I picked this album up many years ago in one of those independent record stores that used to dot the strip malls of America. They were dangerous places and fun too. Hours would pass like minutes as I explored rack upon rack of tapes and CDs, while racking up an ever bigger dent in my credit rating.
Thankfully, the independent record store is making a comeback, at least in my hometown of Melbourne. Every week a book store expands its stock to include boxes of old vinyl or a new vinyl shop opens it doors offering to the world once more that deep richness of the 33 1/3 rpm disc.
The name, Lonnie Johnson, had been a small whisper in my mind at the time I made this purchase. And looking back, I wonder, why? I was pretty into the blues by that point but was focused primarily on the Chicago electric scene. I knew nothing of the pioneers of the genre and the discovery of that sophisticated East Coast sound of the 20s and 30s was many years in the future. Perhaps there is some sort of sub-conscious ‘knowing’ that inhabits the ether and which operates, unbeknownst to us, compelling the purchase of music which normally would go unnoticed. I don’t know.
This record, though, has been an absolute winner for me since that Fate Full day two decades ago. It is a solo record; just Lonnie, his voice and tremendously accomplished and deceptively simple guitar playing. There is an inherent melody in this collection, something that goes beyond the individual songs. Lonnie’s voice has a timeless quality. I hate words like ‘timeless’, normally. They mean everything and nothing. But in this case it is appropriate. I have never been able to peg whether this is an old man’s voice or that of a young singer. It just is; doesn’t betray age. And it commands our attention because of its sweet deep tunefulness. Johnson is able to use his physical instrument with such delicacy too. Listen to each of these tracks with care but especially the final ballad, You Won’t Let Me Go and try to think of a more sensitive interpretation.
I’m not a guitar player so will defer to those who understand the nuances of the art. B.B. King claims Johnson as his most significant influence, which for me pretty much sums up the case. The guitar picking on this album reminds me of the writing of the Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, who has built an international reputation on writing wonderfully humane stories in the most basic prose. But try to do the same and you’ll see how difficult that ‘simplicity’ is to replicate.
Lonnie Johnson’s guitar playing is like this. Each note sharp and distinct, so easy to identify. Yet in their relationship with other notes there is born a complex emotional feeling. A feeling of warmth and the particularly human pleasure that arises from when the dart hits the bullseye smack in the middle.
The songs here cover a few standards (Summertime, What a Difference a Day Makes) as well as originals. Evil Woman is one of my personal favorites: my woman is so evil/she sleeps sideways in the bed !
01 New Orleans Blues
02 My Little Kitten Susie
03 Evil Woman
04 What a Difference a Day Makes
05 Moaning Blues
07 Lines in My Face
08 Losing Game
09 New Year’s Blues
10 Slow and Easy
11 Four Walls and Me
12 You Won’t Let Me Go