Lonnie Johnson was best-known for his tonally beautiful guitar playing, but he was also a fine singer and songwriter, and pretty adept on violin, piano, banjo, mandolin, harmonium, and bass, as well. Equally at home in the blues or the jazz world (he worked with artists as raw as Texas Alexander and as polished as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington), and even later, the R&B world, Johnson's life as a professional musician began in the mid-'20s and stretched all the way into the '60s, when his career was given an autumnal boost during the folk/blues revival. This four-disc, 100- track box from JSP Records moves chronologically through Johnson's peak years with commercial labels, beginning with tracks like 1925’s “Falling Rain Blues,” which was cut for OKeh (with Johnson singing and playing violin), through Johnson’s gorgeous solo version of W.C. Handy's "Careless Love," also cut for OKeh and released in 1928. The wry and wise “Hard Times Ain’t Gone No Where” is included from his stay at Decca Records. Johnson signed to Bluebird Records a year later in 1938 and began playing an amplified guitar. Always in demand on the instrument, Johnson was also a graceful and elegant singer, and his ability to bring an emotional sincerity to blues ballads gave him a hit in 1948 with “Tomorrow Night” when he was signed to King Records. Johnson began using jazzy, horn-based R&B combos toward the end of his stay at King and with his run at Rama Records that followed, and sides like “I’m Guilty,” included on disc four here, show just how versatile this amazing musician could be. There are several single-disc releases of Lonnie Johnson's work on the market and casual listeners may well want to start with one of those, since there is a lot of repetition here (none of the musicians from the '20s and '30s could have anticipated having multi-disc box sets), but as an extensive overview of Johnson's peak commercial years, the four-disc A Life in Music is a fascinating listen.
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