Singing guitarist Lonnie Johnson looms as a major stylistic innovator in both the jazz and blues fields. His single-string approach to soloing and sophisticated harmonic sense left a profound mark on several generations of guitar players, including Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, and B.B. King. “He had a somewhat modern style—that is compared to the stuff that I was playing and a lot of other people were playing,” King said in 1968. “He had a modern technique of chord progressions.”
Born in New Orleans, either in 1889 or ’94, Johnson was originally a violinist and later learned banjo, mandolin, guitar, and piano. During the late 1920s, the versatile Johnson was much in demand as a guitarist for recording sessions and was as comfortable accompanying “primitive” country blues singer Texas Alexander as he was in the faster musical company of Lang (with whom he recorded a remarkable series of duets), the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.
It was as a vocalist, however, that Johnson received the greatest public acclaim. His recording of the sentimental pop song “Tomorrow Night” spent seven weeks at the top of Billboard’s “race” chart in 1948. He had three additional hit singles on King Records over the next two years, but by the end of the Fifties, he had dropped out of music entirely and was working as a janitor at a Philadelphia hotel. Disc jockey Chris Albertson located him there in 1960 and brought him the attention of Prestige Records, for whom Johnson recorded seven albums over the next two years. He remained an active performer until his death in Toronto in 1970.