In 1959, when I was a disc jockey at WHAT-FM—a Philadelphia station that offered jazz around the clock, seven days a week—I played a record by Lonnie Johnson on my Sunday afternoon show. He was an artist whom I greatly admired, both as a singer and for his often dazzling guitar work, sometimes using a 12-string instrument. Lonnie is often rightly credited with being the most influential of the early jazz guitarists, a man to whom Charlie Christian claimed to owe a debt, a man who was called upon to record with Duke Ellington's orchestra and Louis Armstrong's classic Hot Five group. What, I wondered on the air, had become of Lonnie? Soon after that, the phone rang and a gentleman told me that he had recently seen Lonnie Johnson in a supermarket—Lonnie, it would appear, was living in Philadelphia. So was the caller, who turned out to be the no less legendary Elmer Snowden. Elmer was a multi-instrumentalist who once had played all the reeds, but now concentrated on banjo and guitar. His name was not as well known as Lonnie's, but he led several great bands in the Thirties and Forties, sometimes simultaneously, using a proxy (pianist Cliff Jackson was one). These were orchestras whose personnel included the likes of Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Al Sears, and Duke Ellington. Elmer brought Duke to New York from their mutual home town, Washington, D.C., around 1923. That band, the Washingtonians, eventually became the first in a spectacular succession of Ellington orchestras.
So, I had accidentally stumbled upon two extraordinary artists. Elmer did not know how to contact Lonnie, but a subsequent caller gave me a clue. This man worked at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, in Philadelphia's downtown area, and there was a janitor there by name of Lonnie Johnson. Could it be that this great artist held a menial hotel job? To a naïve European that was hard to believe. The caller noted that this Mr. Johnson was very protective of his hands, a fact that would be consistent with his being a guitarist. It was certainly a stretch, but worth following up. The following day, I went to the Benjamin Franklin Hotel and met Lonnie Johnson, a man whose countenance was quite familiar to me.
|Lonnie, yours truly, John Hammond, Elmer - 1959|
To make a long story short, I invited Lonnie and Elmer to my apartment on Chester Avenue and told them to bring their instruments. I also invited John Hammond and Orrin Keepnews, and asked them to listen.
My hope was, of course, that John or Orrin, neither of whom I had met previously, would produce a recording contract. They loved the music, asked many questions, and returned to New York. Well, at least they came, and that was more than I should have expected.
I taped that afternoon's impromptu session and played it for Bob Weinstock, whom I also had not previously met. He liked what he heard and asked me to do an album with Lonnie for his Prestige Bluesville label. I ended up doing several, including a session with Lonnie and Elmer together.
I also asked my newfound friends to appear live on my Sunday afternoon WHAT show, and they did that on several occasions. That was fifty years ago, but—and who says miracles don't happen—some of my airchecks have survived in the recesses of a closet. Do you want to hear them? I finally found out how to add audio to this blog, so here is an excerpt form Sunday, April 10, 1960 (Click on link at bottom). Sorry, Rose Mary Woods, but I found my missing 18 minutes! There is more audio to come, including other aircheck, such as Clifford Jordan, Ronnie Matthews, Walter Bishop, Jr. and others at WBAI's first marathon, just four years later. I hope you avail yourself of the comment option and tell me what you think of this retrieved moment, which included my delivery of a commercial for some rather affordable men's fashions.
The WHAT-FM 1960 aircheck.