Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson is a shining example of the fact that the world never forgets true talent. Though he had lived a very short life spanning only 27 years (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938), exactly 70 years after his death, i.e., in 2008, Johnson was honored with the 5th spot in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. His recordings between 1936 and 1937 have influenced a number of legendary musicians including Eric Clapton, who has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived".  In 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Johnson as an "Early Influence", and in 1994, a stamp was issued in his honor by the U.S Post Office. His life and even his death has been the object of great speculation, and the world had no idea what Johnson looked like till 1980, when two black and white photographs surfaced. What catapulted the musician to dizzying heights of fame and recognition is the compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers, released by Columbia Records in 1990. This double-disc box set contains almost all of Johnson’s recordings, sold over a million copies, and was given the Grammy Award for “Best Historical Album” the same year. This album also helped rekindle the deserved interest in Johnson’s life among blues fans worldwide. His second Grammy Award, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, came in 2006.

Johnson’s music has impacted numerous legendary artists who came after him, including Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. Considered one of the best guitarists of all times, Johnson’s way with his guitar was exceptionally advanced.  When Brain Jones first introduced Keith Richards to Johnson's music, Richards had asked, "Who is the other guy playing with him?”, as he thought he was listening to two guitarists playing. Richards added, "I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself". Another unique feature of Johnson’s music was his microtonal voice. A polished performer, he was able to pack in a mind-boggling range of tones in just a handful of lines. In Eric Clapton’s words, Johnson’s voice was "the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice". The song "Me and the Devil Blues" is a perfect example of what Clapton was trying to convey.

Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Johnson sought solace in music while working in the cotton fields as a young boy. He married his childhood sweetheart Virginia Travis when he was 17, but lost his wife and their unborn child in just over a year. Grief-stricken and with nothing else to look forward to in life, Johnson again turned to his music for comfort, and was always on the go. He performed with Sonny Boy Williamson and Charlie Patton throughout the Delta region, but his heart craved for more. It is believed that Johnson went to crossroads at the junction of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi at midnight, and made a pact with Satan. Rumor has it that the young and disillusioned artist pledged his soul for extraordinary talents, and got it. Rationalists however, discard this as hogwash fueled by Johnson’s rivals. Don Law, a producer with the American Record Company, offered Johnson a record deal in 1936, and the sessions took place in San Antonio and Dallas. Some of the prominent tracks by the artist include “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Cross Road Blues”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Love in Vain”.  Though plans were made to record even more, unfortunately it did not happen. Johnson had a date with destiny and died from poisoning on August 16, 1938. He was only 27 years old at the time. The Delta bluesman with the magical fingers and soul-stirring voice breathed his last near Greenwood in Mississippi. Just like the story of his life, even his exact gravesite is not known till this day. 
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