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Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer and musician.His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a unique combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson's shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend, including a Faustian myth.
Johnson's songs, vocal phrasing and guitar
style have influenced a
broad range of musicians; Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most
important blues singer that ever lived".
Johnson was inducted into the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "Early Influence" in their first
induction ceremony in 1986. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Robert Johnson's Early life
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi,
probably on May 8, 1911 or 1912, to Julia Major Dodds (born October
1874) and Noah Johnson (born December 1884). Julia was married to
Charles Dodds (born February 1865), a relatively prosperous landowner
and furniture maker with whom she gave birth to 10 children.
Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia herself left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after some two years, sent him to live in Memphis with Dodds, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia's new husband was known as Dusty Willis; he was 24 years younger than she. Robert was remembered by some residents as "Little Robert Dusty."
However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. He is listed as Robert Spencer in the 1920 census with Will and Julia Willis in Lucas, Arkansas, where they lived for a short time.
Robert Johnson Guitar - 'Me and The Devil'
The noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown,
already lived. Late in life,
House remembered Johnson as a boy who had
followed him around and tried unsuccessfully to copy him. But when
House moved to Robinsonville in 1930, Johnson was a young adult,
already married and widowed. Johnson then left the Robinsonville area,
reappearing after a few months with a miraculous guitar technique. He was living near Hazlehurst when he married for the second time.
From this base Johnson began traveling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician.
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street
corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. Musical
associates stated that in live performances Johnson often did not focus
on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead pleased
audiences by performing more well-known pop standards of the day
— and not necessarily blues.
With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries later remarked on Johnson's interest in jazz and country. Johnson also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience — in every town in which he stopped, Johnson would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
Fellow musician Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. In Samuel Charters' Robert Johnson, the author quotes Shines as saying:
"Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of a peculiar fellow. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money'd be coming from all directions. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks . . . So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along."
During this time Johnson established what would be a relatively
long-term relationship with Estella Coleman, a woman who was about
fifteen years his elder and the mother of musician Robert Lockwood, Jr.
But Johnson reportedly cultivated a woman to look after him in each
town he played in.
Johnson supposedly asked homely young women living
in the country with their families whether he could go home with them,
and in most cases the answer was 'yes' — until a boyfriend arrived or
Johnson was ready to move on.
In 1941, Alan Lomax learned from Muddy Waters that Johnson had performed in the Clarksdale, Mississippi area.
By 1959, Samuel Charters could only add that Will Shade of the Memphis
Jug Band remembered Johnson had once briefly played with him in West
In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois, and then to some states in the East. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas.In 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who owned some of Johnson's records, sought him out to book him for the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson's death, Hammond replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but still played two of Johnson's records from the stage.
Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi,
who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir put
Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young
musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio
which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson
reportedly performed facing the wall.
This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were "Come On In My Kitchen", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Cross Road Blues". The first songs to appear were "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. "Terraplane Blues" became a moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.
His first recorded song, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", was part of a
cycle of spin-offs and response songs that began with Leroy Carr's
"Mean Mistreater Mama" (1934). According to Wald, it was "the most
musically complex in the cycle and stood apart from most rural blues as a through-composed lyric,
rather than an arbitrary collection of more-or-less unrelated verses.
In contrast to most Delta players, Johnson had absorbed the idea of fitting a composed song into the three minutes of a 78 RPM side. Most of Johnson's "somber and introspective" songs and performances come from his second recording session.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue.
Eleven records from this session would be released within the following
Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, more opportunity exists to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place.
By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.