Blind Willie Dunn was actually Eddie Lang, who adopted the name because it sounded “bluesier,” or more “urban,” or, uh, “black.” Eddie was white and was making a good name for himself playing with old schoolmate Joe Venuti when this was recorded. Whether the name change was his idea or that of someone behind the scenes at Okeh Records is unclear, but what is clear is that the record-buying public, in the 1920’s, was unfamiliar—and would be uncomfortable— with black and white performers recording together. Indeed, the songs Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson recorded were arguably the very first.
Lang’s genius has been discussed here before, so let’s focus on Lonnie Johnson. Born into a musical family in 1899, Lonnie Johnson was adept at piano, violin, and mandolin, but early on decided to focus on the guitar. In 1919, Lonnie returned from touring England with Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra to find that his family—all but one brother—had been taken by the influenza epidemic of the previous year. Lonnie and his Brother James started over in St. Louis 1920. By 1925, Lonnie was married to blues singer Mary Johnson. Not only that, he also won a musical contest with a doozy of a prize: a recording contract with Okeh records
As these songs will attest, Lonnie was not a typical blues player. He didn’t think so either; Johnson entered the contest to have a chance to record, even though he thought of himself as more of a jazz player at the time. But the blues label stuck. Fortunately for all of us, Johnson apparently treated that categorical box like a playpen and did whatever he liked within it. On “Bullfrog Moan,” the structure and descending scale of the blues is sweetened with an adept use of the 12 string guitar, its low notes ably suggesting the titular amphibian.
“A Handful of Riffs” is a great example of the interplay between Lonnie and Eddie. Lonnie plays lead and Eddie rhythm, but there is a lot more communication between the parts than that dynamic might suggest. It’s as if the two are having a conversation—Lonnie might have a louder voice and a better vocabulary, but both artists are getting their points across.
Both players influenced Django Reinhardt, and one can easily understand why. The fluidity with which Johnson and Lang play in “Two Tone Stomp” can also be heard in Django’s best work.
“Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues” is self-explanatory. And it’s beauty is self-evident.
Lonnie continued to play music for the rest of his life, though there were some long, dry spells in which he had to work day jobs to make ends meet. He had a big hit in 1948 with “Tomorrow Night.” A young Elvis Presley was no doubt listening.
The folk music revival of the 1960’s helped revive the career of many a jazz and blues man. Lonnie was no exception. Here he is in 1962 with “Too Late to Cry.”
In 1965 Johnson settled in Toronto, after a visit to the city struck him with its relative racial harmony. He died there in June of 1970, just four months after his last public performance—he sang a couple of songs with Buddy Guy, and reportedly received a standing ovation.