Complete Recorded Works 4 November 1925 2 August 1932
Vol. 5 (15th May 1929 23rd January 1930
Lonnie Johnson And Blind Willie Dunn: Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, guitar duet. Lonnie Johnson And Spencer Williams, vocal duet; accompanied by J. C. Johnson, piano; Lonnie Johnson, guitar. Lonnie Johnson, vocal, guitar on 4, 5, 6, 7, 8/ violin on 7, 9; unknown, piano on 4, 5, 7, 9. Victoria Spivey & Lonnie Johnson, vocal duet; accompanied probably by Victoria Spivey, piano; Lonnie Johnson, guitar. Blind Willie Dunn & Lonnie Johnson: Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, guitar duet. Lonnie Johnson, vocal / guitar. Lonnie Johnson And Spencer Williams, vocal duet; accompanied by James P. Johnson, piano; Lonnie Johnson, guitar; probably Spencer Williams, scraper; Clarence Williams, woodblocks on 19 / vocal on 19. Lonnie Johnson And Clarence Williams, vocal duet; accompanied by James P. Johnson, piano; Lonnie Johnson, guitar; prob. Spencer Williams, scraper; unknown, falsetto vocal. Lonnie Johnson, vocal / guitar.
Genres: Blues, Country Blues, Country Blues Guitar, Jazz Guitar, Hokum, Jazz, New Orleans Blues, Louisiana Blues, Blues Piano, Blues Violin, Female Blues, Jazz Piano, Guitar Duet, Hokum
Abridged from this album’s original booklet notes. Through 1929, Lonnie Johnson continued to explore three musical fields on record. With Eddie Lang, he pushed at the frontiers of jazz guitar with the tone poem Bull Frog Moan, displays of technique such as Hot Fingers and the yearning, pop-structured Blue Room (not related to the Rodgers & Hart song). At the same time, he was cranking out third and fourth parts to It Feels So Good with Spencer Williams, and in a more adult, but still hokum-based vein, duetting with Victoria Spivey on a composition that much later became a favourite of B. B. King’s. In June, he also made a six title session of blues. It’s dangerous to read autobiography into blues lyrics too readily, especially with so facile a writer as Lonnie Johnson, but it’s almost impossible to resist the suspicion that the tenor of most of the songs cut on 11 June 1929 denotes a marriage in trouble. Lonnie and Mary Johnson‘s marriage lasted until 1932, by which time they had had six children in seven years; but these songs, by turns deeply depressed, suspicious and angry, surely do not bespeak domestic contentment. The 1925 version of Falling Rain Blues had used rain as a metaphor for misery, and it’s surprising that the new version is about floods; the remade Mr. Johnson’s Blues is an extended lyric about the unhappiness of lost love, where in 1925 had it consisted of one verse, followed by an extended guitar solo. Of these sad songs, Sundown Blues is intriguing; it had been recorded the previous November by one Alec Johnson. In the notes to Document BDCD-6013, I speculated that Alec might have been the father of Memphis Minnie‘s brother-in-law; this version of Sundown Blues leads one to ask whether he was related to Lonnie, perhaps via Tommy Johnson‘s father, Idell, who was a connection of Lonnie’s. Most likely, as Tommy’s brothers don’t seem to have recalled Alec Johnson, is that Lonnie just heard and liked the record, whose sentimental words are close to his own emotional aesthetic.
Early in October 1929, Johnson cut his last duets with Eddie Lang, who had joined Paul Whiteman that May; it was probably Lang’s touring commitments for Whiteman, and his extensive freelance accompaniment work, that kept them from recording again before Lang’s untimely death in 1933, from complications following a tonsillectomy. In the fall of 1929, Lonnie Johnson, too, was touring, working the Southern states with Bessie Smith‘s “Midnight Steppers” show, which, like all vaudeville acts, was finding it difficult to compete with the new talking pictures (and with radio, which still had few places for blacks, although “Lonnie Johnson, Recording Guitarist” had his own show on WPAP New York by 1929). Lonnie and Bessie had an affair during the tour, though by his own admission they “never got real serious”.
By January, Johnson was back in New York. On 7th January, he cut two extraordinary songs, which are really two parts of a single blues. She’s Making Whoopee In Hell Tonight is famous as the basis for King Solomon Hill‘s classic “Whoopee Blues”. Along with Another Woman Booked Out and Bound To Go and the earlier From Now On Make Your Whoopee At Home, they form a trilogy dealing with obsessive jealousy, their inspiration apparently being the title of Gus Kahn & Walter Donaldson‘s innocuously “naughty” “Makin’ Whoopee”, a 20s hit for Eddie Cantor. The results are disturbingly intense, and one can see why they appealed to King Solomon Hill. It’s almost a relief to hear Johnson’s hokum numbers with Spencer and Clarence Williams and the “father of jazz piano”, James P. Johnson, whose accomplished stride work inspires some exceptional guitar from Lonnie -particularly exceptional, given the songs it adorns.
On 23rd January 1930, Lonnie Johnson began a session with two songs that convey a remarkable atmosphere of alienated, trapped desperation. It’s well known that Robert Johnson admired Lonnie, to the extent of claiming that his middle initial stood for Lonnie, rather than Leroy. No doubt Lonnie’s guitar prowess accounts for much of Robert’s enthusiasm, but I wonder if, on songs like Death Valley Is Just Half Way To My Home and Headed For Southland, he also recognised a kindred, haunted psyche.
Chris Smith Copyright 1991 Document Records