Blues Hall of Famer Lonnie Johnson was an influence on Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt, and Bob Dylan, which is worth noting, considering their legacies are far more frequently celebrated than his.
Born in New Orleans in 1889, Johnson was one of the first major blues guitarists and an originator of guitar solos.
He grew up in a musical family, playing fiddle in his father’s stringband before he got a gig with a musical revue that took him to London. While he was gone, many members of his family died in the influenza epidemic.
Back in the States, he moved to St. Louis, where he began playing as a duo with his brother James. While in St. Louis, he began playing Vaudeville shows and performing in riverboat bands. He entered a contest that won him a recording contract with Okeh Records in 1925 and wound up making around 130 recordings for the label during his seven-year contract.
He toured with Bessie Smith and recorded with Victoria Spivey, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, among numerous others.
Johnson was hit by a car while out walking in Toronto, in 1969. The accident resulted in a broken hip and injuries to his kidneys. He suffered a stroke and never fully recovered. He died a year later in Toronto but was buried by his family in Philadelphia.
Johnson was a pioneer in blues music and a major influence on some of the 20 th Century’s most celebrated performers. To see why, simply scroll down for some of his recording highlights.
Throughout the month of February 2023, Folk Alley is featuring great Black folk artists who helped define the form in the early days of recording. To illustrate how deep and important are the contributions of these archived Black folk artists, we are also spotlighting modern artists who have been directly inspired by their work. You can listen anytime by clicking on the Classic Folk stream on the Folk Alley website or app. We will also be highlighting a different historical Black folk artist each week here on the website.
“Another Night to Cry”
“Falling Rain Blues”
“Too Late to Cry”
“Swingin’ the Blues”