Eddie Lang with Joe Venuti
Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson
Although he doesn’t get a solo and the song is pretty lame, you can see Eddie Lang in the front right in the first shot of the band (Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra). This passed for jazz with white folks back then. It may have been the first color movie ever filmed.
Eddie Lang (born Salvatore Massaro in Philadelphia, 1902) was the man who popularized the guitar in jazz and pop music. Before Lang most jazz bands had banjo players in the rhythm section. Guitar was popular with hillbillies, rural blues and Hawiian musicians, and was often heard in classical and flamenco music, it was not heard in jazz. It was probably for this reason that Eddie Lang never led a band outside of the recording studio in his lifetime. Although Lang recorded in many styles including classical (his main influence was Segovia), pop (especially with Bing Crosby) and various types of ethnic music, it was as a jazz musician that Lang made a name for himself. But Lang also loved blues, and as a session man had played behind Texas Alexander, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey and others. In 1928 and 1929 he cut a series of sessions which resulted in five 78’s in tandem with blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson (also heard on some of these discs are King Oliver on trumpet, J.C. Johnson on piano) issued under the name of Blind Willie Dunn and his Gin Bottle Four that are among the greatest blues guitar recordings ever waxed. Lonnie Johnson, whose recording career lasted nearly fifty years considered them the highlights of his lifework. The tunes were issued as follows: Two Tone Stomp
b/w Have To Change Keys To Play These Blues
(Okeh 8637) Guitar Blues
b/w Blue Guitars
(Okeh 8711), A Handful of Riffs
b/w Bullfrog Moan
(Okeh 8695), Midnight Call Blues
b/w Blue Room
(Okeh 8818) and Hot Fingers
b/w Deep Minor Rhythm Stomp
Jazz fans don’t think much of these sides, and most blues fans never heard of them. It’s a shame, because in this age of guitar hero worship gone crazy they remain among the finest recordings ever made. They sure sound good together, it’s hard to tell who’s who. But they compliment each other as if they’d been playing together for years. Of course, times being what they were, they never performed live, but these sides must have had a following or Okeh wouldn’t have called for three sessions. They’re quite rare these days, although not really big money records.
They’re easy enough to find on re-issue.
Eddie Lang would find high paying work in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra (where he played along side Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbuer and other big name white jazz players of the era), then considered the top jazz dance band in the land (although they are virtually unlistenable today, they were white and therefore Whiteman was able to claim the crown “King Of Jazz” while Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington struggled along to find an audience). Lang also cut some very influential records with violinist Joe Venuti (these sides would be a big influence on Django Rheinhart), and finally worked as Bing Crosby’s band leader and musical director. In 1933, at age 31, Lang went for a routine tonsillectomy and died shortly after the operation. Within a a few years of his death virtually every big band had a guitar player and in the late 30’s Charlie Christian would come along and take the jazz guitar solo to the next level via amplification.
But as a white bluesman, Lang beat Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and virtually every non-hillbilly guitarist to the punch by decades, and his playing still hasn’t been matched.