Blind Willie Dunn (Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson)

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 (Okeh 8743).
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.

12 thoughts on “Blind Willie Dunn (Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson)”

  1. Fantastic stuff. I hadn't heard of Eddie Lang until my brother gave me an LP of Venuti and Lang, which blew me away and put Reinhardt and Grapelli into context as well. A few years back an online freind told me about the Lang and Johnson duets and I got the BGO double-CD. Great post, as they all are.

  2. Lonnie Johnson plays the high slinky melody lines — I'm pretty sure his guitar has a doubled high e — and lang plays the the bass runs. He takes a brief solo on a couple of these recordings — they tend to stick to the midrange and they're not too impressive in my opinion. He was a remarkable rhythm guitar player — the duets with Venuti are really amazing. Thanks for another excellent post.

  3. ” they're not too impressive in my opinion. “Most jazz fans I've played these side for agree with you but I think he was playing a bit more crudely on purpose. Maybe he thought it made it sound more like an “authentic” country blues player that way. Anway, the way he begins Blue Room put chills up my spine.

  4. “Have you seen these?”No, when I searched Youtube all that came up were homeade videos w/still images against recordings!I'll going to add the one w/Venuti right now, thanks….

  5. “What happened to the Kinks post ?”I decided to pull it since my brief time spent around Ray Davies kind of ruined the Kinks for me, I didn't want talking about unpleasant things I witnessed to a) do the same for others, and b) start a big war in which I'd have to prove my allegations which I'm too lazy to do. I sort of hate it when people use the internet for their personal wars and decided I was being a jerk for doing just that. It's an issue best left for the next time I run into Ray and not for the rest of the world to take sides on. Ray, whatever kind of person he is, still made some of the greatest records of all time, that's all anyone will remember when he's dead anyway, and that's all that's important.Just enjoy his music and forget about my gossip.

  6. ” And there's a Lang/Venuti solo feature on it, just them.”I wish that part had made it to Youtube, not sure if I could sit through 4 hours of Paul Whiteman myself, although I'd love to see it in digestable segments.Maybe TCM will show it someday…..

  7. I heard “Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks on the radio this morning, and remembered your piece on Pete Quaife, which I read in cached form. That was less an anecdote about Pete Quaife than a story about Ray Davies being an obnoxious schmuck. Maybe those “tales of drunkenness and cruelty” were not just tales. At any rate, I think your point about not meeting artists was the most salient: they can be jerks like anyone else, but the potential for letdown is greater. Oh well, the music lives on, and if you don't like what you're hearing, you can always listen to “Something Else”…


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