Here's Lonnie Johnson playing some blues on a European tour - possibly Manchester - in the early Sixties:
What stands out are those lovely single-string runs he fits in between lines, and the exceptional solo. He sings pretty well too, even if it's in a relaxed supper-club style rather than the raw country blues that was just getting popular at the time. But then he was never your standard delta blues man. He was a sophisticated musician with an extraordinary history: born in New Orleans in 1899 into a musical family, he came into the blues almost by accident:
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."
He played with Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In 1929 he recorded a classic series of duets with jazz guitarist Eddie Lang (né Salvatore Massaro), released as Blue Guitars. Here's one of the slower tracks, Blue Room, on YouTube. Lang was credited as Blind Willie Dunn to disguise the fact that this was a duet between a black and a white musician at a time when the music industry was segregated. Bob Dylan wrote about Johnson in Chronicles Vol 1, as an influence on the legendary Robert Johnson - and maybe on a certain Blind Boy Grunt. But it was with those single-string jazzy runs that Lonnie Johnson left his greatest legacy:
Much of Johnson's music featured experimental improvisations that would now be categorised as jazz rather than blues. According to 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.
Eddie Lang went on to play with figures like Bing Crosby, before an early death. Johnson struggled on, touring England in 1952 and so impressing a young musician called Tony Donegan that he changed his name to Lonnie in tribute, but as with so many of that generation of black musicians he couldn't make a living out of music and worked in a steel foundry and mopping floors as a janitor before being rediscovered in the blues boom of the Sixties,
So here he is, singing the blues in Manchester. What can we say? Is he pandering to some white notion of how a black artist should play, deliberately coming up with what his audience expects to hear? Should we feel a little sorry for him, reduced to this after all those musical heights? Not at all. It's an old man playing with skill and dignity, coming to the end of an extraordinary career.