Somewhere along the line, maybe because he refused to paint himself into a tidy genre corner and instead fueled his voracious creative appetite with Tin Pan Alley standards as well as the blues, Lonnie Johnson’s never received credit for his founding father role in the development of modern guitar. You can hear his clean, ringing style in players from Scotty Moore to B.B. King (and conversely Eric Clapton to Mark Knopfler to Brian Setzer, for godsakes). After successes in the thirties and forties playing with partner Eddie Lang and even Louis Armstrong, he dropped out of sight. While umpteen delta bluesmen were getting the rediscovery treatment, the urbane Johnson was surviving on modest gigs in Canada. When he had dates in New York, he stayed with friend and blues aficionado Bernie Strassberg. This archival CD was recorded in Strassberg’s apartment in 1965 when Johnson was seventy six and it’s a rare document of an artist relaxed and among friends. That informality makes for some sweet soul music showcasing not only Johnson’s lean lines but his surprisingly rich vocals.
On tunes as diverse as Kurt Weill’s "September Song", Hoagy Carmichael’s "Rockin’ Chair" and Bessie Smith’s "Backwater Blues", Johnson sings with raw power as his solo guitar runs cascade around him. In songs by Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy and Fatha Hines, he inhabits the material with chilling confidence. On "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, he sings not as a Bess to her child as Gershwin intended, but as Sporting Life trying to get some action. There was plenty of youthful spunk left in the old boy and this disc makes you wish we’d paid more attention.