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She used to be beautiful, but she lived her life too fast - Forest City Joe

Author Topic: Remembering Lonnie  (Read 2525 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Remembering Lonnie
« on: November 17, 2007, 08:03:03 AM »
Found the following lurking on my computer. It's a recent scan (2004) so can only assume it was done for Dean Alger. From Jazz Journal, January 1972 (p. 22 & 39, less photo). No idea who the pseudonymous sounding writer is.  :)

I remember Lonnie
By Verum Clapp

One friend that I miss most grievously at Christmas is the lovable old Lonnie Johnson, the jazz guitarist and blues singer, who died in Toronto in June 1970. In retrospect I find it hard to associate him with the blues. He was always laughing. The last time I saw him, a few days before the end, he was kneeling on the floor of his apartment playing with two kittens and laughing so hard he could hardly talk to me. One of the first things you noticed about Lonnie was his eyes which had the mischievous look of a boy who has been caught raiding the cookie jar. When he laughed his whole face crinkled up and you thought of Mrs. Fezziwigg who was 'one substantial smile.'

The obits said he was 'virtually broke' when he died. He had made and lost a respectable fortune during his life. But he was rich in many ways. He had the love and respect of friends all over the world. One time he turned to me and said, 'I've got six beautiful daughters and the Lord has spared me.'

Christmas was a lonely time for him. His home was in Philadelphia but he preferred to spend his Yuletides in Toronto. In '69 he had no choice as he was bed-ridden in hospital all year. He was hit by a car in March and many times during the year his life hung by a thread. He was released from the hospital on April 1st, 1970, and walked out under his own steam. His voice was strong as ever but it was clear that he would not be able to play his beloved 'gittar' again. Lonnie, of course, never gave up. He was having therapy for his fingers and had actually contracted to appear at a Blues Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August.

Lonnie had very little schooling, probably only a few months. He pronounced ghosts as 'goses', difference as 'different.' But he had a poet's feeling for words. Some of his early blues were poetry: e.g., 'cold ground is my bed, cross ties for my pillow blue skies for a blanket, and the moonlight is my spread, 'cause she's mine, all mine.' His former loves were 'used to be's'. Women were 'chicks' or 'babies' according to their age. When he inquired about my wife, who is in her sixties, he would say 'How's your baby?' In the summer of '69 I called on Lonnie one day and he was reading about Louis Armstrong who was seriously ill in New York. 'Poor Louis,' he said, shaking his head sadly, 'they say he's so thin you can read a newspaper through his butt!'

He had an educated heart. One night at a local club a man requested Lonnie to play his favourite ballad. A few minutes later Lonnie played it but the man talked right through it. At the next break the man accosted him and chided him for not playing his request. So Lonnie played it again, and a friend said, 'Lonnie, how can you be so patient with such lunks?' He said, 'Oh, I wouldn't be rude like the customers.' Among the letters he received in hospital was one from a woman in Paris to thank him for saving her life when she was nearly run over by a speeding automobile. Lonnie had forgotten .the incident. He never refused to sing for patients in hospitals or for any good cause. People often came into clubs just as Lonnie was singing his last number. Dead tired as he was he would sing an extra fifteen minutes for them. A friend found several Mother's Day cards among his effects. He bought the most beautiful and expensive cards he could find. Of course they weren't mailed as his mother died long since.

Lonnie suffered greatly from the hands of well meaning but insensitive writers. Their mouldy fig approach to the blues infuriated him. They often romanticized the blues singer by picturing him as old, blind, toothless, ignorant, mule skinner or cotton-picker Lonnie was sophisticated, at home in any city in the world, and young in everything but years. One writer described him as a 'tall, thin, dark man, clumsy, often broody and unhappy.' Actually, he was of medium height and weighed 165 pounds. He loved to walk and often did five miles in an afternoon. He ate and drank sparingly. Toronto jazz writers were more discerning but he winced when they called him 'old Lonnie Johnson' or 'the eighty-year-old Johnson.'

Cripes! he'd say. 'Who's going to hire an old man of eighty?' Only a few writers such as Helen McNamara and Martin Williams noticed the pathos in his music. Everything he did, even his ballads, were saturated with the feeling of the tears in things.

He was without guile and sometimes was discriminated against and didn't know it. One time he had to look for new digs and walked the streets for days knocking on doors. 'It's funny,' he said to me, 'They all want women for roomers?no men.' I knew the opposite was true but didn't have the heart to tell him. One day I called on him to get his picture autographed. There was no response when I knocked on his door but I heard sounds inside so I opened the door. He was kneeling on the floor with his head in a pail and his arms encased in long rubber gloves which seemed to be streaked with red. 'Great Scott! ' I thought. 'He's been in a fight and is washing the blood off his head! ' I apologized for coming in and said I'd call at a more opportune time but he mumbled in the pail for me to wait. In a few minutes he raised his head, dried himself, and said that he was just dying his hair. I handed him a pen and he autographed my picture 'To a good little bad boy?from Lonnie Johnson.'

He was a Roman Catholic but he never went to church except, of course, for his funeral. When he was in hospital he named Roberta Simpson as his next of kin. This amused her as she is Jewish. The matter of who should conduct the funeral arose: a rabbi or priest? He said it made no 'different' to him. 'The kingdom of heaven,' wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, 'is of the child like, of those who are easy to please, who love and give pleasure.'

Offline GhostRider

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #1 on: November 17, 2007, 08:50:58 AM »
BH:

Thanks for this, Lonnie is one of my favs.

Alex

Offline Rivers

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #2 on: November 17, 2007, 09:00:03 AM »
'Poor Louis,' he said, shaking his head sadly, 'they say he's so thin you can read a newspaper through his butt!'

Now that's funny, in a sad kind of way.

The account jives exactly with the sleeve notes to one of his last recordings which I picked up at a record convention a couple of weeks ago, Stompin' At The Penny, Columbia Legacy. The notes were written in 1970 by Jim McHarg of Toronto Dixieland band McHarg's Metro Stompers with whom Lonnie shared a residency at The Penny. The similarities at first made me think 'Verum Clapp' may possibly be McHarg. But Clapp doesn't come across like a musician who had played with Lonnie so probably not.

Among others there's a great shot of Lonnie and Louis together.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #3 on: November 17, 2007, 09:47:37 AM »
The account jives exactly with the sleeve notes to one of his last recordings which I picked up at a record convention a couple of weeks ago, Stompin' At The Penny, Columbia Legacy. The notes were written in 1970 by Jim McHarg of Toronto Dixieland band McHarg's Metro Stompers with whom Lonnie shared a residency at The Penny. The similarities at first made me think 'Verum Clapp' may possibly be McHarg. But Clapp doesn't come across like a musician who had played with Lonnie so probably not.
What's the expression? Great mind's think alike? I have the original 1980s Harmony LP release and I thought much the same but bit my tongue when posting so as not to be prejudicial!
« Last Edit: November 17, 2007, 11:40:25 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Bill Roggensack

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #4 on: November 21, 2007, 05:01:03 PM »
Bunker Hill sez:
Quote
No idea who the pseudonymous sounding writer is.

Let's see - Verum is latin for "truly" or "truth" or "in fact" .....
And Clap[p] - well, that could be ..... a dreaded disease, among other things. 

There is a phone listing for a "V. Clapp" in Brampton, Ontario which is part of metro Toronto. But if Mr. Clapp's wife was in her sixties before Lonnie's death in 1970, a direct connection seems unlikely.
Cheers,
FrontPage

Offline Chris A

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #5 on: February 15, 2009, 07:02:01 AM »
Parts of this piece reflect the Lonnie I knew, but I think the writer's imagination mars it. One really has to wonder why it was written under a pseudonym, a fact that?in my mind, at least?should casts some suspicion on its credibility. My own doubts, however, are based on personal experiences with Lonnie, who was good at sizing up people and applying what he gathered to his own advantage. I sometimes had to remind him that I wasn't born the day before, On such occasions, he smiled, winked, and made himself eminently forgivable. It was impossible for me to get angry at Lonnie, and he knew it. I should also point out that?at least when I was around him?Lonnie was not "always laughing." In fact, there was a sadness about him. Once he knew that you understood the reason for that, he shed a few veneers of detachment. Around the time when I met Lonnie, in 1959, the late vibraphonist, Lem Winchester, brought to my apartment his grandfather. He was very anxious for me to meet the elderly man, because?said Lem?you can read so much in the eyes of older people, the good times and the bad times. Well, once that outer layer dissipated, Lonnie's eyes afforded a remarkable glimpse into his past and a clearer understanding of his present persona. The chapter in my life that Lonnie dictated was brief, but significant.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #6 on: February 15, 2009, 09:15:10 AM »
Parts of this piece reflect the Lonnie I knew, but I think the writer's imagination mars it.
I think that your eleven page chapter "Lonnie Johnson: Chased by the Blues", in the miscellany Bluesland (edited by Pete Welding) deserves reprinting. So do your 1973 notes to the wonderful double LP "Stars Of The Apollo", but that's another matter.

Offline doctorpep

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #7 on: February 15, 2009, 09:27:21 AM »
Chris A: I think it's wonderful that you knew Lonnie Johnson! Do you feel that the sadness you occasionally read in his eyes was due to most of his family passing away due to influenza, or perhaps due to the overt racism in the south? He must have also been upset that his music wasn't considered "Country Blues" enough to be embraced by many who loved men like Son House and Skip James. That's just a young guy's take on it.
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

Offline Chris A

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #8 on: February 15, 2009, 10:38:47 AM »
Chris A: I think it's wonderful that you knew Lonnie Johnson! Do you feel that the sadness you occasionally read in his eyes was due to most of his family passing away due to influenza, or perhaps due to the overt racism in the south? He must have also been upset that his music wasn't considered "Country Blues" enough to be embraced by many who loved men like Son House and Skip James. That's just a young guy's take on it.

I never attributed it directly to the overwhelming loss of family, because that was so far in the past, but I'm sure that tragedy was part of the accumulation. Lonnie's career had many ups and downs, and?like so many of his contemporary black artists, he saw his share of rip-offs. He was a gentle, sweet person, highly vulnerable to those on the business end who prey upon him. I don't see Lonnie's demeanor as reflecting perpetual sadness as much as a lingering realization that he had not played the game right. After all, he was an extremely talented artist with all the sensibilities that such a gift brings with it, but he never seemed to be taken seriously when he railed against the commercialism that was foisted upon him by managers and agents who primarily saw in him a source of income. I will never forget how depressed he became when he heard how King Records?in an effort to capitalize on his 1960 re-appearance?reissued his "Tomorrow Night" with an inane added vocal chorus. I also recall vividly how hurt he became when the N.Y. Daily News reviewed his appearance with Duke Ellington's orchestra, at Town Hall, NYC, under a heading that referred to: The Janitor and the Duke.

As for how Lonnie felt about not being regarded as an exponent of country blues, I can tell you that he did not like being locked into any particular music genre. It was a source of constant frustration and sorrow that people only saw him as a blues artist. He knew that his talent reached beyond that category. He loved to sing ballads and he was very good at it. He entered the Okeh contest as a blues performer, because that's what the label's talent search was focused on, but, even back then, his horizon was broader. He told me that he never really liked the double entendre material he recorded with Victoria, which is why I excluded that kind of duet from their joint Prestige/Bluesville session. 

Offline doctorpep

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Re: Remembering Lonnie
« Reply #9 on: February 16, 2009, 12:18:56 PM »
That's some very interesting information. Both Lonnie and Josh White seem to have suffered due to the broad horizons that their music encompassed. Both were expert guitar players and could also sing ballads in a beautiful fashion (Lonnie doing "Memories of You" and White doing "Careless Love"). The janitor headline is sad. Lonnie Johnson pioneered Jazz guitar and created a bizarre and brilliant way of backing Texas Alexander that can never be repeated or duplicated.
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

 


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