I have to admit I came late to this issue’s cover artist, Swamp Dogg. I remember former LB editor David Nelson was into him and spoke highly of him, but somehow I missed hearing it. Over the last few years I stumbled onto some of his music, and then the recent reissue series of his albums by Alive Natural Sound Records finally opened the doors to the world of Swamp—truly one of the most gifted and creative songwriters of his generation. Anyone who writes the line “Sittin’ on a corn flake, ridin’ on a roller skate, too late to hesitate, or even meditate” and makes it work is either brilliant or crazy…and Swamp is a lovely mix of both. For LB readers who might wonder if his music is “blues” I say go listen to his beautiful song I Was Born Blue and you’ll know this guy writes and sings some deep blues. “Another day has come and gone, in a world where I don’t belong. Another day has passed me by. And it’s not because I did not try. Why wasn’t I born with orange hair and green skin like the other people in the world…I was born blue.”
Swamp’s songs have been recorded by dozens of artists, from Johnny Paycheck (his hit Don’t Take Her, She’s All I Got) to Bob Dylan, and from Lightnin’ Slim to Jimmy Cliff. Our article focuses on Swamp Dogg’s blues ties—his influences, including Big Joe Turner, Fats Domino, Wynonie Harris, and Guitar Slim, the time he spent with Don Covay and living with Eddie Kirkland in New York City, his years working as the first African American in-house producer for Atlantic Records, and later for Capricorn Records, and the records he produced by blues greats like Z.Z. Hill, Irma Thomas, and Lightnin’ Slim. For a complete overview of Swamp Dogg’s incredibly long and varied career, see David Chance’s exhaustive discography at http://www11.brinkster.com/groovies1/Swamp.html
I have been on a big Lonnie Johnson kick lately. I have listened to him every single day since Christmas. When it started I wasn’t sure what I was looking for—his pace just seemed to fit where I was in life. I have his complete recordings 1925–1947, which is ten CDs right there, plus much of his later work for King, Folkways, and Bluesville. As I explored further, the importance of his early guitar work began to become more clear. Then about a month and a half ago writer Jas Obrecht got in touch—he mentioned an article on Lonnie Johnson he was working on and wondered if I might be interested in publishing it. I jumped at the idea, eager to read what Obrecht had pulled together. The article helped me put into words what I was hearing every day in Johnson’s music. Lonnie Johnson may not have “invented” the guitar solo, but it’s hard to trace the roots of the blues solo back before him. Pioneering electric guitarists Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and later B.B. King were all immensely influenced by Johnson. And that was what I was hearing. The tap root of the blues that sprang from the superlative work of Lonnie Johnson.
Johnson was born in New Orleans and absorbed the early jazz sounds of the city, but like any great innovator he moved that sound forward. Listen to his work with Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington—he doesn’t just play rhythm chords in the band but, like the horn players, he steps forward and takes a solo—in a time when guitars were, for the most part, rhythm instruments especially in bands. I have always thought Duke Ellington’s The Mooche was one of the hippest songs ever recorded. And right in the middle of it, you hear Lonnie Johnson’s improvised soloing behind Baby Cox’ scatting vocals. But it might be his brilliant instrumental solo sides and those with Eddie Lang that best display his guitar prowess and the creative string work he was capable of crafting. Sides like Playing with the Strings, Blues in G, Bull Frog Moan, Hot Fingers, and Have to Change Keys to Play the Blues are pre-electric guitar tour-de-forces that were unlike anything that had been done before. A true innovator who rarely gets the respect he is due.
Brett J. Bonner