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An Accomplished Blues Guitarist Admitted He Never Really Liked the Genre

Rock historian Ed Ward looks back at the career of Lonnie Johnson, a bluesman who also made a career as a studio musician and club owner.



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Other segments from the episode on July 20, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 20, 1998: Interview with Johnny Bush; Commentary on Lonnie Johnson.


Date: JULY 20, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072001np.217
Head: Johnny Bush
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Country singer Johnny Bush is making a comeback. His problem wasn't whiskey and drugs, which have been the downfall of many performers. It was a rare neurological disorder that interferes with the functioning of the vocal cords.

When it struck in 1972, the singer who was nicknamed "the country Caruso" had trouble singing and talking. It took six years for Bush to get an accurate diagnosis. Years of vocal coaching have enabled him to sing and speak in ways that get around the disorder.

In the '60s and early '70s, Bush was best known for his soulful singing about cheating and heartache. He also played in Willie Nelson's band and wrote the song "Whiskey River" which Nelson has recorded many times.

Now, Bush has a new CD on Watermelon Records called "Talk To My Heart." Let's hear a track from it before we meet him. This is "Any Fool Could See."


JOHNNY BUSH, SINGER, SINGING: Any fool could see
That she wasn't happy
It was plain as the pain on her face

Any fool could see
That she was a lady
Who'd taken all that she could take

The way she was feeling
Was hard not to notice
She was wearing her heart on her sleeve

Any fool could see
She was planning to leave
At least, any fool but me

GROSS: Johnny Bush, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BUSH: Thank you so much, and thank you for having me today.

GROSS: This recording is part of your continuing comeback. Could you describe for us what the voice problem is that you've had over the years?

BUSH: Certainly. The voice problem that I have and will continue to have is called spasmodic dysphonia (ph), which is a term that took 20 years for some of the doctors throughout the country to tell me what it was, because in my part of the Texas when this happened to me, nobody seemed to know what it was. It's when the larynx just closes off.

The larynx, the vocal cords is controlled by part of the brain called the basal ganglia (ph). Between the basal ganglia and the vocal cord, there's a short circuit, which simply means when I try to speak, they slam shut. So with the proper breath control and relaxation and a lot of prayer and speech therapy, I've been able to control it to the point to where I could do interviews again, where a few years ago I could not.

GROSS: So, what exactly slammed shut? Your larynx?

BUSH: What causes it?

GROSS: Your larynx slams shut?

BUSH: The larynx slammed shut. Your larynx is like a -- imagine two rubber bands that are triangular. And when you breathe, they open. When you go to speak, they come together and they vibrate -- a little column of air comes through the closed larynx which causes your phonation; your sound.

So you can imagine if they just slam shut like this -- this is the way I used to talk -- would be like that.

GROSS: Does it hurt your voice when you do that?


GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: No, it's not -- it's not pain-related at all. Very frustrating.

GROSS: Right. Describe what happened when you first started losing your voice. I think you were performing when it first started to go on you.

BUSH: It happened April 17, 1972. I was in the valley in South Texas when I -- when it just -- it just quit. So I immediately went to my ENT specialist who checked my larynx periodically because when you sing in the range that I do, you get -- a lot of singers get polyps, especially if you use your voice wrong. So, you have to be very careful.

So two or three times a year, I would have my larynx examined. So, when this happened, I went back to him. He examined my larynx. There was nothing wrong, but I do see spasms. He said possibly you're overworked; you're tired. I was working 30 days a month. I was going from Miami, Florida to San Francisco, you know -- tours, nonstop.

So, we thought it was stress-related, fatigue, allergies -- anything they could think of, you know. So, the first thing they done was put me on Valium to the point where I was hooked on Valium. And when that didn't work, I started going to speech therapy.

So it's taken 20 years for me to get to the point now to where I can -- can do an interview like this.

GROSS: When you first started having this problem, did it happen to you on stage while you were singing?

BUSH: That's exactly how it happened. It was the Jungle Inn (ph) and close to Arlington, Texas. I know exactly.

GROSS: What happened?

BUSH: Like it was yesterday -- I just felt this tightness. It slammed shut. I was trying to sing "Danny Boy." I got so frustrated I threw my guitar halfway across the dance floor.

I went outside and just fell to my knees, you know, and couldn't believe it. I could breathe fine and felt fine, but something -- something in my mind told me it was over; that the freedom of my voice was over. Something told me that.

GROSS: What did you think it was? Did you think you were being...

BUSH: I had no idea.

GROSS: ... punished by God...

BUSH: Yes.

GROSS: ... or that it was a psychological disorder?

BUSH: Yes, I'm glad you brought that up because I'd done some pretty rotten things. And no more no less than anybody else who has the -- hits the skyrocket overnight and all the pretty girls, and you're married and you get a divorce and you fall in love and you're in love with two or three different women, and you're doing things that you know that you weren't brought up to do.

For many, many years, I felt like God was punishing me and the best way to punish me was to take away the very thing that I wanted the most to do was to sing. And for many years, I believed I was being punished by the Lord. I sure did.

GROSS: I think some of the doctors early on told you that it was probably some kind of psychological disorder that was behind it.

BUSH: Psychosomatic, yes.

GROSS: So that must have kind of driven you crazy when you were thinking, well, it's something I'm doing or something I'm thinking that's responsible for this. So...

BUSH: It's awful. It's terribly frustrating. And when a doctor can think of nothing else, and I'm not putting the medical profession down because since all the studies have been done on spasmodic dysphonia, we have found out that only one in 35,000 people have this. We also know that it's not terminal. So in the medical colleges, if they hit on it at all, they usually give it to the speech therapist to deal with. The doctor doesn't deal with it at all.

It would be very simple if they could give you a pill or a shot and it would go away. It's not the case, so the big misdiagnose today, I can tell you horror stories, to where they are actually clipping the nerve to one side of the vocal cord. By paralyzing one side, the patient is able to speak very breathy, but he can speak.

GROSS: One of the treatments that you got over the years was injections of something that's very much like botulism. It's a toxin that's similar to the botulism toxin.

BUSH: Yes. Not similar. That's exactly what it is. A teaspoonful of it in the water supply in Philadelphia would kill every human being in Philadelphia.

GROSS: That's reassuring.

BUSH: That's how strong it is.

GROSS: So, they inject some of that right into your vocal cords.

BUSH: Right into the larynx.

GROSS: And...

BUSH: But a very, very, very minute dosage.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BUSH: And in 90 days, it wears away. However, here's the danger. Nobody knows the residual effects yet. So if you go back every 90 days, say, for 10 years getting these shots, who knows what the residual effect's gonna be down the line?

GROSS: Now, if I understand correctly, here's what happened with you. Before you got the injections, you were kind of able to sing, but you couldn't talk.

BUSH: Exactly.

GROSS: But after you got the injections, you were able to talk better, but you lost your singing voice.

BUSH: I'll tell you how that happened. Your vocal cords open and close like I explained a while ago. When you breathe normally, they open up. When you go to speak, they come together. A little column of air comes up through the cords to vibrate to where you can phonate. When you're singing, the cords also have to stretch, like:


They stretch. After botox (ph), they don't stretch anymore. So instead of having...


... you got...


It's -- that's the only way you can do that. So forget singing.

GROSS: I'm thinking how horrible that must have been. You get this injection. You're able to talk, but now you can't sing.

BUSH: Then I was frustrated -- and now I can't sing.

GROSS: So you had to choose between what you wanted to do -- medicine that could help you talk, which would leave you unable to sing.

BUSH: Right.

GROSS: Or not taking the medicine and not being able to talk, but being able to sing. So how did you decide what to do?

BUSH: I've never sold a record yet talking.


GROSS: Yeah, but you can't get into a conversation just singing.

BUSH: Exactly. I have, through breath control, have learned to control it to the point to where I am -- if anybody didn't know, probably wouldn't think that I have spasmodic dysphonia. They wouldn't know.

GROSS: My guest is country singer Johnny Bush. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with country singer Johnny Bush. Since 1972, he's had a rare neurological disorder that affects the vocal cords. But with the help of vocal coaching, he's speaking and performing again. He has a new CD called Talk To My Heart.

What are some of the vocal exercises you've been doing to strengthen your voice?

BUSH: A young man I met here in Austin a few years ago -- his name is Gary Katona (ph). He's Italian opera coach. He called me up. He asked me one question. He said: when you yawn -- you're like...


... when you yawn like that, John, can you talk without any problems? And I said yes, as a matter of fact I can. And he said: "I can help."

So he had a series of exercises using the piano -- different pitches of the scale using the Italian vowels -- eh, ee, i, o, ooh. You would sing these. He would place your cheek bone -- your jawbone and your head in your chin in a proper position with your back perfectly straight. And you would sing these -- these vowels on his instruction, using the yawning sound of your voice.

Do you remember Yogi Bear cartoons?


GROSS: Right.

BUSH: Well, as silly as this may sound, that -- the yawning effect is the way you start strengthening your voice. Do you remember Bert Lahr in the cowardly lion? You know what I'm talking about?

GROSS: Yeah. "The Wizard of Oz."

BUSH: Bert Lahr played the cowardly lion. And he would talk like this --- pulluppulluppullup (ph). He spoke with that natural yawn in his voice. Elvis Presley had that natural yawn.

BUSH, SINGING: Don't ever (Unintelligible).

BUSH: You know, could you hear that in the voice?

GROSS: Yeah.

BUSH: It takes all the strain off the larynx. So we would, three times a week, Gary Katona and I, go through a series of scales from the low to as high as I could sing, using the Italian vowels, which strengthened because I didn't -- see, once you quit using something, you lose it. My voice was so weak, we had to build the muscles around the cord -- had to strengthen them.

So in essence, it was like taking a barbell or a dumbbell with your arms. It's the same effect. Also, it strengthens your diaphragm. It strengthens your breath. It's just strengthening those muscles that become weak because I wasn't using them.

GROSS: So -- do you find that you sing differently now -- now that you know more about breathing and you know more about how your voice works and you have that yawning, singing technique and all the stuff that you learned about the Italian vowels. Do you sing different?

BUSH: I still sing the same. It still sounds like me. The only difference is I don't sing as high. First of all, I'm 63 years old and I don't have the elasticity left in the cords anymore. I've lowered my keys because I was told that would help, which it has. I've lowered the keys.

I would -- I would think compared now to the peak of my career, I'm maybe 80 percent of what I was when I was at my peak. So, I'll settle for that.

GROSS: Well I thought we could listen to a record from early in your career and...

BUSH: Sure.

GROSS: ... this is from 1967. And I thought we'd play "Lonely Street." I think this is a -- just a terrific performance.

BUSH: Thank you.

GROSS: And I also think it shows your voice when it was in a higher range and we can hear how you sounded then.

BUSH: And I was 30 years old, remember.

GROSS: Right. Right.


Your voice would have been a higher range there no matter what.



BUSH: Exactly.

GROSS: OK, this is Johnny Bush recorded in 1967, Lonely Street.


BUSH, SINGING: I'm looking for that lonely street
I've gotta sad sad tale to tell
I need a place to go and weep
Where's this place called lonely street

A place where there's just loneliness
Where dim lights bring forgetfulness
Where broken dreams and memories meet
Where's this place called lonely street

Maybe on this lonely street
There's someone...

GROSS: That's Johnny Bush, recorded in 1967. Well, I guess we can hear why you got the name "the country Caruso."



BUSH: You know, thank you for that. There was a music critic in Houston, by the name of Bob Claypool (ph) who worked for the Houston Post. He's deceased now, but he coined the "country Caruso." And I was telling my wife and several people the other day that I was certainly glad that 90 percent of the country music listeners didn't know who Caruso was...


... because that's hard to live by, you know.

GROSS: I'm wondering, you know, during the period when you were able to sing, but you couldn't really speak, and this was before you had a really good diagnosis of what your problem was, what was it like to not be able to talk? I mean, you couldn't -- you couldn't have...

BUSH: What an example?

GROSS: Yeah, you couldn't have normal relationships with people.

BUSH: Being in an airport...

GROSS: Yeah.

BUSH: Being in an airport in New York City and having your flight canceled, and you're all alone.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BUSH: You're traveling alone. So, you walk up to the ticket counter for some information. Will the flight be scheduled later? Do I need to change to another airline? And you walk up to the desk frightened because you don't know what's going to come out, and they say: yes Sir, can I help you? And you go -- and you turn around and walk off, exasperated.

You go to a telephone to call home that you're going to be late. So you try to talk to the operator. "Hello, this is the operator? This is the operator?" Buzz. You know? So when you lose your ability to communicate -- doesn't matter whether you're in New York City or Podunk, Arkansas, but you're in trouble.

GROSS: So you wouldn't know when you'd open up your mouth whether your voice would come out or not.


GROSS: Sometimes it would and sometimes it wouldn't.

BUSH: I would go into the men's room and practice, mentally, step by step: I'll walk up to the ticket counter. I'll say: "pardon me, will my flight so and so be rescheduled or not?" I would practice that mentally, mentally, mentally, mentally. So I'd walk up to the desk sometime and sometime it would work; sometime it wouldn't.

And the worst thing in the world, if somebody would say: "what's the matter with your voice?" Then it was totally over, you know.

GROSS: I can't imagine how bad that must have felt for you -- such a great singer...

BUSH: Strangled.

GROSS: ... to so totally lose control vocally.

BUSH: Well, to be talking to my producer on the telephone, him setting up the session and me saying: "I can do it. Go ahead and set the session up. Be there at eight o'clock in the morning..."

And he's saying: "Man are you all right? Are you sure?"

"Set the session up. I'll be there. I can sing.

I could sing, but I couldn't talk. And they got -- they panicked and dropped me from the label.

GROSS: Right.

BUSH: And you know, I have no hard feelings against them 'cause they didn't know.

GROSS: Johnny Bush. He'll be back in the second half of the show. Here's another song from his new CD Talk To My Heart.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


BUSH, SINGING: Yesterday as I talked to a friend in town
I forgot to remember that you're gone
For a moment I found myself smiling
But the moment isn't very long

And I smiled as I danced with a stranger
And she held her cheek close to my own
For a moment I almost...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with country singer Johnny Bush. He's making a comeback after losing his voice in 1972 due to a rare neurological condition called spasmodic dysphonia. Voice training has helped him sing and talk in spite of the disorder.

In the '60s, he was known as the Country Caruso. Let's hear one of his country hits from the '60s. This is a song he wrote -- "The Sound of a Heartache."


BUSH, SINGING: Loneliness surrounds me
Where your arms used to be
Setting at the same old table
Where you used to set with me

But I guess my heart's not strong enough
To find someone new
'Cause like a madness that I can't control
Every girl reminds me of you

And I can hear the sound of a heartache
From the music that the jukebox plays so loud
Yes, I can hear the sound of a heartache
Above the noise of happy people in that crowd

GROSS: Johnny Bush, recorded in the '60s before his vocal disorder.

When we left off, we were talking about what it was like when he first started losing his voice and had trouble singing and often couldn't speak. It changed everything in his life, including his relationships with family, friends and fans.

What about if somebody recognized you and said: "oh, you're that great singer Johnny Bush." And you'd want to say "thank you."

BUSH: Sing "My Cup Runneth Over."

GROSS: Yeah, right.

BUSH: I couldn't, you know.

GROSS: Right.

BUSH: That happened a lot. So had I been told from day one: "Johnny Bush, you have what is known as spasmodic dysphonia. It affects one out of every 35,000 people. Johnny Bush, there is no cure for this, but through speech therapy and proper breath control, we can get you through life."

I could have handled that. I wouldn't have hid from my fans. I wouldn't have tried to go hide on the bus. I didn't want them to know, you know. I hope this is coming across the way I really mean it. I love those people that bought my records and bought the tickets and came out to see me.

But I didn't want them to see me in that condition to where my face would distort when I would try to talk, and nothing would come out. And they'd say "what's wrong with you," you know. I just couldn't handle it.

GROSS: And you wouldn't know what the answer is because you thought it was some kind of psychological defect, as opposed to a neurological disorder.

BUSH: I thought eventually it would go away as quickly as it came on.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BUSH: I was hoping that that would be the case.

GROSS: How did you start performing again?

BUSH: I never stopped. I owed too much money. I couldn't stop.


I kept the band. So, what I started doing to stay visible -- see, in this business, a lot of people has already -- they've already heard you sing. They want to see you. They want to touch. They want to talk. They want an autograph. They want you to shake their hand. They want to take their picture with you. So I decided to stay on the bandstand as long as possible, so I learned to play the fiddle. This way I could stay visual, stay on the bandstand, at the same time be doing something productive.

This would rest the larynx for a few minutes to where I could sing a couple more songs, then I'd play fiddle again.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is country singer and songwriter Johnny Bush. And for about 26 years, he's had a vocal disorder that for several years prevented him from talking at all. And he's making a recording comeback and he's able to talk again. And his latest CD is called Talk To My Heart.

I know Willie Nelson figures into your story and you figure into his story. And after you lost your voice -- well, just before you had these vocal problems, you had written a song "Whiskey River." And you...

BUSH: Yes.

GROSS: ... made a recording of it, I think just at about the -- just before you lost your voice.

BUSH: Yes.

GROSS: And then Willie Nelson recorded that song -- something like nine times? Do I have that right?

BUSH: At last count, he's recorded it nine different times, and I'm really proud of that.

GROSS: Did you write the song for Willie Nelson?

BUSH: No, I wrote it for me because I had just signed with RCA and I had a new producer by the name of Jerry Bradley (ph), who is the son of Owen Bradley (ph) who discovered Patsy Cline. He was the king of Decca Records.

His son had just taken over right under Chet Atkins at RCA and he was going to be my producer. So, he said "we need a hit. Why don't you write one?" And I said: "all these great songwriters in Nashville, and you want me to write the song?" He said "that's right."

So, he put the ball right into my court. So, we had a stopover between the disk jockey (Unintelligible) in Nashville, going back to San Antonio -- Texarkana, Texas. So I woke up with "whiskey river, take my mind, don't let her memory torture me" -- that's all I had.

By the time I got to San Antonio, I'd written a song and I called him up on the phone to sing it to him. It only has a verse -- it had one verse and one chorus. Generally, country songs have two or three verses, you know. It was pretty short, direct and to the point. So my question to Willie was: Should -- did I -- should I write another verse? He said "no, I don't think so." He said: "you've already said everything that can be said." He said: "I would sing the verse, sing the chorus, turn it around, and then sing it out." Which I did. It became a number one record for me.

Since, like, he's recorded it nine different times. But his version is different from mine. But that's all right. It's just how he interprets it a little different than I do.

GROSS: Well, we're going to hear your version which I believe you recorded in about 1972.

BUSH: Thank you. I was recorded in '71...


BUSH: ... and released in '72.

GROSS: Good enough. So this is Johnny Bush singing his own song Whiskey River.


BUSH, SINGING: I'm drowning in a whiskey river
Bathing my memoried mind in the wetness of its soul
Feeling the amber current flow across my mind
And warmed my empty heart she left so cold

Whiskey river take me mind
Don't let her memory torture me
Whiskey river don't run dry
You're all I've got
Take care of me

GROSS: That's Johnny Bush's 1972 recording of his own song Whiskey River, which Willie Nelson has recorded nine times.

Now, how did you and Willie Nelson first meet?

BUSH: It was the year of 1953. I was working with a band called "Mission City Playboys" in San Antonio, Texas. It was a Sunday night. This was a place that -- we basically refer to it today as a "skull orchard." You know what a skull orchard is?


BUSH: Do you know what a honky-tonk is?

GROSS: Yeah.

BUSH: A skull orchard is the worst kind of honky tonk. So...

GROSS: And what makes it so bad?

BUSH: ... the people that frequent the place makes it so bad. People looking for trouble, trying to forget trouble or looking for trouble.

GROSS: Got the picture.



BUSH: So these people congregate. They like country music and they like to dance, so this young redheaded guitar player and this fiddle player came through the door and wanted to set in. It was customary back then that you let guys set in, you know.

So they -- good guitar player, good fiddle player -- so Dave Isbill (ph) hired them both. So Willie became and I become fast friends. And at the time, he was married to his first wife Martha and Lana (ph) Nelson was just barely walking. And so, she was less than a year old.

That's how we met, and been friends ever since. He's worked for me. I've worked for him and it's just been a relationship that's lasted. It's timeless.

GROSS: My guest is country singer Johnny Bush. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with country singer and songwriter Johnny Bush. And he's had a vocal disorder for about 26 years that for a while left him unable to talk. And it's affected his singing, too, and he seems to have both under control now and he has a wonderful new CD called Talk To My Heart.

Willie Nelson write in his autobiography: "Johnny Bush advised me to quit trying to sing. He liked my guitar playing better than he liked my voice."

So, is that true? Did you try to get him to stop singing?

BUSH: I want to answer that. I have at home in my files a demo of Willie Nelson singing a couple of his songs. I wish you could hear them because that's the way he sang when I made that remark. He was a great guitar player and a fair singer back in those days when he was 19 years old. He became the great singer that he is today, the same way Ray Price did. You listen to Ray Price's 1951 record on Bullet (ph), compare that to his later Columbia Records, and you see this wonderful, beautiful transition.

Same thing happened to Willie, but for some reason Willie has never forgotten that. I asked him -- you said: "you know, I like your guitar playing better than your singing." I still love his guitar playing, but for some reason it was probably the only thing I ever said that really hurt his feelings to that point where he never forgot it. And he never fails to mention it anywhere, especially in his book, you know.


Speaking of books, I'm in the process of putting mine together now and I'm going to straighten all of that out.

GROSS: Well, good for you.


Well, you shouldn't worry too much. It didn't hold Willie Nelson back from success.



First of all, my opinion wouldn't have mattered any. Back in those days, it was according to Willie's philosophy, you know, every -- he has an opinion -- it's what you think of yourself that's important, not what somebody else thinks of you.

So the only thing that bothers me is that I have to admit I did say that, but it was not to intentionally hurt his feelings or to set him back. It just -- at the time happened to be the truth.

GROSS: You've written some great country songs and a lot of the songs that you've written and a lot of the songs by others that you sing, like many country songs emphasize being in love, losing love, being cheated on, cheating on somebody, and of course drinking.

BUSH: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Do you have plenty of experience to write from in these categories?

BUSH: Not anymore than anyone else, but I try to do it this way. I try to put myself in the place of the man with the problem. For instance, you remember when Frank Sinatra played "The Man With The Golden Arm" where he was addicted to heroin and he was a drummer?

GROSS: Sure do.

BUSH: He's an actor. He was playing a part. He was able in his mind to become a heroin addict and play this part so magnificently, I think he got an Academy Award nomination for it. To me, a singer, a songwriter should have the same poetic license. You don't have to go down on skid row and drink a bottle of hot Thunderbird wine to imagine what's going through a wino's mind, would you?

I would think not. I just try to put myself in the position of the man that has the hurt. That's what I try to do.

GROSS: I have one more question for you about your voice. I've kept you talking for some time here during this interview. Do you have to actually think about speaking as you speak and think about the process and think about the breathing?

BUSH: The breathing and the relaxation, yes.

GROSS: And is that an effort? Does it make it more tiring to speak...


GROSS: ... because it has to be a conscious process?

BUSH: I would rather have it than cancer. I would rather have it than to live my life in a wheel chair. Sometime, I think I'm very fortunate that the Lord put this on me for a reason. And one day I'll know the reason why. And in the meanwhile, I'm overcoming it. I'm a stronger person. I'm a better person. And also, I'm in a position now to help a lot of people who are out there scared to death, wondering what in the world happened to their voice.

The national association that deals with this disease contacted me the other day and asked me to represent them this year. So I'm gonna become involved with them. Looking forward to it -- going to support groups and telling -- showing these people they're not alone. And not only are they not alone, but there is help.

GROSS: Well, you sound great on your new CD so I want to close our interview with a track from it.

BUSH: I want to thank you for that.

GROSS: And I thought we'd play the title track, which is a song called Talk To My Heart. And I want to thank you, Johnny Bush, very much for talking with us.

BUSH: Thank you so much.


BUSH, SINGING: Please talk to my heart
Because I'm lonesome
Pretend (Unintelligible)
It's not true

And don't be afraid
That you'll hurt me
I'm hurting
That's why I need you

Please please
I'm so lonesome
Any love you can give me will do

And don't be afraid
I'll start crying
I'm crying
That's why I need you

GROSS: Johnny Bush from his new CD Talk To My Heart. Coming up, Ed Ward profiles blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Johnny Bush
High: Honky-tonk singer Johnny Bush. He hails from Texas and began his career in the 1950s. Later he went on to such best-selling singles as "Sound of a Heartache," "You Ought to Hear Me Cry," "What a Way to Live" and "You Gave Me a Mountain." He wrote the song ""Whiskey River" for his friend Willie Nelson, and later had a hit with that too. This singer with the melancholy songs never became a household name, and in the late '70s a voice ailment curtailed his career. Now after finally getting the ailment properly diagnosed and treated, he's back singing. His new album is "Talk to My Heart."
Spec: Music Industry; Johnny Bush; Willie Nelson
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Johnny Bush
Date: JULY 20, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072001np.217
Head: Lonnie Johnson
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Bluesmen don't usually come from New Orleans, play with Duke Ellington, or open nightclubs at the age of 70. But singer and guitarist Lonnie Johnson was no ordinary bluesman. He was one of the most prolific recording artists of all time and raised guitar playing to new heights.

Rock historian Ed Ward has a profile.


ED WARD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Lonnie Johnson, the biggest-selling bluesman of the 1920s and '30s, was everything the other bluesmen weren't. Musically literate, urban, and able to play in a wide variety of styles and genres, he traveled internationally and was able to sustain a career for most of his life. Furthermore, he wasn't too crazy about blues. "I recorded 125 songs against the same chords," he once said.

Alonzo Johnson was born in New Orleans in 1889 or 1894 or 1899. Nobody seems to know for sure. His whole family played music and young Lonnie joined his father's band as a violinist. Switching to guitar, he played the bordellos in Storyville, and in 1917 he went to England with a revue that entertained the troops, having survived the flu epidemic that killed most of the other members of his family.

Settling in St. Louis, he formed a band with his brother James and worked on the riverboats that went up and down the Mississippi. This gave him a high enough profile to attract record company attention and in 1925 he made his first record.


I want all you people to listen to my song
I want all you people to listen to my song
Remember me after all the days I'm gone

WARD: Mr. Johnson's blues was the first of hundreds of records he'd make over the next three decades. Johnson was a tireless worker and a consummate professional. He toured with Bessie Smith, had his own radio show in New York and was a fixture on bandstands in both Cleveland and Chicago, where he worked with the first generation of Chicago bluesmen.

But his virtuosity and fame also got him into situations no other bluesman could have coped with.



WARD: Matching Louis Armstrong note for note on the scat chorus of "Hotter Than That" was an astonishing feat, but Johnson made it sound easy. Thus, when another famous jazzman came calling, he was ready.



WARD: On Duke Ellington's 1928 recording of "The Mooch" he chorded behind Barney Bogarde's (ph) clarinet and picked behind Baby Cox's (ph) vocal. He also recorded with white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang (ph), although the record company billed Lang as "Blind Willy Dunne" (ph) to obscure the fact.

When the Depression killed the record business, Johnson moved to Cleveland and only played part-time. But in 1937, he headed to Chicago and galvanized the scene that was gathering around "Bluebird," RCA's race label there. As one of the label's studio musicians, he found himself on even more records.

At an age where hard living or at least declining popularity had silence most of his generation, Lonnie Johnson was still at it. In 1948, he actually had a number one R&B hit -- "Tomorrow Night."


JOHNSON, SINGING: Tomorrow night
Will you remember what you said to me?
Tomorrow night
Will all the thrills be gone?

Tomorrow night
Will it be just another memory?
Or just another lovely song
That's in my heart to linger on

Your lips are so tender...

WARD: Still, although he managed a couple of more smaller hits, he was smart enough to realize that it was time to retire, so he took a job at the Ben Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia and put it all behind him. It didn't work.

As the folk revival of the early '60s gathered steam, he was rediscovered, re-recorded, put on the road with other blues singers whose careers had been revived, including his old friend Victoria Spivey (ph), and toured Europe with blues revues.

In 1965, he moved to Toronto where he opened a club called "Home of the Blues." It took an automobile accident and a few strokes to slow him down, and his last public appearance was in Toronto with Buddy Guy in 1970, a few months before a final stroke killed him.

Lonnie Johnson may not have fit the stereotype of the old poor bluesman, but his legacy of virtuosity continues to inspire guitarists the world around.

GROSS: Ed Ward currently lives in Berlin.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Ed Ward, Berlin; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock Historian Ed Ward profiles 1920s and '30s blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson. He accompanied such musical legends as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Spec: Music Industry; Blues; Lonnie Johnson
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Lonnie Johnson
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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