Lonnie Johnson, King 4201, 1948, #19 Pop and #1 R&B
Whenever I see a photograph of Lonnie Johnson, an urbane, black city fellow from New Orleans, I’m startled that he looks nothing at all like Frith Wilson, a simple, white, Okie farmer.
I found a copy of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” in its original habitat, the 78 rpm platter, and it’s splendid.
The way I remember my Grandpa Wilson’s voice, it is so much like Lonnie Johnson’s voice on this song that every time I listen to “Tomorrow Night” I imagine it coming out of Grandpa’s mouth, as he sits in a sea-green metal chair on the front porch of his farmhouse, strumming an old guitar. I never actually heard my Grandpa Wilson, who’s been dead for almost forty years, sing or play guitar, but he’s somehow being channeled through this disc.
Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” got me back into 78s. His original recording of “Tomorrow Night” was on 10” shellac, issued just before the 45 rpm format was introduced. I became addicted to the recording only fairly recently, and had it in MP3 format—woefully unsuitable to the task of conveying Mr. Johnson’s full musical and spiritual impact. I found a copy of the 45 online and ordered it, unaware that when “Tomorrow Night” was reissued in the 45 rpm format in the early fifties, some unwanted, unwarranted guests were invited along for the ride: A saccharine choir and florid piano, apparently added to shore up Johnson’s basics, were, I guess, intended to give the record some mass appeal. The additions subtract all the intimacy and earthiness that give the original its appeal. (Think of Ray Charles’s cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The worst thing about it is the background singing. If they had just let the Raelets do the backups, or just let Ray croon it solo…) Grandpa Wilson, I’m sure, would’ve preferred the unmolested version. So I found a copy of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” in its original habitat, the 78 rpm platter, and it’s splendid.
It wasn’t always so splendid. When Lonnie Johnson recorded “Tomorrow Night” in 1948, more than two decades into his recording career, he pulled off a miracle, rescuing a pleasant-but-forgettable Sam Coslow/Will Grosz song from being forever stuck in 1939 by Horace Heidt’s milquetoast dance-band recording. And he did it almost single-handedly (or double-handedly, I should say, with his guitar). There’s a barely audible piano and bass in there providing the least little bit of backing, but the song is all Johnson’s.
With some records, there is a key musical element that locks them in as all-time favorites. With Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night,” it’s his strong, clear 6th note on the word “night” in the title phrase that opens each verse.
He is rightfully revered for his guitar style, which influenced many who came along after him, and his guitar work on “Tomorrow Night” is very fine. But it’s his syrup-and-acid voice that carries it aloft. It’s smooth but with a raw edge, and on “Tomorrow Night” Johnson sounds the way Howlin’ Wolf might have if he’d been asked to rein it in a little at a society soiree. Or the way Grandpa Wilson may have sounded if he’d been asked to let loose a little at a family reunion.
I also have a brassier and bolder LaVern Baker cover of the song, issued as a single in 1955 on the B side of her hit “Tweedle Dee.” It’s not bad at all, just not sublime. Elvis Presley recorded a version of “Tomorrow Night” at Sun that hews pretty close to Lonnie Johnson’s. He also plays up the glorious 6th, unlike Bob Dylan, who misses that element completely in his 1992 recording of the song.
Now about Sam Coslow, co-writer of the song. He’s written a couple of other songs, with his usual writing partner Arthur Johnston, that I love. One is “Troubled Waters,” recorded in 1934 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra with vocals by Ivie Anderson, singing as “one of the devil’s daughters.” The other’s a song I knew as “Lotus Blossom” that actually started out as “Marijuana.” It was written, also in 1934, for the movie Murder at the Vanities, a pre-code film with not only a song about marijuana’s soothing properties but with naked nymphs covering their breasts with their hands. Sam Coslow evidently made the title change somewhere along the way, but in his autobiography Cocktails for Two, barely mentions “Marijuana” and mentions “Lotus Blossom” not at all. (By the way, the subtitle of the memoir is The Many Lives of Giant Songwriter Sam Coslow. “Giant songwriter.” He wrote that about himself. Nice.)
About Lonnie and Frith: I think I can safely suppose that the slick, big-band milieu that Coslow traded in would’ve held less appeal for my grandpa than the rougher, down-home folk-blues stylings of Lonnie Johnson. So maybe Okie folky Woody Guthrie is the bridge. I can imagine Grandpa enjoying listening to Woody, and I can imagine Woody digging Lonnie.