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One evening in 1965, at the Forest Hills, New York, home of the painter Bernie Strassberg, the legendary blues singer and virtuoso guitarist Lonnie Johnson privately recorded 17 songs now presented for the first time in a new CD “The Unsung Blues Legend.”
Mr. Strassberg, a blues-and-jazz aficionado, had first befriended Lonnie Johnson in the early 1960’s when the musician was performing at the famous Gerdes Folk City, where the likes of Victoria Spivey, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Williams and the young Bob Dylan were in residence.
Their close friendship lasted until Lonnie’s death, in 1970, in Toronto, Canada, following a serious auto accident and stroke. Lonnie Johnson “The Unsung Blues Legend.” is documented with unpublished personal letters and photos that reveal the poignant private life and thoughts of one of America’s most seminal and neglected blues-and-jazz artists. Lonnie’s bio and discography of available recordings, along with transcripts of the letters and historical documents will all be featured on the website www.lonniejohnson.com.
Lonnie’s virtuoso guitar is well documented. His recordings with Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Five” in 1927 and Duke Ellington in 1928, as well as his extraordinary duets with fellow guitar virtuoso Eddie Lang, have long been an inspiration and influence for musicians and fans alike.
Although Lonnie remains one of the most brilliant and influential guitarists in the blues-and-jazz genre, it’s his deeply emotive voice that commands our attention on “The Unsung Blues Legend.”
Lonnie, who composed more than 150 blues songs, tugs at the heart with his unique versions of perennial evergreens and chestnuts including the classics: This Love of Mine, September Song, Solitude, Summertime, and My Mother’s Eyes. The Blues are well represented with versions of Lonnie’s own New Orleans Blues, Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues and the Hines / Eckstine signature tune Jelly Jelly. Lonnie also displays his solo guitar virtuosity with a striking interpretation of Danny Boy.
With his superb guitar accompaniment, Lonnie Johnson’s stunning vocals stand out with sophistication, warmth and the wisdom that flows from a life deeply lived.
Along with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, Lonnie Johnson is one of the most important musicians to come out of New Orleans. Born at the end of the Nineteenth century Lonnie Johnson literally witnessed the birth of the blues. From a family of musicians, Lonnie played violin, piano and guitar. Over the course of a career that stretched from 1925 to 1970 his story reads like a movie script.
Escaping the deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1917 while on tour in England, he returned to find most of his family gone with the exception of his mother and brother. His wanderings took him everywhere from street corners, riverboats, and Storyville’s red-light district to International Folk, Blues and Jazz festivals. After winning a local talent contest in St. Louis in 1925 he began recording for the Okeh label. He accompanied many performers in all styles of music for such was his skill and talent. By the arrival of the Depression he was the most prolific male blues artist in the recording business and was billed as “The World’s Greatest Blues Singer.”
In 1948 he scored a big hit for King Records with “Tomorrow Night.” When times were tough he worked at various ‘day’ jobs as a laborer, cook or janitor. In the early Sixties he was rediscovered by writer Chris Albertson who helped him to secure a recording deal with Prestige Bluesville. In 1961 he was reunited with Duke Ellington at Town Hall in New York City. In the mid-Sixties he settled in Toronto where he found an appreciative audience.
Blues connoisseurs will detect Lonnie Johnson’s unique “singing” guitar lines in the work of numerous later artists including Robert Johnson, and T Bone Walker. One can still hear his “singing” lines in the work of B.B. King.
Lonnie Johnson was a dedicated working musician for six decades, recording artist since 1925, sensitive and moving singer; lyricist of creative originality, and above all, a principal figure in the rise of blues-and-jazz guitar. “The Unsung Blues Legend” affords us a rare, authentic glimpse into the career of an outstanding performer doing what he did best for a small gathering of close friends in a private home in Forest Hills, N.Y. It’s one-of-a-kind, heartwarming, and a major discovery for blues and jazz fans everywhere.

Lonnie Johnson: “The Unsung Blues Legend” (Blues Magnet records-BLM 1001) Street Date: July 2000 - Distributed by City Hall Records

For more information contact Jim Eigo at Music Magnet Media, Inc. T: 718.437.3678 F: 718.437.3780 email: jimi@musicmagnetmedia.com

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