Lonnie Johnson


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New Orleans-born guitarist Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson recorded at least 237 blues and jazz sides between the years 1925 and 1947. The only reissue label that has bothered to produce a meticulous overview of this body of works is Document; their Lonnie Johnson retrospective fills no less than ten compact discs. Classics, the other great chronologically oriented European reissue series, has chosen to concentrate upon the next leg of Lonnie Johnson's professional and artistic evolution. This takes in his famous contributions to the King Records catalog. Curiously, Classics stepped away from its own chronological policy by releasing a compilation of Johnson's 1949-1952 recordings in 2005, followed by a 1948-1949 volume in 2007 (Classics 5177). Using an electrified guitar, which he only opted for in 1947, Lonnie Johnson simultaneously plowed several distinctive stylistic furrows: extensions of the blues and classic jazz traditions, sequels to "Tomorrow Night" (Johnson's hit ballad of 1948), exciting soulful jazz, and danceable R&B. Happily, Classics 5177 contains examples of all these musical tendencies. "Pleasing You" and the lullaby "Good Night Darling" are sweet and romantic; while some might register impatience with this type of sentimentality, it is certainly an important aspect of the human condition, and has a place in every genre from German lieder to punk rock. On a more intimate level, Lonnie Johnson was clearly directing these songs toward his wife, ex-blues singer Mary Johnson. This intensely personal aspect would become more pronounced near the end of his life when Lonnie Johnson openly mourned his wife's passing in several heartbreaking blues elegies. The intermingled blues and jazz traditions are tapped most wonderfully with Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," W.C. Handy's "Careless Love," and "Lonesome Road," that old pseudo-spiritual by Gene Austin and Nat Shilkret. Two of the three titles cut in Linden, NJ, on January 5, 1949, feature tenor saxophonist Paul Renfro. These instrumentals -- "Playing Around" and "Matinee Hour in New Orleans" -- are jazz grooves worthy of Gene Ammons or Jimmy Forrest. "She's So Sweet," recorded in the same studio four months later, is a rare example of Lonnie Johnson throwing down and grinding out danceable R&B in the manner of Wynonie Harris or H-Bomb Ferguson.

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