Lonnie Johnson Talks to Valerie Wilmer from the British Blues Archive
Which ever way you look at it, blues singers tend to fall into one category or another. There are the country style singers, the city men, the big band shouters, and the more contemporary rock-and-roll stylists. And then there are people like Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie is in a class of his own and although he has followed in the rather plaintive singing tradition of Leroy Carr, Little Bill Gaither and so on, he owes no allegiance to any particular school.
When Lonnie sings you can understand every word, and his approach is essentially sophisticated just like a cabaret artist is sophisticated. But the blues of Lonnie Johnson are no watered-down, Belafonte-type blues, they are proof that the lyrics don’t have to be slurred and indistinct to put across the message and get you sympathising with the singer. He also accompanies himself superbly on guitar.
As a man Lonnie is, as you would guess from his music, a refined, gentle sort of person. He converses knowledgeably on any number of subjects but when it comes to getting it down on tape he is not interested in relating his history in music or in telling Big Bill type anecdotes. We just talked about one thing or another and a little reading between the lines indicates the reasons why Lonnie sings as he does. V.W.
“My native home is in New Orleans, Louisiana, but I moved from home quite some years ago. I never would go back to that town. It used to be as beautiful a city as you’d see anywhere in the world, but hate done ate it up. I’m living now in Philadelphia, Pa., and that’s where my family is. I have been there since 1952 after the last concert I played here in England.
I am altogether different from the rest of the people that sing. Some of them sing their words like it’s country blues, and some of it is rock ‘n’ roll type singing. I sing city blues. My blues is built on human beings on land, see how they live, see their heartaches and the shifts they go through with love affairs and things like that— that’s what I write about and that’s the way I make my living. It’s understanding others, and that’s the best way I can tell it to you.
My style of singing has nothing to do with the part of the country I come from. It comes from my soul within. The heart-aches and the things that have happened to me in my life—that’s what makes a good blues singer. Every State has its own style of singing, of course, but no-one sings alike. I have my own original style, all my life I sang this way. I have also made quite a progress in singing ballads ’cause I sing blues, ballads, swing—anything. I have to do that in order to keep working ’cause some places don’t like blues and then you don’t have a job. So, whatever’s happening, I keep up with the times.”
Lonnie, as I mentioned in my introduction, is an extremely articulate singer. I asked him if he had always sung this way or whether it had come about gradually through experience.
“No, I’ve sung this way all my life, from a kid up. Some of the other blues singers, you can’t understand their words ’cause they’re not pronounced right, or the words are so bundled up that although they’re saying something, it never shows. It is bad because if a person don’t understand a thing, how would he like it? The only thing they can enjoy is the music, but the words are smothered and they have to figure out in their mind just what they are saying. There’s nothing much you can do about it. People like it, though. They like the tone of it and they like the rhythm of it, so I guess they are happy that way and that’s all I can say about it. But it sounds good to me when sometimes I can’t understand what the singer is saying, and I play it over and over and I still can’t get the answer. So I ask somebody else who listens and they tell me what the answer is!”
Because of his careful enunciation and the inclusion of ballads in his programme, Lonnie had been accused of being too sophisticated, but this doesn’t worry him. As he explained:
“I’ve been this way all my life and nobody can change it. I wouldn’t change my style for no-one. I’m not a country blues singer and I don’t intend to be one. And I’m definitely not a folk singer. I love folk-singing but I just can’t do it. They have a way of singing; ain’t nobody else can sing like them.
My whole family was musicians: six sisters, five brothers, mother and father, so you might as well say I was a born musician. When I was fourteen years old I was playing with my family. They had a band that played for weddings—it was schottisches and waltzes and things, there wasn’t no blues in those days, people didn’t think about the blues. I worked with my family for quite some years until they all died and I went to the other fields looking for other things in the line of music, and whatever I could get. I am a carpenter by trade and an electrician, also I’m a cook by trade—that’s right. I’ve been a cook for thirty years. So with that, I can always make a living. I’m not froze out. If I can’t make it in music I can always get something else. But I love music and I can’t get away from it.”
It has been suggested that Josh White modelled his style of singing on Lonnie’s, but when I confronted him with this he disagreed emphatically.
“No, no, no. But Josh is great. He lives on music, his son lives on music, the whole family does. It’s funny, you know, Josh’s son thinks there ain’t nothing in the world like me. He says “Lonnie, if only I could play like you I’d be OK” so I say “Oh you’re doing wonderful, you’re just like your daddy. Both of you are great, I don’t know why you want to play like me. You want to continue what you’re doing. I’ll send you some records if you want to listen to them, but you stay in the same field you are.” It’s great what he’s doing, it’s much wanted.
But Josh was having a lot of trouble not long ago with his hands. He’s scared he’s going to lose them. He has played till he has no finger nails on his right hand, they just wore out. He has to keep his hands wrapped, he’s suffering so. If he lost his hands I don’t think he’d live. He loves music just that much. He got poisoned by the strings, an infection started. But Josh don’t play with a pick, he just plays with his finger nails and the strings just cut, cut, cut. I used to play with my fingers all the time. That’s the way I first started making records. I played a twelve-string instrument but then the public got so loud that I couldn’t make them understand anything and so I started playing with a guitar pick. That was in 1941 and I have been playing it ever since. The way I play my instrument now I can play it so nice and soft it’s just like playing another guitar. I don’t burst their ear-drums; I play soft and they’ll be pleased with it.
Next time I’m going to get a Martin. They’re making twelve strings now and their six-strings is marvellous. At the moment I have a late-style Kay, they make a light instrument that only weighs a little over two pounds and the execution on the finger-board is so fast. You just touch it and you have no trouble playing it. I love it! I have a Gibson, too, but I prefer that little fellow!”
Talk of twelve-string and other guitars led to a discussion on Big Joe Williams’s unusual nine-stringed instrument. Lonnie soon made it clear that he did not approve of this unorthodox set-up:
“Oh, I don’t know. That s his own tuning, can’t nobody play it but himself. He invented that tuning himself. You pick it up and you can’t play it. See, he don’t finger his basses wide open, they goes with whatever he plays. See he don’t really know how to use the bass. He is really playing but it’s not natural. It’s not tuned the way the piano and all the other instruments are tuned, it’s across from that. It’s a tone and a half higher or a tone and a half lower—whatever way he’s got it, I don’t know. I don’t bother with it because I can’t figure it out. I try to make notes on it but they don’t turn out right and I know a lot about music. The only thing is, if you’re going to play self-taught, it is very important to learn to read music in your early years.”
Contrary to the stories that circulate, Lonnie is not 74 years old. He is 63 and he worked with Fats Waller for seven and a half years and recorded with Armstrong and Ellington. Probably his best-known records were the beautiful duets he made with Eddie Lang in 1928, things like “Bull Frog Moan”, “Guitar Blues” and “A Handful of Riffs”. Talking of Eddie he said:
“That was a great guitar player. I met him in Philadelphia, that was his home. He was an Italian kid, a very wonderful guitar player. We just decided to make some records together so that was it. We rehearsed them in the morning, recorded in the evening. Only one rehearsal, that’s all. I think we made about six sides. Eddie played an awful lot of guitar.
The guitar player we have now with this show, Matt Murphy, is going to be a whole lot like him, but you haven’t heard Matt really play. To hear him sit down and play classics—oh God, he’s great! He plays in any way you name. He’s like Charlie Christian in some ways. Now that’s the kid that if he’d have lived would have been the world’s greatest guitar player. I knew him in New York City when I was playing with Fats Waller at Connie’s Inn.”
Lonnie’s biggest success in the record field was his “Tomorrow Night” which sold 3,000,572 copies in three months in 1948. This, he claims was also the best record he ever made.
“My first cheque was 41,000 dollars and it sold two years in a row! Now everybody has made it. Brook Benton just recorded it, B. B. King, Patti Page, and I don’t know how many others. They all have the song, and the reason I think it’s so good is because it’s from the heart. I have recorded 800 blues and I can think of about SOO of them, but all the records have gone. Some of the companies went out of business and some of them never plugged my songs so they died on the shelf. And so now I just don’t bother with singing them ’cause people can’t go out and buy them. And Decca is one of the companies I cut twelve sides for and never heard any more from them. I have six albums on Prestige and the last one is ‘Another Night to Cry’. It’s all blues on both sides—some beautiful numbers—but they’re not plugging it.
I have enough work now back in the States to do me for the next fifteen years. I’m never out of work. Sometimes I wish I could get a little rest. I just go home to my family whenever I can. Finally in a couple more years I’m going to stop completely. When 65 comes around, that’s it. I’m going to open up a private nightclub, just a supper club, put me a nice little combo in there and sit down and rest myself. ‘Cause I think I have given the world all I have, I have no more to give. I want a little rest out of life.”
In many ways Lonnie is a fantastic person. He received no formal education yet he is literate and can also read and write music.
“My father taught me everything I know. He give me my schooling, he give me everything I got. I don’t even know how the inside of a school looks and I can read anything that’s on paper. I can talk to anybody on any subject they like talking about and any spare time I get sit down and read and read and read. So when I say something I have the correct pronunciation of my words, not flat and rude and so on. But some people they don’t want to know any more than- they know, but you can never learn too much, and what’s more you can always find time.
The way I feel about music, I want it to last, I never want it to die. It makes so many people happy—the sick, the blind, the crippled, and it’s an awful lot of help. Anything that I can do in my way I try my best to do it. So that’s what I get out of music—helping other people.
Singing songs has brought a lot of people back together, brought a lot of people together that’s never been married and made a lot of people happy that’s sick or worried or disappointed in life. It brings a lot of joy every way you look at it. Music you can say is food for a human’s body—that’s the only way I can describe it to you.”
Jazz Monthly, December 1963