History Tuesday: Robert Johnson

How many of you have heard of Robert Johnson? Probably not many. Robert Johnson is considered one of the greatest guitar players to ever live and I’m here to teach you all about him.

Robert was born in Mississippi in May 1911. His father was a well to do land owner but due to the Jim Crow era south, Robert’s family was chased off of their land by a lynch mob. Johnson lived with his uncle until about 1919, when he moved back to his mother’s home.

He took the name of his adoptive father and was known as Robert Spencer, some people around town called him Little Dusty Robert. After he finished school, he changed his name to his natural father’s, Robert Johnson. In 1929 he was an expectant father and tragedy struck his life again. His wife and child died in childbirth.

After the death of his wife and child, Robert decided to move around be an itinerant musician. He played at various clubs around the US. Originally he was known as a very bad guitar player but an amazing harmonica player. Before he started touring, he spent time perfecting his guitar style.

From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson moved between the cities of Memphis and Helena and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighbouring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas.

In Jackson, Mississippi, around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir, who ran a general store and also acted as a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who, as a salesman for the ARC group of labels, introduced Johnson to Don Law to record his first sessions in San Antonio, Texas. The recording session was held on November 23, 1936, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, which Brunswick Records had set up to be a temporary recording studio. In the three-day session, Johnson played 16 song selections and recorded alternate takes for most of them. He reportedly performed facing the wall, which has been cited as evidence he was a shy and reserved performer.

His first recorded song, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, was part of some spin-offs and response songs that began with Leroy Carr’s “Mean Mistreater Mama” (1934). According to Elijah Wald, it was “the most musically complex in the cycle” and stood apart from most rural blues as a thoroughly composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more or less unrelated verses.In contrast to most Delta Blues players, Johnson had absorbed the idea of fitting a composed song into the three minutes of a 78-rpm side.Most of Johnson’s sombrer and introspective” songs and performances come from his second recording session.

In 1937, Johnson travelled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session with Don Law in a makeshift studio at the Vitagraph (Warner Brothers) Building, where Brunswick Record Corporation was located on the third floor. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Johnson did two takes of most of these songs, and recordings of those takes survived. Because of the surviving recordings, there is more opportunity to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place. Johnson recorded about half of the 29 songs that make up his entire discography in Dallas.

Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi, of unknown causes. Several differing accounts have described the events preceding his death. He is considered the first member of the 27 Club. Some theories suggest he was poisoned by a jealous husband, other suggest he had his soul taken by the devil because he sold it for increased guitar skill.

Johnson was voted the 4th best guitar player to ever live and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in the first year it was open. He has inspired many musicians and bands from the Beatles and Eric Clapton to Metallica. Eric Clapton went back to the hotel room where Johnson recorded his first album and recorded a cover album called Crossroads.

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