Lonnie Johnson was the “governor” of blues guitar in the 1920’s. His playing combined incredibly fast melodic runs with evocative blues licks. His playing was the forerunner of jazz and rock guitar. Lonnie Johnson’s playing is highly challenging, provocative and exciting. His recordings from the 1920s were highly influential among bluesmen and widely imitated. His incredible skill on the fingerboard also made him popular among jazz players. Lonnie recorded countless solo records as well as accompanying Texas Alexander, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang. Though he did not possess a country blues background, the New Orleans-born guitarist exemplified a high caliber of musicianship while retaining a strong feeling for the blues. His fluid single note lines and advanced flat-picking technique served as a model for early jazz guitarists and a host of Delta bluesmen.
Born and raised in New Orleans, by his late teens, Lonnie played in his father's family band at banquets and weddings, performing on guitar and violin alongside his brother James "Steady Roll" Johnson. Johnson eventually played jobs with jazz trumpeter Punch Miller in New Orleans' Storyville district. He also played blues on violin at the Iroquois Theatre and Pineri's in the French Quarter. Though folk blues songsters were not the most popular form of entertainment in the cultural world of New Orleans, Johnson no doubt absorbed their influence, (he worked the Storyville district from 1910-1917)
In 1917 Johnson traveled to England to perform with a revue show. In 1920 Johnson traveled to St. Louis and, for the next two years, performed with Missouri-born trumpeter Charlie Creath's Jazz-O-Maniacs on riverboat steamer SS St. Paul, and on the SS Capitol with the band of Kentucky-born pianist Fate Marable. Johnson also spent a considerable amount of time in St. Louis, Texas, New York, and Chicago while performing in theaters and on riverboats, strongly influencing the musicians based in each of these areas.
In 1924 Johnson toured with the comedy act of Clenn & Jenkins and performed with his brother James, at Katy's Red Club in East St. Louis. He subsequently worked the TOBA circuit, and by 1925 won a talent contest at the Booker T. Washington Theatre sponsored by Okeh Records; as part of the prize he received a recording contract with the company. In November 1925, just prior to his own session for Okeh, he made his recording debut with Creath's Jazz-O-Maniacs, playing violin and singing on "Won't Don't Blues." Two days later, he recorded his first session for Okeh, accompanied by violinist De Louise Searcy and pianist John Arnold, turning out two numbers "Mr. Johnson's Blues" and the hit "Falling Rain Blues." Also at the Okeh studios he recorded with Searcy and his brother James, a session in which members of the trio each alternated between playing piano, guitar and violin. As a house musician for Okeh, 1925-1929, Johnson cut sessions with a host of artists as well as numerous recordings under his own name. In August 1927 he took part in several New York sessions for Okeh which debuted blues singer Alger "Texas" Alexander--a country-bred Texas blues vocalist who sang in a style shaped from field hollers and the chants of prison work gangs.