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Lonnie Johnson Biography

PostPosted: Fri Jan 17, 2014 2:02 pm
by Alan Balfour
Amazon UK is retailing this 384 page hardback at a mere £14, due April 2014.

There's more info at the publisher's webpage

Re: Lonnie Johnson Biography

PostPosted: Tue Apr 01, 2014 6:29 am
by Alan Balfour
Dean Alger has emailed me to say his Lonnie book is now published in US.

According to Amazon the UK edition due 30th April.

Re: Lonnie Johnson Biography

PostPosted: Tue Apr 01, 2014 4:52 pm
by Alan Balfour
Perhaps Dean's book will throw light on Lonnie's performance at the Royal Festival Hall 29 June 1952 where he sang:

Just Another Day
Backwater Blues
Careless Love
+ 5 others (unknown)

Legend has it that Lonnie made "back stage" recordings with Lonnie Donegan, whose Jazz Band appeared on the same bill. Probably an "urban myth".

Re: Lonnie Johnson Biography

PostPosted: Tue May 13, 2014 10:04 am
by Alan Balfour
Jeff Harris on his long running Big Road Blues radio show has created a show around this book. There's also an interview with Alger.

See playlist and interview at

Re: Lonnie Johnson Biography

PostPosted: Sat Jun 28, 2014 3:34 pm
by Alan Balfour

Dean Alger
University Of North Texas Press, 2014. 365pp, illus, index. ISBN 978 1 57441 546 9, £20.50

In a previous attempt to publish a biography about Lonnie Johnson, Dean Alger found his proposal rejected on the basis that the publisher felt Johnson was not central enough to the history of the blues to deserve a whole book devoted to him. While such an assertion might elicit an incredulous snort from many blues fans, it’s probably true that for most other people it would be at best an indifferent shrug. I can’t remember when in my life I understood just what a colossal figure in the music’s development Lonnie Johnson was, but it was the result of a gradual accumulation of experience rather than the kind of clamour of acclaim so often accorded to far lesser figures. It was like a slow burn – hearing his own 1920s and ‘30s sides, of course, hearing his accompaniments to others’ vocals, his solos on jazz records, his duets with Eddie Lang, his R&B hits in the 1950s, his Bluesville LPs and much more. And, of course, progressively recognising his influence on so many other guitar players and singers. B.B. King is quoted on the dust jacket here, to the effect that “Lonnie Johnson was the most influential guitarist of the 20th century”. Since similar statements have been made in the past about King himself, this – to say the least – is a statement that carries some weight. Dean Alger has a point to prove, and this book – having eventually found a publisher – is his way of setting about it.

In fact, he has a number of points to prove. If you look at the header of this review, you’ll see that the title of the book is laid out over three lines. This is not a straightforward life story. It’s also an attempt to place Lonnie Johnson in a historical context that as well as being about music, is also about the US – and the wider world – in the 20th century, and the social changes that took place in that time. Dean Alger sees African American music as having played a key role in the modernisation of culture, in the battle for civil rights, and in shaping the changes in race relations that took place in the 20th century. And as he sees Lonnie Johnson as a central figure in the history of African American music in that period, he lays claim on Johnson’s behalf to a key role in the process that effected those changes.

Alger has a lively writing style, more than a little quirky in its approach – the use of random capitals, for example, or the fact that if an anecdote is worth telling once, it’s worth telling again. He’ll break out of his narrative prose, if he thinks that’s the best way to make his point, as he does on p.82, presenting the major cultural developments of the years 1926-1928 in the form of a list that stretches over six pages (enabling us to note that Lonnie Johnson made his first records in the same year as Fritz Lang made Metropolis, and Pan Am began its air services). But the book’s most distinctive characteristic is its digressive, rather sprawling approach to telling its story. To situate Lonnie Johnson in the context of his era, Alger will sidetrack into a discussion of modernism, referencing Picasso, Debussy, T.S. Eliot. Or in a discussion of the guitar, he’ll bring in everybody from Henry VIII to Beethoven, from Segovia to Led Zeppelin. An account of a Johnson session with Victoria Spivey is interrupted to quote a description of B.B. King at the Apollo Theater, because he sang one of the same songs. Talking about the innovative technique in Johnson’s great 1928 recordings, including ‘Playing With The Strings’ and ‘Away Down In The Alley’, he quotes Eric Clapton, but apparently only for the purpose of observing that Clapton doesn’t mention Johnson, that ‘startlingly’ he seems unaware of Lonnie’s influence on B.B.King. Nothing about rock stars and their ignorance of the blues seems at all ‘startling’ to me, but it underlines the general point that Johnson’s role remains under-appreciated.

Nevertheless, the narrative of Lonnie Johnson’s life is in there, even if just occasionally it feels like you’re winkling it out of a larger and much more all-embracing project. If that sounds like a complaint, it really isn’t meant to – this isn’t a whodunnit where we’re impatient to unravel a mystery, and mostly the wider context is helpful and relevant (and he sensibly reserves his main discussion of the question of the relationship between music and civil rights for a 14-page Appendix, albeit in a tiny typeface). Alger has done thorough research into Lonnie Johnson’s life and has uncovered enough new biographical information to satisfy even the best-read fan. For example, it has long been thought – because Johnson said so in a Jazz Journal interview that seems to have provided the basis for most biographical information published subsequently – that apart from himself and his brother James, his entire family had died in the influenza epidemic of 1917, in New Orleans. But, in an interview with Moses Asch in 1967, as Alger points out, he talked about his mother, and mentioned that she was then 94, while in an unpublished interview in 1960, he told Paul Oliver that his father had died in 1934.

Digging out such interview material, published and unpublished, linking it with discographical data, contemporary newspaper reports and ads and other historical accounts, he is able to draw connections out into what seems to be a highly reliable account (although noting inconsistencies and contradictions where they arise, as they do). But as well as referencing the work of a wide range of other researchers, he has also done research of his own so that, for example, he is able to offer a good account based on new interview material with people concerned, of how Johnson ended up living in Canada, and of his last days there. There’s also plenty of analysis of Johnson’s recordings and of techniques he pioneered. These use some technical jargon, but not enough to be a problem for the musically uninitiated, and to help, Alger has prepared a CD of what he considers to be the best of Johnson’s recordings. (At the time of publication, this doesn’t seem to have been released – a note in Appendix 3 says “record company arrangements pending” – but there’s no shortage of reissues out there on CD, and on streaming services.) Nobody reading Alger’s analyses, while listening to the musical examples he cites, could come away from this in any doubt of Lonnie Johnson’s genius, his innovation both in guitar technique and vocals, and his contribution to blues lyrics.

Right at the start, Alger expresses his firm intention to write a book that will appeal beyond the reach of those blues books which, he feels, put off anybody who isn’t a specialist. One way in which he addresses this is through what seems almost like an obsessional urge to trace Johnson’s influence in every guitar player who came after, in every form of music. This is all great fun, well-argued, and generally convincing, even though it’s often about lines of descent rather than direct influence. For example, towards the end, inserted into the narrative between the 1967 Folkways recordings and Johnson’s death in 1969, is a section which works hard at convincing readers of the debt pop and rock stars like Page, Hendrix, Allman etc owed to Johnson (the direct influence was almost always B.B. King, whose own debt to Lonnie has already been laid out at length). I have no argument with any of this, even if calling Johnson ‘the original guitar hero’ makes me a little uneasy, considering the modern stereotype of that phenomenon, with all its face-screwing, finger-twiddling, posturing bombast – the very antithesis of a man who always seemed to play with the most exquisite taste, for whom subtlety and restraint were always as important as displays of dexterity.

Not that this takes away from what Dean Alger has achieved here. His documenting of Lonnie Johnson’s life and music, the context in which it was made and its continuing cultural importance, is of real substance and considerable value. Lonnie Johnson deserves proper biographical documentation as much as anyone does, and Alger has provided that, and more. In the preface, he encourages readers to start a letter-writing campaign, aimed at Lonnie’s inclusion in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, his own book is a far better tribute to this great artist than that dubious honour could ever be.
Ray Templeton (Blues & Rhythm 290, p. 45)