Eddie Lang was probably the finest white guitarist in his field in the 1920s. He was born Salvatore Massaro in Philadelphia on October 25th 1902. His first instrument was the violin, and it was while taking lessons as a boy that he became friends with Joe Venuti, another second generation Italian American. As well as violin, Lang also played banjo and guitar, and it was the latter instrument that he began to concentrate on after he turned professional in 1918. He worked as a guitar for hire all over the North East states during the first half of the twenties, and even had a stint in London during the winter of 1925/6. On his return to the States, he settled in New York, and it was there that he was reunited with Venuti in Joe Venuti’s Big Four, a successful and prolific small band with a then revolutionary lead instrumentation of violin and guitar.
In May 1927, Lang recorded his first solo guitar session which included a technically brilliant version of the Prelude from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Op. 3 No. 2. In September the following year he became one of the first white musicians to play with a black band when he joined Clarence Williams’ Blue Five for a New York date accompanying blues legend Victoria Spivey. Through working with Spivey, Lang met her then husband Lonnie Johnson, and over a period of around twelve months, the pair laid down some of the finest acoustic guitar instrumentals of that era, or indeed any since. Their first studio date together on November 15th 1928 was spent backing blues shouter Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander, but two days later they were back recording the first of their guitar duets – “Two Tone Stomp” and “Have To Change Keys To Play These Blues”. Despite the obvious allusions of the title of “Two Tone Stomp”, Lang was billed as Blind Willie Dunn on the record when it was issued by Okeh. The record industry was as deeply segregated as the rest of American society in the twenties, and it was deemed unacceptable to issue a record where a white man and a black man were clearly playing together as friends and equals.
Lang and Johnson cut further tracks in May 1929, both guitar duets and as part of a quartet called Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four (which included future bandleader Tommy Dorsey on trumpet). The pair’s final session together took place on October 29th. By this time Lang had joined Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra – just about the biggest gig you could get back then. He continued working with Venuti, but there was no more masquerading in the studio as Blind Willie Dunn. The depression was beginning to bite, and as is always the case, the poorest suffered first and hardest. The first sector of the recording industry to be hit hard was the so-called “race” market – blues singers, jug bands, string bands and the like – and so there were no further opportunities for Lang and Johnson to record together.
Eddie Lang made a final studio appearance with Joe Venuti on February 28th 1933, just a few days before he was to go into hospital for a routine tonsillectomy. The operation was botched, and he suffered a massive haemorrhage. He died on March 26th 1933, aged just 30.
There are a number of solid budget compilations of Lang’s work available. Some provide a general overview of his career, whilst others concentrate on his work with Joe Venuti. In August this year, BGO issued a 32 track double CD which concentrates on the work that Lang did with Lonnie Johnson. It’s called Blue Guitars Volumes 1 and 2 and is a straight reissue of a couple of earlier vinyl albums. It’s recommended stuff – not just for blues and hot jazz fans, but for anyone who is interested in tracing back to the influences of modern masters like John Fahey, Loren Connors and Richard Bishop.