Sat October 19, 2013
marc on the blues

Two Top Guitar Pioneers Had More Than A Musical Impact

Alfonso “Lonnie” Johnson was a Blues and Jazz pioneer who played banjo, but it was on the guitar that he had his greatest musical impact.

African-American Lonnie Johnson lived from 1899 until 1970 and worked with artists from the minstrel shows of the per-World War One era through Duke Ellington in the 1960s. He also teamed up with white guitarist Eddy Lang at a time when the races just didn’t do that.

Given his birth in New Orleans and the fact that it was in 1899, it comes as no surprise that Johnson’s early playing was pure Dixieland. After a 1920 move to St. Louis and a 1925 marriage to Blues singer Mary Johnson, Lonnie turned to the Blues.

It is easy to speculate that his Jazz work and backing a Blues singer at a time when female Blues singers usually worked with pianists or combos, inspired Johnson to a style that was more citified and jazzy than the Country Blues of the solo guitarists that nearly all male Blues players were at the time.

Just as Lonnie Johnson was the father of a new style of Blues guitar, Eddy Lang was the pioneer of the Jazz guitar and its first true virtuoso. He changed the guitar from a country Blues and Folk instrument to a legitimate Jazz instrument, influencing Charlie Christian and others to a new view the potential of the guitar.

Lang lived a much shorter life than Johnson, 1902 until 1933. He was just as influential and also had a varied career from house guitarist with the Okeh race record label and member of Bix Beiderbecke’s group to backing Bing Crosby. The Philadelphia born Italian-American studied violin for eleven years before converting to guitar

His Jazz legacy makes him one of the three great innovators of Jazz guitar along with Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery. He also played the Blues and due to the extreme racism of the 1920s and 1930s his recordings with Lonnie Johnson listed Lang by the pseudonym Blind Willie Dunn, a name that many would just assume was that of an African-American.

I have not been able to document a major influence by the Johnson/Lang partnering on race relations in the 1920s. By the late 1930s Benny Goodman, who knew the pair and was surely influenced by them, had added African-Americans like Charlie Christian to his top rated Swing band. Goodman’s influence on civil rights, such as bringing the first ever African-American artists to Carnegie Hall has been well documented.

Tune in to the Nine O’clock Blues this week to hear the historic pairing of Lonnie Johnson and Eddy Lang. They both were truly remarkable guitarists.


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