Mark Miller: Way Down That Lonesome Road - Lonnie Johnson in Toronto 1965-1970
Paper; 160 pages
The Mercury Press
The life of singer and guitarist Lonnie Johnson has been chronicled well enough for a blues performer. But leave it to Mark Miller to find an adjunct that adds a whole new dimension to Johnson's biographythe last five years of his life, which he lived in Toronto.
Miller has an aptitude for seeing things in a way few writers do. His accomplishments are many, whether he is covering the history of jazz in Canada as he did in The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada (The Mercury Press, 2001), or focusing on a particular musician as he did with High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow (The Mercury Press, 2007) and Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life (The Mercury Press, 2009) .
Johnson's last five years was a time of ups and downs, a time of invention and of reinvention that he fed with some avid imagination. It was also a time when his waning years were a twist in the winds of fate that saw him glorified, and ignored. Miller takes the reader through the troughs and peaks of Johnson's final years with the innate sense of perception that has become a hallmark of his writing.
Johnson came to Toronto in May 1965 for a brief appearance at the New Gate of Cleve. He returned in June of that year, making the city his home until he passed away in June 1970.
Johnson was an original. One of the finest proponents of the blues both as a singer and a guitarist, he established himself with a string of hits, many of which became standards. He was also an enigma, rotating the truth to parallel his needs. He was a character, too, a unique personality who would go into Sam the Record Man, the store which stocked the best jazz and blues records at the time. This was mainly due to John Norris, who founded and published Coda magazine and Stuart Broomer, now a noted critic and author. Johnson, wearing a wide brimmed fedora would ask how his records were selling and then tramp up to the offices of owner Sam Sniderman to ask why his records were not in the store window.
Life in Toronto wasn't easy for Johnson. He had taken to singing pop songs at his shows, much to the dismay of his fans. This fodder for the masses was his way of getting an audience. In the midst of his engagements, that veered "between adulation and .... degrees of indifference," Columbia Records asked him to record what would be Stompin' At The Penny with the Metro Stompers. One critic dubbed it "the best Canadian jazz LP of all time." Though Johnson was on only six of the 13 tunes, he was the defining presence on the record.
Miller is an artist in his own right. He moves seamlessly between the music and the personal life bringing into focus the all too human characteristics of Johnson. There was his love for women, many women. There was his sense of being thankful, like the time he fell when he was on his way to a job. A lady took him to her house and repaired the tear in his pants. Johnson was back the next day with ice cream for her and ate most of it himself.
Miller gets to the core of Johnson as a man and as a performer. He balances the personal with the professional, finally taking the reader into those last days: the day he was struck by a car and taken to hospital where "his door was always open," the night he sang "My Mother's Eyes" at the Savarin after he was released, and the invitation to play at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in Michigan in 1970, which was never to be.
Johnson was a staple of the blues, a man much vaunted and admired. But life deals its own hands and what once was, isn't always so. Johnson may have compromised, but he never gave up. The last years of his life were shaped by circumstance just as they were by his own perspective. Miller illuminates this fascinating journey in a book that captivates right through.