During the 1920s, Lonnie Johnson emerged as the decade’s most gifted and influential blues guitarist. Time and again, his uncanny dexterity, sophisticated sense of harmony, and brilliant solos enabled him to play in a wide variety of settings. He recorded classic jazz with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, groundbreaking guitar duets with Eddie Lang, field-holler blues with Alger “Texas” Alexander, and plenty of blues, ballads, hokum, and pop under his own name.
Johnson’s prewar 78s were especially popular among African-American record buyers.
“Lonnie Johnson has never been recognized as one of the transcendental people who influenced everybody,” says Ry Cooder. “You can recognize Lonnie Johnson in just about anybody, with his voice and elegant style. The stuff he did with Louis Armstrong is just incredible. What he must have sounded like to country black people! They must have thought, ‘Well, this is somebody else.’ He’s uptown, getting this fabulous tone, and he’s very elegant and top-hatted. It’s a whole other thing. Pop music, really. You can see people copying him right and left. Oh, it’s amazing.”
Gifted with strong hands, a great touch, and a wonderfully fertile imagination, Lonnie Johnson could make his guitar thump like a country blues starvation box or comp-and-fill like a piano. His crisp rhythms reveal a vast chord vocabulary, and his solos provide textbook examples of flawless articulation and superlative string bends. He had a way of beginning and ending songs with distinctive chord climbs, and with his brilliant right-hand technique and one-of-a-kind left-hand vibrato, he could approximate the sounds of a mandolin or bottlenecked guitar. Long, beautiful solos spooled out of him, conveying a sense that his hands were hardwired to his very heart and soul. Few guitarists—then or now—have achieved such an instantly recognizable style.
In November 1928, Johnson—who’d launched his recording career three years earlier—and Eddie Lang began the collaborations that led to a series of guitar duets that would exert a profound influence on jazz guitar, then in its formative stage. The idea to team Lang, a studio sharpshooter who understood harmony better than any other jazz guitarist of the era, and Johnson, who had the finest technique in blues, originated with T.J. Rockwell, artist manager for OKeh Records. To mask the fact that the 26-year-old Lang was white, the labels on the American releases of their original 78s credited “Lonnie Johnson and Blind Willie Dunn.” Across the Atlantic, where there was a less-defined “race” market, Parlophone and Odeon correctly credited the sides to Ed Lang and Lonnie Johnson.
The son of Italian immigrants, Lang was born Salvatore Massaro in 1902, and grew up in South Philadelphia. As a child he studied violin. His father, a luthier, crafted his first guitar, which Eddie taught himself to play. He developed quickly, and by high school was playing duets with his lifelong friend, violinist Joe Venuti. In 1924, Lang had made his first notable recordings, “Tiger Rag” and “Deep Second Street Blues,” with the Mound City Blue Blowers, essentially a white version of a jug band. Many sessions followed, and Lang became the top studio guitarist in New York City. By 1927, he’d recorded with Norman Clark, Irving Kaufman, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, Bix Biederbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, and many others. Venuti and Lang had also recorded their first of several violin-guitar jazz duets. Lang also made many solo guitar records under his own name, a standout being his knuckle-busting arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude.” On record after record, Lang proved himself a master of articulation, harmony, and tone.
At the time of Lang’s ascendency in jazz, most band rhythm sections featured a banjo player rather than a guitarist, largely due to the unamplified guitar’s lack of volume on the bandstand. Lang had the skill and knowledge to bring the acoustic guitar to the forefront of the mix.
George Van Eps, who knew Eddie Lang, told Guitar Player in 1983: “It’s very fair to call Lang the father of jazz guitar. Who did he have to listen to? He had to develop his individuality by himself. His sound came from inside his head. Eddie didn’t have anyone to copy. It always annoys me that Eddie is compared to players who came after him. It’s terrible. Eddie was very progressive, and if he had lived longer than his short thirty years, he would have been as modern as tomorrow. He was a natural talent who made love to his guitar instead of beating it to death, which is what most guitarists tried to do. Banjo players had to switch to the guitar after hearing Eddie. There were a bunch of diehards who tuned the guitar like a banjo, but he forced the issue and changed the sound of rhythm section.”
To mask Lang’s race, OKeh Records renamed him “Blind Willie Dunn” on the American releases of several Lang-Johnson duets.
In the months leading up to his first collaborations with Johnson, Lang had recorded with a variety of blues singers, sometimes displaying Johnson’s influence. A few months after Johnson had recorded with Alma Henderson, for instance, Lang showcased his string-bending finesse on her “You Can’t Have It Unless I Give It to You.” Other dates found him paired with African-American blues singers such as Victoria Spivey, Eva Taylor, and Gladys Bentley, whose “How Much Can I Stand?” and “Wild Geese Blues” foreshadowed the style of playing Lang would use to accompany Johnson.
It’s uncertain when or where the two guitarists first met, but on November 15, 1928, they both played on Texas Alexander’s “Work Ox Blues” and “The Risin’ Sun.” With Lang flat-picking chords and rhythmic figures beneath Johnson’s heartfelt 12-string soloing, they displayed an easy musical camaraderie. Two days later, Johnson and Lang cut their first pair of guitar duets at the OKeh studio in New York City. Lang reportedly played his new Gibson L5 6-string archtop, while Johnson used the 12-string he’d bought in San Antonio, Texas, eight months earlier. They jumpstarted the session with the energetic “Two Tone Stomp,” with Eddie’s complex bass lines and flawless chords supporting Lonnie’s bluesy, happy melody—dig Johnson’s fast triplets!
Johnson began their slower, 12-bar “Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues” with a storytelling solo while Lang played bass notes and chords. Midway through, they briefly exchanged roles, Johnson strumming support beneath Lang’s lower-register solo. As Dan Lambert noted in The Guitar in Jazz: An Anthology [University of Nebraska Press, 1966], Lang’s solo is “note for note the same break, though transposed, that he later played on Louis Armstrong’s ‘Knockin’ a Jug.’ Lonnie’s playing here is very loose, very ‘off the cuff’—lots of smooth, bluesy flatted-third bends and descending chromatic scales. His guitar sustains nicely, giving his playing a distinctly human, singing tone. Lang’s break, on the other hand, seems perfectly conceived and tight, and so the styles contrast to good effect—Lang’s polished gem in the middle of Johnson’s funk. The string bends in this tune are also of interest: Lonnie bends notes to make them ‘cry,’ wringing every last drop of emotion from a note, while Eddie bends notes to give them a slightly ‘off,’ out-of-tune sound. Lonnie’s is the more emotional (bluesy) approach, Eddie’s an intellectual (jazzy) approach.”
On most of their subsequent duets, Lang would focus on the rhythm role, supporting Johnson with innovative bass lines, arpeggios, natural and artificial harmonics, and a variety of extended, altered, and inverted chord voicings.
In March 1929, Lang and Johnson were both called in to accompany Louis Armstrong and his band. Lang went first, playing alongside Jack Teagarden and others on “I’m Gonna Stomp, Mr. Henry Lee.” For the next two numbers, Armstrong brought in a new team of musicians, including Johnson on guitar, Eddie Condon on banjo, Pops Foster on string bass, and Paul Barbarin on drums. Everyone but Condon was originally from New Orleans, and they raised the hometown spirit on “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Johnson delivered a superlative solo. As Larry Cohn, producer for Columbia Records, describes: “On this record, Lonnie Johnson was playing 12-string guitar in a large band context as cleanly as one could possibly envision. Charlie Christian was fantastic, but Lonnie Johnson was doing it ten years before. He was a jazz musician nonpareil.”
At their next session together, on May 2, Lang and Johnson were joined by King Oliver on clarinet, J.C. Johnson on piano, and Hoagy Carmichael, who added percussion. The leisurely paced instrumental “Jet Black Blues” highlighted Carmichael’s scat singing. Johnson soloed with aplomb on their other selection, “Blue Blood Blues.” This lineup’s only recordings, the 78 came out credited to Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four.
Johnson’s first publicity photo, circa 1926.
During the following two weeks, Lang recorded with Bessie Smith and joined Johnson for four guitar duets: “Guitar Blues,” “Bullfrog Moan,” “A Handful of Riffs,” and “Blue Guitars.” At their final meeting, on October 9, 1929, they recorded “Deep Minor Rhythm Stomp,” “Midnight Call Blues,” “Hot Fingers,” and “Blue Room Blues.” While Lang provided piano-like rhythms and bass, Johnson spun intricate melodies laced with fabulous pull-offs and bluesy bends. Johnson’s fast, cascading triplet pull-offs in “A Handful of Riffs” and “Hot Fingers” were utterly brilliant and unlike anything heard before. Lang stepped out as lead soloist during parts of “Blue Guitars,” “Midnight Call Blues,” and “Blue Room Blues,” while Johnson seamlessly segued into rhythm. The improvisations capture the musicians’ warmth, humor, and mutual admiration, and they’re as fresh-sounding today as they were on the day they were recorded.
Johnson fondly recalled Eddie Lang in an interview for the 1955 book Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: “I well remember Eddie Lang. He was the nicest man I ever worked with. Eddie and I got together many a time in the old OKeh record studios in New York, and we even made many sides together with just two guitars. I valued those records more than anything in the world. But one night not long ago someone stole them from my house. Eddie was a fine man. He never argued. He didn’t tell me what to do. He would ask me. Then, if everything was okay, we’d sit down and get to jiving. I’ve never seen a cat like him since. He could play guitar better than anyone I know. And I’ve seen plenty in my day. At the time I knew Mr. Lang, I was working for the Columbia record people in New York. That’s all I did – just make sides. But the sides I made with Eddie Lang were my greatest experience.”
As one of 1929’s top race artists, Johnson went on the road after his final meeting with Eddie Lang, touring with Bessie Smith’s Midnite Steppers revue. Lang, meanwhile, put in time with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and played sessions for Jimmy Dorsey, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, and many others. He enjoyed an especially close musical relationship with Bing Crosby.
Eddie Lang died in March 1933 from complications following a tonsillectomy. Lonnie Johnson continued to make records—lots of ’em—through the 1960s. He passed away in Toronto on June 16, 1970.
An exclusive, copyrighted excerpt from Jas Obrecht’s Early Blues: The First Stars of Blues Guitar [University of Minnesota Press, 2015]. All rights reserved.