy” to a vocal wail on “Backwater Blues,” which is, in fact, one of the medley transitions on the remarkable new CD that resurrects Johnson with an intimacy new to records. The Unsung Blues Legend—an unhappily restrictive title, considering the contents—was recorded in 1965, in the Forest Hills living room of his friend and benefactor, Bernie Strassberg, who turned on his Wollensack as Johnson performed for friends and family—a small voice cries out, “Daddy!” Several years later, Strassberg gave the tape to Jim Eigo, who recently conceded that he had to mature 20 years before he realized how special it was and prepared to issue it. If you can’t find it, write Blues Magnet at P.O. Box 396, NYC 10276.
Johnson’s whole career bounded between worlds that were not nearly as conflicting in the 1920s as they later became. His recordings with Louis Armstrong are among the highest peaks of the Hot 5/7 series (on that occasion, he practically invented rock and roll triplets). He once described his dapper duets with Eddie Lang, who recorded as Blind Willie Dunn in a nod to the color bar, as “my greatest experience.” But he recorded hundreds of traditional blues in the same period (1925-32), many self-composed. Briefly the worlds collided, when he was rediscovered in the 1940s and scored the number one rhythm and blues hit of 1948 with “Tomorrow Night,” a song by Sam Coslow, who was more commonly associated with Bing Crosby. Relaxing in a Queens home, he keeps all the ghosts at bay, beginning with a nod to Frank Sinatra, “This Love of Mine.” He bends it easily to his style, accepts applause, and continues with “September Song.” Then, after a chorus of “Don’t Cry Baby,” he segues to “Solitude,” and from that point on he is on a stream-of-consciousness bender that runs the gamut from George Jessel (“My Mother’s Eyes”) and Russ Columbo (“Prisoner of Love”) to “Careless Love,” “St. Louis Blues,” and a rueful blues of his own (“There’s Been Some Changes Made”), closing with “Rockin’ Chair.” And he is riveting.
Except for “Danny Boy,” his guitar work is mostly confined to honeyed obbligato breaks, bass lines and chords, and introductory figures that often partake of a signature phrase made famous in “Tomorrow Night.” Johnson’s guitar is at once repetitive and surprising; just when you think you know his limitations, he comes up with a zinger. One of the great unknown guitar solos is his spot on “West End Blues” from the 1965 Stompin’ at the Penny, recorded with a Canadian Dixieland outfit, Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers. (It was briefly available from Columbia Legacy, until McHarg launched a justifiable suit; the CD had been reissued under Johnson’s name, though he appears on less than half of it, and the players were unidentified.) Considering his classic jazz work, it is amazing how rarely he got to work with bands in his many comebacks. But necessity and his own blues background mothered the inventiveness that allowed him to re-create himself as a freestanding troubadour with a huge book and a guitar that followed him like a second voice. You could not ask for a better demonstration than The Unsung Blues Legend.