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A lot of excitement is generated by their approach, which is just to pile on top of each other, play as loud, hard, and strong as they can, and let the devil take the hindmost - John Miller on Little Buddy Doyle's Renewed Love Blues

Author Topic: Lonnie Johnson: Stompin' At The Penny with Jim McHarg's Metro Stompers  (Read 2080 times)

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Offline Rivers

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Per discussions on the Lonnie book topic, here's an OCR of the Stompin' At The Penny notes. It was reissued on Columbia Legacy in 1994 and seems to be available on Amazon.
CHINA BOY (3:00)
(P Boutelje/R. Winfree)
(L. Johnson)
(J. Oliver)
(R.M. Jones)
(L. Johnson)
(J. Oliver/C. Williams)
(J. McHarg)
(G. Bennard)
GO GO SWING (2:40)
(L. Johnson)
(L. Wolfe/Gilbert/A. Baer)
(J. Oliver)
(S. Bechet)

All songs recorded November, 1965.

IN LATE JUNE 1965 I nervously paced the confines of Toronto's Bay Street bus terminal awaiting the arrival of the overnight New York bus. John McHugh, the owner of the famous Penny Farthing coffeehouse, was my companion, and if anything, this only added to my tension. We had come down to meet a 65-year-old guitar-playing blues singer. I had sold John on the idea of booking this old timer for a two week engagement. This hadn't been too difficult, as he is a dyed-in-the-wool jazz fanatic and was enthusiastic about the project from the word go. The reason for my concern was the change that had swept Yorkville Village these past two years. We had progressed from a lackadaisical sing-along concept of entertainment to a hustling "give my regards to Broadway" type of hard sell promotion. The nightly milling throng of pleasure seekers liked it loud and brash. How would this 65-year-old man, a star from another era, compete with blaring rock 'n' roll, good-looking young folk singers and phony veneer that is discotheque. If my hunch was wrong in having this artist engaged, then it was going to cost someone some money and perhaps hurt a nice old man.

My interest in this guitar-playing blues singer was born 20 years ago in the city of Glasgow, Scotland. At that time I was a member of a small group of individuals who had banded together to form a club. The unusual aspect of this club was that the membership included doctors, lawyers, plasterers, butchers and other representation from the professional and artisan fields. To bring such a diverse group together in what was still very much a class-conscious society was unheard of. The subject matter that interested us all and lowered the class barrier was our common love of jazz music. Each member took it in turn to bring along part of his record collection and give a recital. During these recitals, members turned up all sorts of information on matters of jazz. One evening a noted Glasgow doctor was in the chair. He had chosen as his subject, the famous Louis Armstrong recordings of 1927. Introducing one of the discs, he said, "I would like you all to pay particular attention to the guitar player. It is popular opinion among collectors, that in spite of the genius of Armstrong's trumpet, this version of 'Savoy Blues' owes its greatness to this comparatively unknown guitarist who completely dominates the rhythm section, and sparks Armstrong to one of his finest solos. This, in my opinion, is the greatest jazz guitar work ever put on wax." The guitar player on that very famous recording was Lonnie Johnson, the man we were waiting to greet at the bus terminal.

Lonnie Johnson, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the turn of the century, has had a more varied career than any other figure in jazz history. In spite of his classic performances with the great bands of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, fame, in its general concept, has eluded him. Thousands of his records have been bought by a section of the public who dig beneath the current hit parade and shy away from the more publicized performer. They would tell you of his association with other jazz greats down through the years. Or, of the hundreds of ballad and blues compositions that he wrote, many of which are standards today. You would find them puzzled that Lonnie has audiences in the thousands when he tours Europe; then returns to pound the sidewalks of New York in search of work. One or two of them even tracked him down after newspapers reported him dead. Five times he has left the music scene for good: five times individuals, who love his music, have brought him back. Who is Lonnie Johnson asks an uninformed general public? Yet, on hearing him for the first time, capitulates .... Unconditionally. Lonnie Johnson, one of the originators of rhythm and blues. The forgotten man of jazz. A living legend.

The bus arrived on time. Instead of meeting a tired old man as we had expected, the figure that confronted us was that of a sprightly 50-year-old. His beaming smile and widely set, mischievous eyes instantly expelled all doubts I had been having.

As we drove up Bay Street towards the Village, he gleefully pointed out everyday street corner happenings, in such a 'gee, it's great to be alive' manner, that John and I felt we had known him all our lives.

His opening at the Penny Farthing that evening was fairly well attended. When he played his first explosive chord and started hollerin' the blues, it was obvious that the chicken had come home to roost. The audience was electrified, his superb interpretation of ballads and blues enthralled them. Wave after wave of sustained applause greeted every number. His first set lasted an hour and ten minutes; we had expected the usual 20 minutes. Lonnie has no regard for time when people want to hear him sing. Within 24 hours the word was out and the Penny Farthing was being crammed to the door. The age group wasn't confined to nostalgic 50?year-olds, either. College kids, courting couples, Mums and Dads and even rock 'n' roll musicians from across the street came out to hear him.

The Toronto press pronounced judgment. Patrick Scott, Globe and Mail, ?Lonnie Johnson is an artist and I regard it as an honour to have heard him." Frank Kennedy, Toronto Daily Star, ?I heard a genius at work, a man who loves to sing, has given his life to it and bares his heart and soul in song. He takes us from the scramble of our modern scurrying world and makes us take a hard look at ourselves." Sid Adilman, The Telegram, ?Lonnie Johnson at 65 years of age, outplays, outsings, outdraws the bulk of hippy modernists." These critics, constantly exposed to the best entertainment that money can buy, had jumped into Lonnie's corner with both feet.

I am the leader of a Dixieland-style ensemble called The Metro Stompers. We are resident at the Penny Farthing on Friday and Saturday nights. It was agreed that Lonnie would join the band to sing a few of his numbers. After hearing his authentic blues singing, I was terrified at the prospect of accompanying him. It didn't help my confidence any when a local critic inquired if I thought the band would be able to keep up with him. Later the same critic was to write that Lonnie singing with The Metro Stompers was a union made in heaven. The truth of the matter is that when he started to sing he just pulled us along in his musical slipstream.

As a performer, he is without a doubt the greatest I have seen. His upbeat jazz numbers completely pulverize an audience. He would soak them in the tragedy that is the blues, then proceed to wring them out like a wet rag. When his tired fingers fumbled on an intricate arpeggio, he would wink as if to say, "we just made a goof," and his fumble became the most precious part of his performance. There were times when he worked so hard that John McHugh and I worried about his health. We devised a system where we were to stand up in front of him so that he would know it was time to come off. It didn't work too well. Every time John or I stood up, Lonnie just closed his eyes and went right on singing. One evening he was so exhausted after a gruelling set, that he fell asleep in his chair during a conversation with some of his new-found fans. As we all sat quietly staring at him, it dawned on me that I was in the company of the finest man I had ever met in my life. His two-week engagement at the Penny Farthing had stretched out to the sixth week and I had been his constant companion. He remembered every waitress and dishwasher by name and did the rounds of the staff to greet them every evening before playing his first set A young couple arrived just as he was going into his last number for the evening, and he finished up singing an extra 15 minutes just for them. No one had suggested that he do this. He spoke to me at length about the colour bar. His reaction, "These poor souls with hate in their hearts are to be pitied, they are so unhappy."

We went all the way out to a home in Don Mills on his only day off, to sing to a group of 15-year-old boys who had formed a jug band, then enthused to me about their playing all the way back to the hotel.

He refuses to sing spirituals ... "That's God's music" he says, "Someday when I don't work in clubs any more, I'll go to church just to sing to God." Everyone in the Village had a kindly greeting from him, from the delivery man to the pouting 18-year-olds playing beatnik.
No one was excluded from Lonnie Johnson's goodness. Conversely, Lonnie Johnson draws out all that is good in people and returns it to them tenfold, in song. This, to me, is the magic of Lonnie Johnson.

--- Jim McHarg, 1970

The ageless guitarist-singer you will hear on this record was a professional jazz musician before any of his co-musicians were making sounds like his first note-based on the chords of the Diaper-Rash Blues! It is this rare blend of aged-on-the-rocks experience and youthful exuberance, which makes this album unique. This blend was first achieved at Yorkville's jazz oasis, the Penny Farthing coffeehouse, and the result in this observer's opinion, is the most important jazz recording ever made in Canada.

The McHarg band is a good one, the best Dixieland ensemble for its size and weight in Toronto, but as it warmed up for its first recording session, noticeable signs of "studio jitters" were apparent in cracked notes, bent smiles and broken tempos. However, amid all this concern, Lonnie Johnson went quietly about his business: tuning his guitar, adjusting his wiring and softly encouraging the younger musicians (for after all, he made his first recording in 1925, and virtually lived in recording studios throughout the following two decades).

He watched and listened as the Stompers slid through a trial run, which (although they were by no means cooking), moved a sound technician to inquire of a bystander: "Do you think the old man will be able to keep up with them?" The answer was shortcoming, when Lonnie moved front center for a crack at "China Boy." His first note was like a spark that ignited the whole band in a blaze of real jazz around him. It was there-it was real-as he ripped off a solo that constituted a veritable capsule history of the guitar in jazz from Eddie Lang to Django Reinhardt. Both these giants of jazz-guitar, plus a third, Charlie Christian, are self-acknowledged students of Lonnie Johnson, and here was that font of their achievements still nimble of mind and finger!

Besides Lonnie, the men to watch for, and to give a listen to, are Jim McHarg himself, whose powerful bass required muffling on some occasions for fear its rich tones would drown out some of the other highlights on the recording, and cornettist Charles Gall, who made his Canadian debut last season. Charles is Scotland's greatest gift to jazz since Chivas Regal!

You might also listen for the traditional, "Oh! Play that thingl" shout after Gall's climactic chorus on "Dippermouth Blues." One of the shouters is my 11-year-old son, who agrees with his old man, that the other grand old man, despite the difference in ages, matched the enthusiasm of the Stompers with considerable room to spare!
--- Patrick Scott

These recordings were originally issued in Canada under the same title (HES 6022), recorded November, 1965. Previously unreleased in the U.S.A.
« Last Edit: February 12, 2012, 12:11:28 PM by Rivers »

Offline jostber

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Re: Lonnie Johnson: Stompin' At The Penny with Jim McHarg's Metro Stompers
« Reply #1 on: February 12, 2012, 12:17:26 PM »
That's wonderful, Rivers, thanks! :) Got to get me this album as well.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Lonnie Johnson: Stompin' At The Penny with Jim McHarg's Metro Stompers
« Reply #2 on: February 12, 2012, 01:56:29 PM »
You're very welcome. It inspired me to get some OCR software working here.

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