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The Very Best Of

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Album Review

With an elegant guitar style that helped bridge country blues and the more modern urban R&B sound while at the same time keeping a dialogue going between jazz and the blues, Lonnie Johnson was one of the most important guitarists of his generation. He recorded hundreds of sides for OKeh, Decca, and Bluebird between 1925 and 1945, and participated in scores more as a session man for the likes of Duke Ellington and others. By the mid-'40s he had switched from acoustic to electric guitar and had signed with Cincinnati's King Records, recording several successful ballads for the label between 1947 and 1950, the period covered by this anthology. He never completely abandoned the blues, however, and while some of his King ballads are included here (like his big 1948 R&B hit "Tomorrow Night"), a good portion of these tracks are country blues standards posing in uptown clothes. Prime examples include the solo "Backwater Blues" and the Appalachian blues classic "Little Rockin' Chair," both of which have long lineages, and his cover of the Delmore Brothers' "Trouble Ain't Nothin' But the Blues," which doesn't have a long history as a song, but in Johnson's hands it sounds like it could have. Johnson left King in 1950, recording a few sides for Rama Records before the changing tastes of record buyers made his style seem obsolete, and he left the recording business in 1954, moving to Philadelphia, where he supported himself doing custodial work until the folk-blues revival of the 1960s brought him out of musical retirement. As a guitarist, Johnson's most important work will always be his early acoustic sides (Columbia's Steppin' On the Blues is a good set in that regard, as is Snapper's Playing With the Strings), although as a singer — and he was a very good vocalist, with a rough-edged yet easy elegance — his time with King, when he began to concentrate more on ballads, may well be his finest hour.


Born: 08 February 1899 in New Orleans, LA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s

Blues guitar simply would not have developed in the manner that it did if not for the prolific brilliance of Lonnie Johnson. He was there to help define the instrument's future within the genre and the genre's future itself at the very beginning, his melodic conception so far advanced from most of his prewar peers as to inhabit a plane all his own. For more than 40 years, Johnson played blues, jazz, and ballads his way; he was a true blues originator whose influence hung heavy on a host of subsequent...
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