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The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music

The Legendary Lonnie Johnson, Music, and Civil Rights

Dean Alger

Publication Year: 2014

Lonnie Johnson (1894–1970) was a virtuoso guitarist who influenced generations of musicians from Django Reinhardt to Eric Clapton to Bill Wyman and especially B. B. King. Born in New Orleans, he began playing violin and guitar in his father’s band at an early age. When most of his family was wiped out by the 1918 flu epidemic, he and his surviving brother moved to St. Louis, where he won a blues contest that included a recording contract. His career was launched. Johnson can be heard on many Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong records, including the latter’s famous “Savoy Blues” with the Hot Five. He is perhaps best known for his 12-string guitar solos and his ground-breaking recordings with the white guitarist Eddie Lang in the late 1920s. After World War II he began playing rhythm and blues and continued to record and tour until his death. This is the first full-length work on Johnson. Dean Alger answers many biographical mysteries, including how many members of Johnson’s large family were left after the epidemic. It also places Johnson and his musical contemporaries in the context of American race relations and argues for the importance of music in the fight for civil rights. Finally, Alger analyzes Johnson’s major recordings in terms of technique and style. Distribution of an accompanying music CD will be coordinated with the release of this book.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Series: North Texas Lives of Musicians Series


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Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Blues music has long moved me, and jazz and all that it signifies has intrigued me. Starting in the 1990s, I more deeply explored the history of the blues and jazz, reading widely and listening intensively.
But as I read more and more I had concerns about the fact that a number of books on jazz and blues were written in a way that discouraged...

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pp. xiii-xviii

ADDITIONAL DEDICATION: To the memory of my cousin Dan Porter who understood the nature of blues and jazz earlier than I did and introduced me to them.

I was fortunate to have assistance from able people as I went through the process. I hope those people and others with deep interest in him will be pleased to see Lonnie Johnson finally...

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1. The Legendary Lonnie Johnson—One of the Most Important Musicians of the 20th Century; Musicians and Progress on Civil Rights

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pp. 1-21

Although he’s not well known today, Lonnie Johnson was one of the century’s most important musicians. His story is of major musical and cultural significance; and it’s a fascinating and inspiring tale in its personal elements.

“When you mention guitar, the first thing I think of is Lonnie Johnson.”
—B. B. King...

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2. New Orleans Music

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pp. 22-54

The Original Music City
Seemingly from every direction in the city, the clarion call of cornets and siren song of clarinets, the sliding, punchy blare of trombones and pounding beat of drums, the strum of guitars and thrum and ricky-tick of banjos poured forth.
In New Orleans from the 1890s through the teens of the twentieth...

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3. St. Louis Blues: St. Louis, the Forgotten Major Music City, and the Blues

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pp. 55-80

As New Orleans is located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, at a key juncture for travel, St. Louis is the major river city midway up the Mississippi, and in the period of rapid American expansion in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the Gateway City to the West. By 1910, it was the fourth largest city in the...

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4. Playing with the Strings, Part 1

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pp. 81-122

1926 and the Launch of Lonnie Johnson, Recording Artist
In early January 1926 the OKeh label released the 78 record of the new recording artist Lonnie Johnson, playing guitar and singing “Mr. Johnson’s Blues” on the “A” side, and on the “B” side playing violin and singing “Falling Rain Blues,” both accompanied by John Arnold...

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5. Playing with the Strings, Part 2

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pp. 123-161

In a special 2003 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, the editors compiled their “100 Greatest Guitarists” list. (There is much that is debatable in that list, including the lack of any specified criteria or parameters for who was considered; but the following comments are appropriate.) In ranking B. B. King as the third greatest guitarist, they...

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6. Workin’ Man; Chicago Blues: Philadelphia, New York City, and Cleveland; No More Records Now

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pp. 162-195

Resuming the Personal Story
Almost certainly Lonnie moved to the East Coast from Texas in fall 1929. The 1930 U.S. Census lists a “Lony Johnson” (I’ve seen that misspelling of his name elsewhere) residing in Philadelphia. He’s listed as born in New Orleans, both of his parents as born in New Orleans (a significant find itself, if the...

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7. Rhythm & Blues

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pp. 196-215

Rhythm & Blues—And the First Rock & Roll Record?
The Blues Collection reissue label put out two CDs of Lonnie’s recordings from 1937 to 1952. They were titled, Lonnie Johnson: The Rhythm & Blues Years. This was appropriate because Lonnie moved with the times, amped up many recordings, intensified the rhythm in...

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8. Blues Revival in the ’60s: Comeback Again

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pp. 216-253

Lonnie Johnson’s situation in the later 1950s was well described in liner notes to his first comeback album in 1960: “Lonnie’s slip into obscurity was so complete this time that many persons thought he was dead.” Alternatively, one writer claimed he had seen Lonnie down and out in Chicago in 1958. Indeed, Lonnie commented, “I’ve...

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9. The Legacy of Lonnie J: The Guitar in 20th Century Music

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pp. 254-306

The Metro Stompers and the Old Man
In June 1965, Jim McHarg, the leader of a fine Dixieland jazz band in Toronto, had a good idea. He was aware of Lonnie Johnson’s past accomplishments in blues and jazz, as well as his origins in New Orleans, and he thought he’d bring Lonnie in to play with them; so, McHarg made...

Appendix I. The Legendary Lonnie J: Song in tribute to Lonnie Johnson by Dean Alger

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pp. 307-307

Appendix II. Blues, Jazz, and Their Significance: Musicians and Civil Rights

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pp. 308-323

Appendix III. Guide to Recordings by Lonnie Johnson and Relevant Others

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pp. 324-327


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pp. 328-351


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pp. 352-357

Subject Index

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pp. 358-363

Song Index

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pp. 364-365

E-ISBN-13: 9781574415568
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574415469

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 23 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: North Texas Lives of Musicians Series
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OCLC Number: 878263353
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music

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Subject Headings

  • Johnson, Lonnie, 1899-1970.
  • African American guitarists -- Biography.
  • Blues musicians -- United States -- Biography.
  • African American musicians -- Biography.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights.
  • Music and race -- United States.
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