Born in New Orleans in 1899, Johnson is generally credited with inventing the guitar solo -- playing featured, single note melodies on what had previously been regarded solely as a chordal rhythm instrument.
One of 12 children in a highly musical family, in addition to the guitar, Johnson played violin, mandolin, banjo, bass, and piano. After getting his start playing in his father's jazz group, Johnson became one of the first American jazz musicians to perform abroad, touring England in 1917. When he returned to the States he discovered that his entire immediate family except for one brother had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Johnson moved back and forth from performing and recording music to other trades, paying the bills however he could. He played with Duke Ellington in the late 1920's, worked in a steel mill in the 30's, then went back into the studio in the late 30's to record more pop-oriented tunes and ballads.
In 1959, Johnson was discovered working as a janitor in a Philadelphia hotel by a local radio DJ, Chris Albertson. Albertson helped engineer Johnson's comeback, and Johnson toured extensively over the next few years. In 1965, Johnson played a series of dates in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and decided to make his home there. His health declined after a car accident in 1969, and he died in Toronto on June 16, 1970.