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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The guitar solo holds a big place in American music, just look at the wild success of the video game, Guitar Hero, which lets you make believe you're playing lead guitar in a top rock band. Well, the man who's credited with playing some of the first recorded guitar solos has largely been forgotten. Lonnie Johnson was one of the few musicians to successfully straddle the worlds of blues, jazz and pop. And now, nearly 40 years after his death, a new tribute CD is trying to restore Johnson's place as the original guitar hero.

Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: The CDs is called "Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson." The name applies as much to the people playing on it, as it does to the rest of us.

Mr. JEF LEE JOHNSON (Musician): He was insane. And I mean that in a good way.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

ROSE: That's high praise coming from Jef Lee Johnson, the guitar hero in his own right, who's backed up the likes of Aretha Franklin and McCoy Tyner. Jef Lee Johnson isn't related to Lonnie Johnson. Until he was invited to play on the tribute album, he had never really listened to Lonnie Johnson.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. J. JOHNSON: Every track, every take, he's trying to play, like, everything that he can. And he can play everything.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. J. JOHNSON: And it was almost avant-garde, as much stuff as he was playing.

ROSE: So Jef Lee Johnson put down his electric guitar and picked up an acoustic.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

ROSE: It's not surprising that even a pro like Jef Lee Johnson was caught off guard. Lonnie Johnson was a private man. Here he is 1967, explaining to Moe Asch of Folkways Records why no one ever wrote his biography.

Mr. LONNIE JOHNSON (Musician): Summer have started and they quit for some reason, I don't know. They look for me to - mostly tell the hardships of my life instead of the best part of my life. And so, I tell them so much, and so much, I don't tell them. My life hasn't been that bad, that I shouldn't tell it, but some parts of a man's private life, he keeps it for himself.

ROSE: Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson was born in New Orleans just before the turn of the 20th century. He got his start playing violin with his father.

Mr. L. JOHNSON: I just bought an instrument, and in six months I was holding a good job.

ROSE: Johnson's father and 10 of his siblings died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. So Johnson headed north. He played on riverboats and wound up in St. Louis. By this time, he was playing guitar. And in 1925, he entered a blue's contest. He won, and landed a deal with Okeh Records.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. L. JOHNSON: (Singing) I want all you people to listen to my song. I want all you people to listen to my song. Remember me after the days I'm gone.

ROSE: Soon, Johnson was soloing on records by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. These recordings built his reputation as the first jazz guitarist to base his solos on single-note melodies, like a horn player — a decade before Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt. It's an approach he perfected on his duo recordings with white guitarist Eddie Lang, who worked with Johnson under a pseudonym at a time when the music industry was segregated.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Lonnie Johnson's first recording contract ran out in the early 1930s, and he spent much of the Great Depression working other jobs to pay the bills.

Mr. L. JOHNSON: I didn't know the nightclub work, and I didn't take any chance. So went back to the steel mill in East St. Louis, and work there five years. I started as a sand cutter and end up as a molder. I was molding these big box car wheels, you seen on the track.

ROSE: At the end of the '30s, Johnson went back into the recording studio — first as a blues singer then as a ballad singer. At the end of the 1940s, he actually scored a pop hit.

(Soundbite of song "Tomorrow Night")

Mr. L. JOHNSON (Singing): Tomorrow night, will you remember what you said tonight, tomorrow night, will all the thrills be gone.

ROSE: A decade later, Lonnie Johnson was all but forgotten.

Mr. CHRIS ALBERTSON (Music Historian, New York): I was on the air, I played Lonnie Johnson's record and I say, I wondered what ever happened to Lonnie Johnson.

ROSE: Chris Albertson is a music historian in New York. In 1959, he was a jazz DJ in Philadelphia.

Mr. ALBERTSON: And then I got a call from somebody at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, somebody who worked there, who said, I work with somebody named Lonnie Johnson. He's a janitor here, he never talks about music. But he's very careful with his hands. So maybe he is the Lonnie Johnson.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. ALBERTSON: The blues you here in the background is not taken from a recording or tape. It's coming to you live from WHIT FM Studios.

ROSE: Albertson had Johnson on his show many times in the early '60s, and helped engineer his comeback on the folk revival scene in New York. Albertson also produced a handful of Lonnie Johnson records.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

ROSE: Johnson was able to quit his job as a janitor at the hotel, and toured extensively. But he kept his home in Philadelphia, where he'd met Susie Smalls a few years earlier.

Ms. SUSIE SMALLS (Wife of Lonnie Johnson): This is Lonnie here. This is me here. When we first met, so this is in '50, around '56 or seven.

ROSE: Smalls still lives in the North Philadelphia row house she bought with Lonnie Johnson in 1960, and where she raised their daughter.

Ms. SMALLS: He was just plain. Yeah, he never did brag at all. But he just loved his - kept his guitar and would play that guitar.

(Soundbite of playing guitar music)

Mr. L. JOHNSON (Singing): Love, my love. Oh, callous love.

ROSE: That 1967 recording was one of Johnson's last. Between songs, he reminisced about his career.

Mr. L. JOHNSON: Been twice around the world, isn't but two places I haven't played in this world. I haven't played Greece and I have played Las Vegas. Ain't that funny, I can't get into Las Vegas. I've played Carnegie Hall four times and I can't play in Las Vegas, what's happening?

ROSE: Johnson's self-deprecating humor and modesty are part of the reason he's not more famous, says Aaron Levinson, who produced the new tribute CD.

Mr. AARON LEVINSON (Producer, New Tribute CD to Johnson): People tend to minimize the contribution of folks that don't have a lot of roman candles associated with their life. He had the roman candles, but they were all coming out of his guitar.

ROSE: If Johnson was bitter about the ups and downs of his career, he never let on.

Mr. L. JOHNSON: These 68 years has been beautiful, it's been hard but I can go to sleep at night. I won't have to worry about I told someone the wrong direction to go. It don't hurt to do a favor. It don't hurt.

ROSE: Johnson spent his last years in Toronto, where he died in 1970. Nearly four decades later, his guitar solos sound as crazy as ever.

From NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of playing guitar music)

SIEGEL: And you can hear full songs from Lonnie Johnson at npr.org/music.

(Soundbite of playing guitar music)

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