The Book Cooks
From Chapter 3:
Toronto was Lonnie Johnson’s last stop in a career of stops, at least the eighth city in which he had lived for any length of time. “I’m a roamin’ rambler,” he sang rather presciently in his Roaming Rambler Blues during the mid-1920s, embracing an image that was popular among blues singers of the day. “I ramble and roam everywhere.”
He set out at some point in the late 1910s from New Orleans, where he was born Alonzo Johnson on the 8th of February 1889, 1894, 1899 or 1900. This last, recorded on his application for US Social Security, was his year of preference by the time he had reached Toronto, its double zeroes simplifying the calculation of his age and, once that calculation had been made, leaving him still young enough to be prized by the ladies – always a consideration in Johnson’s mind. “I got a gal in Texas,” he boasted in the third stanza of Roaming Rambler Blues. “I got gals in Tennessee.” Soon enough, he had gals in Toronto, too.
His age was just one of many variables in the stories that he told of his life. While he could be reasonably forthcoming when questioned by interviewers about his career, he was not especially consistent, instead displaying a free and fanciful attitude toward the dates and order of significant events and offering wild exaggerations as to their duration.
In a 1967 interview with Moses Asch of Folkways Records, for example, he squeezed more than 25 years of work both in and out of music between his first blues recordings for OKeh in – his date – 1920 and his first jazz recordings with Louis Armstrong in – as history documents it – 1927. Five years with OKeh, five in an East St. Louis steel mill, five as a violinist with Charlie Creath on Mississippi River steamers, three in a Peoria, Illinois, nightclub and seven in a Peoria foundry – as well as stints manhandling railway ties in a creosote plant and maintaining the greens at a golf course. That done, Johnson told Asch, he then spent 11 years on the Keith vaudeville circuit.
Thus Johnson in 1967. A few years earlier, though, in an interview with the British blues historian Paul Oliver, he estimated his OKeh contract at 11 years, his time with Charlie Creath at seven and his association with the vaudevillians Glenn & Jenkins, a Keith act, at four.
Some of Johnson’s assertions can be substantiated, some disproved. Others remain beyond verification. Nothing has been found, for example, to document the time that he claimed to have spent with a revue in England during the First World War, or to support his lament that, in his absence abroad, his entire family, save for his brother James, died of the flu – ostensibly in the pandemic that swept North America in 1918.
All of these things may well have happened. Indeed many of them most certainly did, though perhaps not quite as dramatically or for as long as Johnson suggested – ever, it seems, trying to impress. How else to explain his boasts during the 1960s that, previous assertions notwithstanding, his mother was in fact still very much alive and in her nineties?
Some of his assertions seem safe enough, their accuracy in any case of no great importance one way or the other. His family, he said, was large and musical, sufficiently so on both counts that his father, whom he once described as a shoemaker, was able to form a string band that performed for weddings, dances and other social functions. The band’s existence is corroborated by bassist George “Pops” Foster, who heard Johnson playing guitar on street corners “all over New Orleans” with one of his brothers and their father, both violinists.
Another Crescent City jazz musician, trumpeter Ernest “Punch” Miller, spoke of working with Johnson in the small town of Raceland and along the nearby Bayou Lafourche, southwest of New Orleans, which would likely have been as close as the young guitarist came to the sort of rural experience that shaped the lives and music of so many of his contemporaries among the “country” blues singers whose popularity during in the 1920s paralleled his. Miller and Johnson ran together for about three years; Miller later dated the time frame implicitly, if incompletely, when he identified one of the items in their repertoire of blues and popular melodies as Beautiful Doll – presumably Oh, You Beautiful Doll, a song not in circulation until 1911.
Johnson’s travels with Miller aside, he was a city boy. He was also – according to Pops Foster – “the only guy we had around New Orleans who could play jazz guitar.” There were other guitarists in the city’s early jazz bands, of course, including Foster’s brother Willie, as well as Emile “Stalebread” Lacoume, Stonewall Matthews, Johnny St. Cyr, Bud Scott and two men who worked at one time or another around 1900 with the legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden – Brock Mumford and Lorenzo Staulz. But Foster made particular note of Johnson’s ability to “take off on a number” – to improvise – and suggested rather ambiguously that he was “tough to follow.”
To wit, a tough act to follow or a tough musician to accompany? Either way, Johnson’s skills clearly made an impression on his fellow musicians – his skills and his versatility. As was common practice among guitarists of the day in New Orleans, he also played banjo; in truth, most of his contemporaries were banjoists first, guitarists second. But Johnson’s proficiency extended further to violin and piano; he played one or the other on several of his early blues recordings for OKeh in 1925 and 1926, alternating between the two instruments with his brother James, who was similarly accomplished.
Naturally, a musician capable of applying himself to a variety of instruments would likely also be adaptable to a variety of musical styles, in Johnson’s case to the variety of musical styles that flourished in New Orleans, that most cosmopolitan of American cities – whether blues and rags, both on their own terms and as they were being embraced by jazz in its early years, or the Cuban influences and the “Spanish tinge” more generally that flowed north across the Gulf of Mexico, or again the principles of melody and harmony that were sustained by the Creole musicians of New Orleans in their veneration of all things European.
Not that Johnson necessarily mastered each of these styles in detail. But his awareness of them – if only in passing, if only because they were “in the air” as part of the city’s rich musical culture – would have offered him a broader frame of musical reference in his formative years than that held by other blues singers and guitarists in theirs. Most of his rivals in the late 1920s tended to be rustics whose styles were identified with a state or a region – be it Texas, the Mississippi Delta or the Piedmont – and were shaped by the immediate and inherently parochial influence of other rustics who were simply working their way back and forth through the same area. While they did not limit themselves to blues, at least not until they began to record, they were no match for Johnson in terms of their range.
“We played anything [people] wanted to hear,” he once explained, itemizing the repertoire on which he and his brother James drew as “ragtime melodies, sweet songs, waltzes – that kind of thing. A lot of people liked opera, so we did some of that, too.”
Clearly, Johnson was on a different path from the beginning than his contemporaries. That path might very well have taken him to England during the war; it most certainly took him by the early 1920s into vaudeville, where he appears to have started at very near the top, albeit in a supporting role, when he travelled on the “big time” B.F. Keith circuit with the popular African-American song, dance and comedy team Glenn & Jenkins.
William Glenn and Walter Jenkins appeared in blackface as porters in “Working for the Railroad,” a routine that found them, brooms in hand, sweeping out a mock train station. For good measure, Jenkins played “the ‘bluest’ harmonica... ever heard in vaudeville.”
Johnson was not billed by name in the act but may have been present in January 1922 when it was reviewed at the Palace Theatre in New York for Variety. The reporter, one “Ibee.,” who had apparently seen Glenn & Jenkins before, took note of the changes that they had made to the act, in particular the banjo solo that they had added.
“It was played by a third member,” Ibee. wrote, “but that was not noticed until Glenn and Jenkins appeared from the opposite wings. The new ‘boy’ was out for the finish with his instrument, accompanying the team for a new version of the sweeping song and dance...” A review of the act in Winnipeg later in 1922 made favorable reference to its “harmony on the mouth organ and guitar.”
Glenn & Jenkins were among the select few African-American acts booked by the Keith organization and its affiliates in the northern and western states, in Canada and along the Eastern seaboard – everywhere, in fact, save the south. Such employment was prized for its prestige and comparatively civil working conditions by African-American entertainers, who were otherwise limited – as Johnson soon enough found for himself – to smaller, hardscrabble circuits, notably the TOBA (Theater Owners’ Booking Association) chain of mostly second and third-rate theatres that catered to black audiences in the south, southwest and midwest, as well as in a few of the larger northern cities.
Johnson’s memories of his TOBA experiences during the 1920s were mixed: “You do five, six shows a day; you got little money, but everybody’s happy.” He had started, he once said, at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia and “went as far as TOBA can carry you.” The African-American press of the day offered the occasional report as to the whereabouts of one Alonzo Johnson, noting for example that he was working in Florida with Charles “Fats” Hayden during the fall of 1923 as a member of Riddick and Santanar’s 100 Pound Girl Company and that he was appearing elsewhere in the south with Mary Hicks a year later as two of Leola Grant’s Plaza Players. Both Hayden and Grant later recorded as blues singers; so too did Johnson’s wife in the late 1920s, whose name – coincidentally or not – was Mary.
Grant’s Players were at the Vendome Theater in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when they came under the scrutiny of Hi Tom Long, a local correspondent for Billboard and the Chicago Defender. “Johnson and Hicks, Alonzo and Mary,” Long wrote in the latter publication, “opened with Going South, also introducing some fast cross-fire comedy lines that were thoroughly clean [ie, not salacious] in every respect. Mary Hicks [sang] Some Day [sic] Sweetheart, while Johnson did The Jelly Roll Blues; [they closed] with a nifty routine of buck, wing and clog dancing...”
Alonzo Johnson continued to travel with Mary Hicks in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma during the winter of 1924-5. Off the road, meanwhile, he – assuming Alonzo and Lonnie were one and the same Johnson – gravitated toward St. Louis. When Lonnie Johnson entered a “blues singing contest” there at the Booker Washington Theatre in February 1924, he was living in Lovejoy, Illinois, a small African-American community on the northern outskirts of East St. Louis, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis proper.
Johnson later insisted that he had won the Booker Washington Theatre contest – that he had taken first prize for 18 weeks straight, and that his success led to his recording contract with OKeh, the first label of several in the early 1920s to introduce a “race” series of blues and gospel releases intended expressly for the African-American market. And indeed the contest did run for 18 weeks, beginning in November 1923, with an OKeh contract as its grand prize. Johnson, however, was not among the initial 31 entrants identified by the local African-American newspaper, the St. Louis Argus.
Most of the hopefuls were in fact female, reflecting the predominance of women among early blues recording stars, from Mamie Smith and Lucille Hegamin in 1920 through Ethel Waters, Trixie Smith and Edith Wilson in 1921 to Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey in 1923, a matriarchy that remained unchallenged until Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Johnson himself had their first hits – Jackson in 1925 and Jefferson and Johnson in 1926.
Johnson in any event qualified for the finals at the Booker Washington Theatre only in mid-February 1924 and ultimately lost two weeks later to another St. Louis performer, Irene Scruggs, whom OKeh recorded – as promised – soon after in New York.
Johnson would wait another 20 months to make his first recordings for OKeh, the invitation to do so likely coming from the company’s St. Louis talent scout, Jesse J. Johnson, an entrepreneurial figure who owned the Deluxe Music Shoppe on Market Street and promoted social events in local halls, including the Paradise Dance Palace, and on Mississippi steamers, notably the St. Paul. Foremost among the musicians in Jesse Johnson’s regular employ during the mid-1920s was the East St. Louis cornetist Charlie Creath; it was with Creath’s Jazz-0-Maniacs, albeit reduced in number from eight to four, that Lonnie Johnson appeared as a singer and violinist on a single OKeh side, Won’t Don’t Blues, in the very first days of November 1925.
1. Lonnie Johnson, Roaming Rambler Blues, recorded 12 August 1927 for OKeh in New York.
2. Lonnie Johnson, “The entire family was musicians,” Lonnie Johnson: The Complete Folkways Recordings, track 23.
3. Paul Oliver, Conversation with the Blues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 107, 122, 140.
4. David Cobb, “The lonely Christmas of Lonnie Johnson,” Toronto Telegram, 24 December 1966, 3; Samuel Charters, Walking a Blues Road: A Selection of Blues Writing 1956-2004 (London: Marion Boyers, 2004), 123-124.
5. Marci McDonald. “Lonely Lonnie Johnson sings and lives the blues,” Toronto Star, 5 April 1969, 61.
6. Pops Foster with Tom Stoddard, The Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1971), 92.
7. “An interview with Punch Miller,” Laurie Wright, ed., Storyville 1998-9 (Chigwell, Essex, England: L. Wright, 1999), 156. [Drawn from notes from an interview conducted 1 September 1959 in New Orleans by Richard Allen and “Mac” Fairhurst.]
8. Foster and Stoddard, Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman, 92.
9. Chris Albertson, “Lonnie Johnson: Chased by the blues,” Bluesland, Portraits of Twelve Major American Blues Masters, ed. Pete Welding, Toby Byron (New York: Dutton, 1991), 42.
10. M.H.S., “Vaudeville reviews: Palace,” New York Clipper, 25 January 1922, 9.
11. Ibee., “Palace,” Variety, 27 January 1922, 8.
12. “Season’s best show at Orpheum this week,” Winnipeg Tribune, 19 September 1922, 11.
13. Oliver, Conversation with the Blues, 140.
14. “Here and there among the folks,” Billboard, 20 October 1923, 57.
15. Johnson’s wife, who recorded as Mary Johnson for Brunswick and Paramount in 1929 and for Champion and Decca during the 1930s, was born Mary Smith. If Mary Smith and Mary Hicks were one and the same, then her marriage to Johnson was likely not her first. See “Mary Johnson” in Sheldon Harris, Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979), 287-288.
16. H.T.L. “Vendome Theater,” Chicago Defender, 8 November 1924, 8; a variation of this review appeared with the byline Hi Tom Long in Billboard, 15 November 1924, 49.
17. “Miss Bessie Smith at the Booker Washington Theatre,” St. Louis Argus, 22 February 1924, 4.
18. Oliver, Conversation with the Blues, 122.
19. “Blues singing contest to start at Booker Washington theatre next Thursday,” St. Louis Argus, 26 October 1923, 4.
20. “Miss Irene Scruggs wins final blues singing contest,” St. Louis Argus, 7 March 1924, 4. According to Brian Rust, Jazz Records 1897-1942 (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1978), 1376, Scruggs made her first recordings for OKeh on or about 30 April and 1 May 1924. There are no reports in the St. Louis Argus of a similar blues contest during the winter of 1924-1925.
© Mark Miller 2011