Johnson made his first mark as a blues singer, winning a recording contract with Okeh at a 1925 blues competition.
But that was 1925, right in the middle of the decade of the first blues craze. After the unexpected commercial success of Mamie Smith's recording, "Crazy Blues," had shown that there was a black audience that would buy records, all the record companies wanted a piece of it, and they all figured that the way to get it was through the blues. At first that meant the urban, jazz-oriented blues of Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and especially Bessie Smith. Then it meant the rural blues of street singers and rural juke joint performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton.
And those guys weren't necessarily bluesmen. They were songsters. They were trying to make a buck, and that meant playing anything their audiences wanted to hear. Sometimes those audiences were black, and sometimes they were white. Sometimes they wanted to listen and sometimes they wanted to dance, so the songster had to be prepared. You can hear a vestige of this in Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales and They're Red Hot."
Then an important audience became the record company, and the record companies wanted blues, so they became bluesmen, and the best bluesmen were successful. Lonnie Johnson, later in life, would come to resent the label a little, feeling it was too restrictive and did not show the scope of what he could do. But in 1925 he was desperate to get a recording contract, and the blues was his ticket of entry, though once inside the door, he was able to expand his scope, recording with both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among other jazzmen, including guitarist Eddie Lang, with whom he made some exciting recordings even though music was supposed to be made on a strictly segregated basis in those days.
But the blues was his meal ticket, and so it remained until that cafeteria dried up.The Depression was a time of shrinkage and retrenchment for the record companies, and the black artists were the first to be retrenched.
With the rise of independent rhythm and blues labels in the 1940s, he began to build a second career, but it ultimately dried up too, and he had settled back into obscurity for most of the 1950s.
His next comeback, and the contract with Prestige, coincided with another Prestige debut. Iceland-born Chris Albertson, who had begun making a career in radio in England, Iceland and Norway, latched onto American Armed Forces Radio as a disc jockey in Iceland, and followed his love of jazz to the United States, where found work as a disc jockey with a Philadelphia radio station. His special interest was in traditional jazz and blues, and one night he played some records by Lonnie Johnson, wondering over the air what had happened to the forgotten blues great.
He didn't have to wonder for long. A listener called the station. The hotel where he worked had a janitor named Lonnie Johnson, and though he never talked about music, he was always very careful of his hands. Could it be...?
It was. Albertson had him as a guest on his show, then brought him to Bob Weinstock's new Bluesville label, where Johnson was signed as an artist and Albertson as a producer.
Albertson put him together, for his first effort, with some first rate jazz musicians, all of them veterans with roots in traditional jazz, but nonetheless representing two different generations,
Pianist Claude Hopkins was Johnson's contemporary, born in 1903 to Johnson's 1899, and when Johnson was making his first blues recording in 1925, Hopkins was on his way to Paris as musical director of Josephine Baker's revue.
There's always work for a good piano player and bandleader, and Hopkins stayed busy throughout the following decades, including the 1950s, as there was still a demand for a pianist in the traditional style, not everyone being on board with this modern stuff. In fact, 52nd Street, once the cathedral of bebop, was by the end of the 1950s represented only by two Dixieland clubs, Eddie Condon's and Jimmy Ryan's.
When Johnson made that first recording for Okeh, his other future bandmates were barely out of diapers. Tenor saxophonist-to-be Hal Singer was six, bassist Wendell Marshall five and drummer Bobby Donaldson three.
All three of them were seasoned veterans by 1960, and all four of Albertson's musicians could play the blues, especially Singer, whose instrumental "Corn Bread" had topped the rhythm and blues charts in 1948. Together, they add jazz depth to a session that is Johnson's. and very rightly so. His single-string guitar soloing may not have been revolutionary any more, but few did it as well as he.
The album came out on Bluesville as Blues by Lonnie Johnson. The 45 RPM single was "You Don't Move Me" / "Don't Ever Love."