Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Legend of Blind Willie Dunn - Part One

Not so long ago, we looked at the life and career of blues singer Mary Johnson who was for a short time the wife of jazz guitarist Lonnie Johnson .

I`ve been meaning to spend more time on the works of Lonnie and his musical sidekick Eddie Lang , and the story of how the two gave birth (metaphorically speaking) to Blind Willie Dunn.

As real life keeps getting in the way, I`ve decided to do it in instalments.

It seems appropriate to start at the musical beginning.

Alonzo `Lonnie` Johnson came from a musical family of poor blacks. His father played the violin and his brother was pianist James `Steady Roll` Johnson. He is often quoted as saying that the family played at weddings, parties and the like. However,  jazz man Clarence Williams, whilst confirming that the whole family was musical, once stated that he used to see them playing on street corners.

Salvatore Massaro (Eddie Lang) also came from a musical background. His father was a maker of stringed musical instruments and he himself grew up admiring classical guitarist Segovia.

Both made their names as pioneers of the jazz guitar, but neither made their recording debut playing that instrument.

Lonnie`s first recording was made in 1925 as a member of Charlie Creath`s Jazz O Maniacs and the tune in question was called `Won`t Don`t Blues`. It can be found at www.redhotjazz.com/maniacs.html, and also it has been posted on You Tube by edmundusrex, who has a very impressive collection of tracks from the `20s available for your perusal. Lonnie provided violin and vocals on the track and I have to say it stands up pretty well.

Eddie/Sal `s first recording was as banjo player with Charlie Kerr`s Orchestra. The tracks concerned were  Good Morning Dearie and Silver Canoe and they were recorded during March 1923. Eddie recorded ten tracks with this band that year, always as banjo player.

I`ve not found any trace online of those first two tracks, but fortunately one of their other tracks from the same year , My Sweetie Went Away, has been posted on You Tube by someone using the name agesagomusic08 , and Eddie does appear on that track. For me personally, it`s pleasant enough but not touched with greatness.

Never a man to be pigeon-holed (he took up jazz and particularly jazz guitar at such an early stage that in fact the relevant pigeon-holes had not yet been invented!), Eddie was often to be found on recordings of light, fashionable jazz of the `fun but frothy` variety, even as he pursued a parallel career among some of the giants of the blues. But that`s another story....

The next exciting episode of The Legend of Blind Willie Dunn will follow in due course !


The Early Years of Eddie Lang/Sal Massaro                               

 I want to avoid too much clutter and detail, and particularly I don`t want to spend too much time on conjecture about matters that will probably never be resolved for certain. Equally, however, I don`t want to add to the confusion and misconceptions that prevail where Lang and Johnson are concerned.

For that reason, I`ll  just mention that, as I understand it, The Charlie Kerr Orchestra were sometimes referred to as Charlie Kerr`s L`Aiglon Orchestra or Charlie Kerr`s Leighton Orchestra, referring to venues where they performed, but were simply Charlie Kerr`s Orchestra for recording purposes.

I gather that in addition to his work with Kerr, Eddie spent part of 1923 in New Jersey with a group called Bert Eslow`s Band.

 In an interview at some point he stated that his first job as a professional musician was as a violinist at the L`Aiglon (Solo ? With a band ?) and that sometime afterwards he joined a band called the Chick Granese Trio. All of this seems to have been in Philadelphia, and apparently pre-dated his days with Kerr and Eslow by a couple of years.  

If anyone knows of any recordings of the Granese and Eslow bands, it would be interesting to know about that, but I suspect they never recorded.

His friend and fellow musician Joe Venuti has claimed that the two made their earliest recordings together in 1919, but this is not generally taken seriously. 

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