Mary Johnson is one of the less well-known blues singers of the `20s and `30s, in part because she is overshadowed by the relative fame of her husband, Lonnie Johnson.
As is often the case with blues artists of this era, the little information we have is often confused and contradictory.
Most online sources that I have found give her maiden name as Mary Smith and state that she began performing live as a youngster. However, James Sallis in his book The Guitar Players devotes a chapter to her husband and gives a slightly different account of Mary`s life in passing. He gives her maiden name as Mary Williams and her place of origin as Yazoo City, Mississipi. He further states, from her own account, that she got her start helping Lonnie write his own songs and that the two of them then realised that she had a natural aptitude for jazz and blues songwriting. It seems that Lonnie suggested she pursue her own career, and she began to build something of a following in St Louis as well as recording 20 - 30 songs. All sources agree that her recording career began during the seven years she and Lonnie were married.
The two parted company in 1932. As the hungry thirties got under way, Lonnie found work outside the music business but continued to perform as an amateur musician. On his return to recording (1937 if I recall correctly), he drew on a number of previously unrecorded originals, including, perhaps poignantly, She`s My Mary, which appears (to me at least) to be a song written for Mary when the two were together, with just minor amendments to reflect the fact that they were now apart. Some have speculated that other tunes from this session, notably Trust Your Man, might also relate to their time together. By the same token, Mary`s own Mary Johnson Blues does seem to cast a rather acerbic look back at their marriage.
Mary continued to record for a few years after their divorce, but eventually left the world of jazz and blues due to her increasing involvement with the church. This is probably a good moment to mention that she`s a different person to the soul/gospel Mary Johnson, her jazz and blues recordings of the `20s and `30s are the only tunes she recorded.
Fortunately, those nice people at redhotjazz have assembled a selection of Mary`s recordings for our delight and delectation. I like to think that one day we`ll have access to all her work, including the two unreleased tracks.
For a chance to hear perform, click this link ;
Additional comment on her recorded output may be a tad redundant, but for what it`s worth, I`d have to say that my initial impression is that she recorded a fine body of work in her handful of recording sessions. Just occasionally, maybe the odd track shows her lack of experience but overall, her stuff holds up well, in part due to the high standard of the musicians she worked with. Personally, Death Cell Blues, Delmar Avenue, I Just Can`t Take It and Three Months Ago Blues come to mind as being tracks I particularly liked, but I was less keen on Barrel House Flat Blues and one other where I felt her vocal style was poorly judged.
James Sallis drew on The Devil`s Music by Giles Oakley and a 1962 Paul Oliver interview with Mary for his account of her life. He gives no source for the interview. His account of Lonnie`s career and background (from The Guitar Players) can be found at www.jamessallis.com .
Also useful is Jeff (no surname) - Mary Johnson : An Appreciation, which can be found at
http://sundayblues.org/archives/47 . His choice of quotes from her songs tend to make her sound like a sexually promiscuous serial killer, but still he`s worth reading !
I`m a bit of a sentimental old softie at heart and I like to think that maybe now Mary will get some of the recognition she so patently deserves. If you like to unwind at the end of the day with a drink and some music, click on to redhotjazz sometime and drink a toast to Mary !