Johnson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and raised in a family of musicians. He studied violin, piano and guitar as a child and learned to play various other instruments, including the mandolin, but he concentrated on the guitar throughout his professional career. "There was music all around us," he recalled, "and in my family you'd better play something, even if you just banged on a tin can."
Johnson pioneered the single-string solo guitar styles that have become customary in modern rock, blues and jazz music.
By his late teens, he was playing guitar and violin in his father's family band at banquets and weddings, alongside his brother James "Steady Roll" Johnson. He also worked with the jazz trumpeter Punch Miller in the Storyville district of New Orleans.
In 1917, Johnson joined a revue that toured England, returning home in 1919 to find that all of his family, except his brother James, had died in the 1918 influenza epidemic.
He and his brother settled in St. Louis in 1921 where they performed as a duo. Lonnie also worked on riverboats and in the orchestras of Charlie Creath and Fate Marable.
In 1925 Johnson married, and his wife, Mary, soon began a blues career of her own, performing as Mary Johnson and pursuing a recording career from 1929 to 1936. (She is not to be confused with the later soul and gospel singer of the same name.) As with many other early blues artists, information on Mary Johnson is often contradictory and confusing. Various online sources give her name before marriage as Mary Smith and state that she began performing in her teens. However, the writer James Sallis gave her original name as Mary Williams and stated that her interest in writing and performing blues began when she started helping Lonnie write songs and developed from there. The two never recorded together. They had six children before their divorce in 1932.
In 1925, Johnson entered and won a blues contest at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis, the prize being a recording contract with Okeh Records. To his regret, he was then tagged as a blues artist and later found it difficult to be regarded as anything else. He later said, "I guess I would have done anything to get recorded – it just happened to be a blues contest, so I sang the blues." Between 1925 and 1932 he made about 130 recordings for Okeh, many of which sold well, making him one of the most popular OKeh artists. He was called to New York to record with the leading blues singers of the day, including Victoria Spivey and the country blues singer Alger "Texas" Alexander. He also toured with Bessie Smith, a top attraction of the Theater Owners Bookers Association.
In December 1927, Johnson recorded in Chicago as a guest artist with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, paired with the banjoist Johnny St. Cyr. He played on the sides "I'm Not Rough", "Savoy Blues", and "Hotter Than That." In an unusual move, he was invited to sit in with many OKeh jazz groups. In 1928, he recorded "Hot and Bothered", "Move Over", and "The Mooche" with Duke Ellington for Okeh. He also recorded with a group called the Chocolate Dandies (in this case, McKinney's Cotton Pickers). He pioneered the guitar solo on the 1927 track "6/88 Glide", and on many of his early recordings he played 12-string guitar solos in a style that influenced such future jazz guitarists as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and gave the instrument new meaning as a jazz voice. He excelled in purely instrumental pieces, some of which he recorded with the white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, with whom he teamed in 1929. These recordings were among the first to feature black and white musicians performing together, although Lang was credited as Blind Willie Dunn to disguise the fact.
Much of Johnson's music featured experimental improvisations that would now be categorized as jazz rather than blues. According to the blues historian Gérard Herzhaft, Johnson was "undeniably the creator of the guitar solo played note by note with a pick, which has become the standard in jazz, blues, country, and rock". Johnson's style reached both the Delta bluesmen and urban players who would adapt and develop his one-string solos into the modern electric blues style. However, the writer Elijah Wald declared that in the 1920s and 1930s Johnson was best known as a sophisticated and urbane singer rather than an instrumentalist: "Of the forty ads for his records that appeared in the Chicago Defender between 1926 and 1931, not one even mentioned that he played guitar."
Johnson's compositions often depicted the social conditions confronting urban African Americans ("Racketeers' Blues", "Hard Times Ain't Gone Nowhere", "Fine Booze and Heavy Dues"). In his lyrics he captured the nuances of male-female love relationships in a way that went beyond Tin Pan Alley sentimentalism. His songs displayed an ability to understand the heartaches of others, which Johnson saw as the essence of his blues.
After touring with Bessie Smith in 1929, Johnson moved to Chicago and recorded for Okeh with the stride pianist James P. Johnson. However, with the temporary demise of the recording industry in the Great Depression, he was compelled to make a living outside music, working at one point in a steel mill in Peoria, Illinois. In 1932 he moved again, to Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived for the rest of the decade. There he performed on radio programs and intermittently played with the band backing the singer Putney Dandridge.
By the late 1930s, he was recording and performing in Chicago for Decca Records, working with Roosevelt Sykes and Blind John Davis, among others. In 1939, during a session for Bluebird Records with the pianist Joshua Altheimer, Johnson used an electric guitar for the first time. He recorded 34 tracks for Bluebird over the next five years, including the hits "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" and "In Love Again".
In March 1969 he was hit by a car while walking on a sidewalk in Toronto. He was seriously injured, suffering a broken hip and kidney injuries. A benefit concert was held on May 4, 1969, with two dozen acts that included Ian and Sylvia, John Lee Hooker, and Hagood Hardy. He never fully recovered from his injuries and suffered what was described as a stroke. He was able to return to the stage for one performance at Massey Hall on February 23, 1970, walking with the aid of a cane, to sing a couple songs with Buddy Guy; Johnson received a standing ovation.
Johnson died on June 16, 1970. A funeral was held at Mount Hope Cemetery in Toronto by his friends and fellow musicians, but his family members insisted on transferring the body to Philadelphia where he was buried. He was "virtually broke." The Killer Blues Headstone project, a nonprofit organization that places headstones on unmarked graves of blues musicians, purchased a headstone for Johnson around 2014.1
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